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A Navy investigation has cleared sailors of wrongdoing in the July 16 tragedy in the Arabian Gulf when gunners aboard the oiler Rappahannock fired at an inbound speedboat they deemed a threat, killing one civilian and wounding three. Officials with 5th Fleet found that the Rappahannock properly followed rules of engagement, which allow sailors to defend their ship from imminent threats, but called the incident “regrettable.”
It happened in a flash: The fast-moving speedboat suddenly turned close to the oiler at 2:50 p.m. that day and steered directly for its starboard side. Sailors feared a collision — or worse. Rappahannock’s gunners flashed a bright laser and then fired warning shots, but the boat sped closer.
A sailor standing watch on an aft .50-caliber machine gun, worried the ship might be under attack, made the split-second decision to fire. The 35-foot powerboat passed close astern and then was shot at by a port-side gunner, before it stopped in the water and “cease-fire” rang out.
“If I did not fire, I didn’t know what kind of damage would have occurred on the ship,” the gunner on starboard side who opened fire later told an investigator.
The 5th Fleet investigation determined that the sailor’s decision to fire was “a reasonable assessment that the boat represented an imminent threat and was demonstrating hostile intent” by its speed and “apparent collision course,” according to the Aug. 9 command report, which was provided March 28 to Navy Times through a Freedom of Information Act request. But the report also noted missed opportunities and concluded that the tragedy, which happened in two minutes, might have been prevented.
“The presence of escort boats to enforce a stand-off area around the RAP would probably have prevented this incident,” noted the report, which removed all of the names and ranks of those involved, out of privacy concerns. It was compiled over three weeks based on reviews of logs and radars and interviews with the Rappahannock sailors involved. There was no video recorded of the incident.
Fallout from the tragedy
The shooting occurred 10 miles outside of Jebel Ali, United Arab Emirates, the port where the Rappahannock was headed that day. Escort boats were inbound at the time.
Rappahannock’s embarked security team, or EST, was comprised of trained sailors from a maritime security squadron who are steeped in the lessons from the suicide bombings of destroyer Cole and the coastal patrol boat Firebolt. They are taught that what seems to be a harmless fishing boat can become life-threatening in an instant. The EST is led by chiefs who stand watch as tactical supervisors on the bridge. Normally, the decision to fire falls to the TACSUP, but it can be made by individual watchstanders per standing ROE.
“Military members may exercise individual self-defense in response to a hostile act or perceived hostile intent,” state the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff standing rules of engagement, cited in the report. “When individuals are assigned and acting as part of a unit, individual self-defense should be considered a subset of unit self-defense.”
The ship did not attempt to call the speedboat on the radio or blow the whistle five times, the international maritime signal for danger. That meant warnings were limited to those available to the gun crews: the “laser dazzler,” hard to see during daytime, and the warning shots, which were probably not heard by the speedboat whipping by at 28 knots, a Navy official familiar with the investigation surmised.
“He pointed directly at the beam, drove very quickly in,” said this senior official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation. He estimated the speedboat came within 20 yards of the oiler. “Based on engagement range, I don’t think he even knew as he was passing astern of the ship that he had been engaged.”
One sailor was disciplined for his handling of the situation, but it remains unclear who this was or what he did wrong. Cmdr. Jason Salata, a 5th Fleet spokesman, said this “was not related to whether the EST’s response to the situation was appropriate.”
The Navy has had to toe a delicate line on the incident, which caused international fissures last summer. The dead boater was Indian, and one of the survivors claimed afterward they had had no warning before Rappahannock opened fire, disputing the Navy’s version of events. This created a short-lived firestorm in India’s and UAE’s press.
Fifth Fleet has taken measures to try to prevent this from happening again. Escort boats will now meet ships farther out to sea. And officials have released fliers to local boaters, in Arabic, Hindi and other languages, telling them to stay clear of gray-hulled warships by at least 800 meters and to watch for lasers, flares and warning shots.
“Do not approach the naval ship at fast speed,” it advises.