By B. Raman
On the evening of July 16, 2012, an Indian fisherman was killed and three others were injured when naval personnel on board USNS Rappahannock, a fuel re-supply ship of the US Navy, opened fire on a small motor vessel near Jebel Ali port off Dubai.
The US fleet later issued a statement saying that the USNS Rappahannock attacked the small motorboat near the Dubai port of Jebel Ali, because the small vessel “ignored the warnings and came too close”.
“The US crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach. When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun,” the statement said.
ABC News quoting an unnamed UAE official said the fishing boat had four Indians and two Emirate nationals on board when the incident took place in Jabel Ali, a frequent docking point for American naval vessels about 30 miles southwest of Dubai.
Sections of the media have quoted Lt-Gen Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the head of the Dubai Police, as saying that according to the injured fishermen the boat was not warned to move away by the US naval ship. According to the local “Khaleej Times”, the injured fishermen reportedly told the police that they did not move towards the ship and instead attempted to avoid it. The Dubai Police chief has been quoted as saying: “According to our findings and testimonies of the injured, I believe that they told the truth.”
”The Hindu” of July 18, 2012, has reported that while US officials claimed that the incident occurred in international waters, the UAE officials said it took place within their waters. Considerable emotions and anger have been aroused in India over the incident, which is under enquiry. “The Hindu” has called the incident “Murder In Mid-Sea”.
The incident needs to be analysed objectively and without emotions before jumping to conclusions on the culpability of the US naval personnel involved. Some journalists have sought to analyse the incident in the context of the running tensions between the US and Iranian navies in the Gulf.
A more appropriate comparison would be with the past activities of Al Qaeda in the Gulf area and the current activities of the Somali pirates both of whom operate from small boats, which pose a difficulty to naval personnel of all countries, including India, in determining whether a boat cited in the sea is a friend or foe.
If there is no way of communicating with the inmates of a boat or physically verifying its contents to look for hidden explosives, naval personnel have to act on the basis of their instant assessment as to whether an approaching boat could be a friend or foe. If their instant assessment that led to a fatal firing subsequently proves to be wrong, they cannot be blamed and accused of murder.
Before October, 2000, when neither Al Qaeda nor the Somali pirates were active in that area, the rules of engagement provided that US naval personnel should open fire on a suspicious-looking boat approaching a naval ship only if the boat opened fire first.
On October 12, 2000, a boat filled with explosives with a suicide bomber of Al Qaeda rammed against a US destroyer named USS Cole in the Aden harbour. In the resulting explosion, 17 US naval personnel were killed and the ship was severely damaged. A subsequent enquiry brought out that a US naval officer on watch duty on the deck of USS Cole had seen the boat approaching USS Cole at high speed, but he did not fire on it and sink it.
The rules of engagement of the US Navy then in force reportedly provided that US naval personnel should fire upon a suspect boat inside a harbour only if fired at. Since the Al Qaeda boat did not open fire, it was not fired at and sunk before it could ram against USS Cole. In justification of the seeming inaction of the officer on watch duty, it was stated during the enquiry that inside busy harbours such as that of Aden, many small boats operated by the harbour management keep moving around for providing logistics. It would have been difficult to assess the hostile intent of an approaching boat inside a harbour.
Al Qaeda’s use of small boats carrying explosives for acts of suicide terrorism in emulation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made the navies of many countries to undertake an exercise to revise and update the rules of engagement when confronted with a possible maritime terrorism situation. Two possible scenarios received special attention:
SCENARIO NO. 1: An unidentified boat approaches a naval ship in or near a harbor. The revised rules of engagement reportedly provide for immediate neutralisation of such a boat before it could come within ramming or boarding distance of the ship without waiting to verify the intention of the boat. Action can be initiated even at the risk of casualties of innocent civilians.
SCENARIO NO. 2: A naval ship moving or patrolling in high seas encounters an unidentified ship or boat moving around in suspicious circumstances or which seems to be coming towards the naval ship. This scenario gives some window for verification. The revised rules of engagement provide for opening fire if the suspicious ship or boat resists attempts at verification or opens fire or seems to be planning to open fire on the naval ship. Appropriately judging the situation and acting is left to the discretion of the naval personnel depending on the circumstances of the case.
One understands that many navies have further refined their rules of engagement in recent years keeping in view the modus operandi adopted by the Somali pirates who operate in high seas from small boats launched from mother ships.
The rules of engagement have to be robust enough to allow the security personnel on board to make an instant threat assessment as to whether an approaching boat or a suspect boat in the vicinity is friend or foe. The situation can become very tricky when there is no way of communicating with the suspect boat and no means of making a physical verification.
Under such circumstances, the judgement of the naval security personnel should be final. All that one could insist upon is that the resulting force used on the basis of an instant threat assessment should be reasonable and appropriate to the assessment and not excessive.
India should deal with the incident in a logical, reasonable, professional and responsible way keeping in view the possibility that one day one of our naval ships on anti-terrorism and anti-piracy patrol might find itself in a similar situation.
By whipping up emotions and by making unreasonable demands on the US Navy, we should not unwittingly tie the hands of our own navy in an unpredictable situation.