Naval Gazing

USNS Rappahannock, taken 17 July 2012

Last Monday a very interesting and historic event occurred in the Persian Gulf when the USNS Rappahannock fired a 50 caliber machine at a small boat that ignored all warnings and continued to approach. There were injuries on the small craft and at least one person was killed.

I can not recall any similar incident at sea, at least since Vietnam, where a Navy ship fired on a suspected terrorist attacker. There can be no doubt that the procedures carried out were motivated not only by current tensions in the Middle East but by awareness of the devastating attack by a small boat on the USS Cole twelve years ago, an attack that nearly destroyed a fighting ship of the fleet. It was the naval equivalent of a road-side bomb, albeit on a very large and expensive target.

I have been retired from the U.S. Navy now for almost 31 years. (Seems hard to believe.) There have been numerous changes in that time, more than I realized when the Rappahannock incident motivated me to do some research. Back in the day, Navy ships designated “USNS” were part of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), something that was renamed the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in 1970. As such, they were civilian-operated and Navy-owned, but were not commissioned fighting ships, which are titled “U.S.S.” for United States Ship. They were lumbering freight and bulk carriers of various kinds. In that time, there were also a good many “auxiliary” ships in the commissioned category, stores ships, oilers, and the like, and those invariably carried some kind of armament, often one or more 5″ or 40mm guns for self defense. A lot of that changed in the 1970’s, motivated by the need to cut costs in the era of the more expensive all-volunteer military. Trials with civilian crews showed that they could perform at-sea ship-to-ship replenishments of supplies, fuel and ammunition. The MSC page of Wikipedia indicates the new MSC system performed well during the Persian Gulf War when more than 12 million tons of materiel were delivered.

Although MSC ships are still considered civilian-manned, it isn’t clear to me whether their CO’s are commissioned officers or not. USNS Rappahannock is a double-hulled at-sea replenishment oiler. You will note from her excellent picture in the CNN article the absence of any gun turrets. (Looks to me like that pic was taken during a Panama Canal transit.) Also interesting but not really surprising is that the people manning the 50 caliber gun in the incident were termed a “security team”. That peaks my curiosity, but so far I have not found any more about their nature. I’m wondering if it might be a civilian contractor group like the Blackwater people ashore in Iraq. Regardless though, the Somali pirates really ought to think twice before going after one of these gray vessels.

The MSC strategy makes a lot of sense to me in this day and age. The Cold War is over, and the possibility of a nation-against-nation war at sea seems inconceivable. After all, we have a global economy attended even by China and Russia, and the United States Navy, modeled still with Cold War designs, dominates the oceans with satellite surveillance and powerful weapons. In fact, I was bowled over when I followed a link I got from, of all people, Rachel Maddow, and found that the locations of virtually the whole world’s merchant and private vessels over 299 tons are now public knowledge available in real time on the internet! When I first saw the site, my reaction was, wow, what a great resource for pirates!  However, the system can be turned off at will and you will note that there are no ship positions recorded near Somalia.  Go figure.

The system is all tied together under an international organization and was initiated in the interest of providing an additional layer of protection against collisions at sea. They have since found, according to their FAQ page, many additional benefits in statistical analysis, scheduling applications, management and the like.

The site is fun to play with and I find the openness of the information blows me away. The system is called AIS and it works with ship-to-ship radio, tying

A 50 caliber machine gun

in GPS and other navigation systems. How it up-links to the world-wide information system isn’t clear to me, but it does. You will see too, I think, just how busy the seas are. It’s a jungle out there, lots of fat targets to blow up, especially in busy places like the Persian Gulf. Rappahannock’s threat was a false one, but I think it’s just a matter of time before a real one shows up. From the account so far, I think the Navy took the only action it could. Terrorists beware! Some of those fat targets have stingers.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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15 Responses to Naval Gazing

  1. PiedType says:

    Beautiful ship. I’m glad they thwarted the would-be attackers. And kudos on the clever title.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You know, it is a beautiful ship. Any construct of man’s (or woman’s) imagination that is truly functional and efficient is, in my humble opinion, beautiful. It is a magnificent machine constructed on the shoulders of several centuries of inventive intelligence and a half-century of operational experience for a defined military purpose. In my career I was, among other things, Executive Officer of a stores supply ship which efficiently supplied our Navy and we had no greater pleasure than to ply the waters of the Mediterranean in the ever changing weather and efficiently deliver the goods to the Sixth Fleet in the Cold War. It was an idealistic mission from which we derived a calm but pleasurable satisfaction in professionalism. Now, the same result is being delivered by a civilian crew. It is my hope that that crew derives the same satisfaction. Thanks for your kind comment, PT.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim really got me thinking about exactly what kind of men and/or women operate, including command these ships. So I went to an MSC web site and saw job postings and recruitment info for the organization. There was a toll free number to call as well, which I did to find out answers.

    Bottom line is MSC ships are commanded and operated by civilian folks. In most cases no active duty personnel are assigned to such ships

    I explained my background (but not my age) on the phone to the “recruiter” as a USNA graduate, retired from Navy as officer and a former commanding officer. To begin the process to determine if I would be considered for employment with potential for command at sea I was told that I would have to obtain a “card” from the Coast Guard showing my current level of knowlege, education, experience and recommendations from previous employers to be considered as such.

    What all that says to me is I would need to have considerable merchant marine experience and prior quals to be considered for a “senior” position in MSC, at sea or ashore. I know it takes a LOT of background and experience to receive CG certification for command of a U.S. civillian merchant ship and I would never be qualified, right out of the gate, for such responsibility despite my Naval experience.

    All that goes to indicate to me that manning an MSC ship is like manning a U.S. flag merchant vessel, including any security teams. So it would not surprise me at all that the sequence of orders and actions occuring aboard the ship noted in the blog was all ordered and carried out by civiliians, though they would be civilians with extensive maritime experience and capabilities.

    But as well, I also know such ships are carefully integrated into the Naval command circuits and authority, particularly when they are replenishing battle groups or other naval installations ashore. Such ships can deliver supplies of all sorts to war zones as well and when doing so would be under the protection of nearby military forces.

    Finally, given the levels of tension in the Persian Gulf today, I seriously doubt that this action was carried out by a bunch of civilian seagoing “cowboys”. I would also suspect that the skipper had very carefully consider rules of engagement issued by military authorities. Whether or not he acted strictly in accordance with such ROEs is probably the focus of the ongoing investigation, just as it would be done had the firing ship been a commissioned Naval ship of war.

    Make no mistake, MSC ships are the life blood of our military forces overseas delivering combat supplies of all sorts. Without them we would be unable to sustain any kind of overseas force structure in today’s world.



  3. Jim Wheeler says:

    PS to Anson,

    You know, this still leaves me wondering about the culture aboard an MSC ship. It would be no career for married people. Maybe the crew is mostly young people looking for adventure? Maybe some budding, modern-age Joseph Conrads? I wonder what percentage of the crews are women? Is life similar to that on an oil rig? Lots of butterflies in my head.


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Well Jim,

    I actually went to sea for about a month on a BRITISH equivalent ship in the early part of 1980. The officers all wore uniforms and the command and rank struture was no different than a Naval vessel of war. I was at the time a new Navy Commander (0-5 rank) and was accorded privileges, quarters, messing, etc. as if I was aboard a British warship.

    The ship itself was dedicated to a U.S. submarine operation (obviously classified) at the time and my job was to communicate and direct support of that particular submarine operation. It was a professional military like operation carried out by highly trained and professional British officers and men, but “civilian” officers and men.

    I suspect the same “climate” is present today on an MSC ship under a U.S. flag, including security forces today in areas of “tension”.

    As to the “ife” aboard such a ship today, I suspect it is somewhere “between” life aboard a deployed warship and a merchant ship under U.S. flag delivering all sorts of “stuff” around the world. I suspect those men and probably women today go to sea a LOT and over a career spend far more time at sea than the average Naval Officer or sailor. Going to sea is where the money is for those folks and I am sure they do not get paid sea going wages for sitting ashore.

    I do not have any long experience with merchant marine mariners, but the ones that I have known are as professional as they come in terms of operating, navigating, loading and unloading cargo, etc. The former merchant marine officers that I have met were graduates of our various merchant marine academies as well and they know a Helluva lot more about “thre rules of the road” than I did.

    And of course every one of them knew quite well how to command men at sea, something no civilian can possibly understand without having “been there, done that”, in my view.

    As a corellary, I believe we lost far more “merchant seaman” to the enemy at sea during WWII than we lost on naval ships of the line.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ All,

      According to a Merchant Marine web site the actual number of Merchant Marine casualties in WW II were about 243,000, compared to 4,183,466 for the U.S. Navy. However, when taken as a percentage or ratio of those killed compared to those serving, it was 1 in 26 for the Merchant Marine compared to 1 in 114 for the USN. Thus, a Navy man’s chances of surviving the war were more than four times greater than his civilian counterpart’s.


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Interesting info and frankly a little surprising to me. I wonder first of all if the Marine casualties were included above. Actually I find 4+MILLION casualties amazing. I think we had something like 550,000 KIA in all services for the entire war.

    Of course what promoted my comment was the horrendous losses incurred by the merchant marine service during the War of the Atlantic. Probably a few thousand merchant ships went down during that era of the war. As well while we certainly lost naval vessels at sea as a resutl of enemy fire, I am not at all sure how those numbers add up including the sailors wearing uniforms to the numbers of supply carrying merchants, particularly in the Atlantic against the UBoat threat.

    But again 4 + million Naval causalties during WWII sounds out of sight to me. As I once wrote as a blog, decimal points count!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Well, you are right of course. I mistakenly took my numbers from the wrong column of the linked Merchant Marine page. It was right there in front of us. The numbers I stated were the total number who served. The ratio is basically the same though. The number of casualties was U.S.N. 36,958 (more submariners than any other kind) and Merchant Marine 9,521, still about 4:1.


  6. Jim Wheeler says:

    Here is a link to a follow-up story on the Rappahannock Incident. It sounds to me like the Indian fishermen were tooling along completely oblivious of international tensions, minds in neutral and sounds blotted out by three outboard motors. In other words, they weren’t paying attention. Happens to drivers too, eh?


  7. ansonburlingame says:

    I recall making a transit into Hong Kong harbor at night, on the surface of course. The damn “junks” would cross our bows as closely as they could in order to “cut the tail off the dragons” or so I was told!!! After the first series of “6 blasts” on the ship’s whistle, the international rules of the road danger single, we gave up. It just gave more junks the incentive to head our way!!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yup, I am familiar with it. Traffic density encourages such behavior. Setting rules in places like Hong Kong and the Persian Gulf gets results similar to herding rabbits.


  8. ansonburlingame says:

    But, Jim, Hong Kong and Chinese “junks” with no real intent to harm are one thing. Navigating in the Persian Gulf, a potential war zone is a whole different matter.

    If the same “tensions” were prevalent in Hong Kong, way back when, I am sure we, actually the Skipper as I was the XO safely below decks, would have had machine guns and BARS in the hands of sailors on the bridge when we transited those waters.

    Ultimately, I hold the CO of the USS Cole responsible for the death and damage to HIS ship. Sure the lack of “guidance” from higher authority was lacking. But if your ship gets “blown up” then one man is ultimately responsible, the Skipper. Harsh perhaps, but very much in accordance with “Naval traditions” which our bureaucracy needs a lot of, accountabillity. See my comment back to you “over there” in that regard. On the other hand the Skipper that fired missiles against an Iranian commercial airliner was equally responsible for a “bad” judgment. That is one of the reasons why command at sea is so difficult and should be, with only the ‘best” given such responsiblity.

    I recall many times “playing games” with Soviet AGIs just off Norflok. My defense if you will was the international rules of the road and I always maneuvered to be the “burdened” vessel, leaving me legal room to avoid a collision. But there were times when I was not able to achieve that position tactically and could not manuever until I was “in extremis”. Landlubbers have no idea of which I speak but you do. In such cases, I ordered the small arms locker to be unlocked with crewmen armed and ready to “come the bridge” in the defense of MY ship. Never went that far, but…….. And sure it was OUR ship but you know what I mean, hopefully.

    Had a Soviet AGI rammed my submarine it would be the last submarine that ship would ram, for damned sure. But those AGIs were commanded by men just like me, and they I think would never have taken it that far as well. Call it another game of “chicken’ during the Cold War and such events happened all the time as I hope you know.



  9. Jim Wheeler says:

    There has been an update to the USNS Rappahannock Incident. This from the AP:

    The United States has compensated the family of a dead Indian fisherman and given assistance to three survivors of a U.S. Navy ship’s firing on their small boat near Dubai last month, the U.S. Embassy said Wednesday.
    The money will not influence the investigation into the July 16 shooting, embassy spokesman Lee McManis said in a statement.
    Although the embassy did not disclose the payment amounts, Dubai media reported they would match payments from Tamil Nadu, the fishermen’s home state in southern India.
    The Tamil Nadu government said last month that it would pay 500,000 rupees ($9,100) to the family of the fisherman who was killed. The injured were to receive 50,000 rupees ($910).
    The details of the payment were worked out by the U.S. in consultation with the Tamil Nadu government, India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in New Delhi.
    Newspapers in Dubai reported that the wounded fishermen were not happy with the assistance.

    The remainder of the article can be found here.


  10. ansonburlingame says:

    When “mishaps” occur at sea involving Navy ships the U.S. almost always compensates victims. Recall the U.S. submarine that sank a Japanese vessel off of Hawaii a few years ago killing about 9 people on that surface ship. As well recall how the matter was adjudicated by the Navy following the law laid down in the uniform code of military justice.

    This situation if vastly different in my view however. Rightly or wrongly a MCS skipper was DEFENDING his ship. We still have not heard the outcome of whether he did the “right’ thing or not but for sure I make no judgment on my own on that matter, yet.

    But I will offer this observation as well. “Command at sea” goes both ways when vessels get too close to one another. Both skippers are required to avoid such situations for sure. ANY “skipper” of ANY vessel in a potential “war zone” MUST take such circumstances into consideration and not allow his ship to just “lumber along” into the path of a man of war. Doing so is just plain stupid, no matter the nationality of the vessel or skipper.



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