By Commodore R. S. Vasan
Two recent shooting incidents this year itself which resulted in the death of Indian fishermen in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf bring to focus the larger malady faced by the innocent fishermen who now can not even pursue the legitimate fishing activity to eke out a living. There is a need to examine the two maritime incidents closely to understand the gravity of the situation. Naval forces whether engaged in anti piracy missions, or merchant ships with armed guards are increasingly becoming guilty of hasty decisions and use of arms that has taken the lives of the breadwinners of poor families. (This article needs to be read with the article published by SAAG on 17th Feb 2012 and the article covering the legal issues carried on Center for Asia website:
http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/%5Cpapers50%5Cpaper4924.html and http://www.asiastudies.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=262&Itemid=79)
While the shooting case in the case of Enrica Lexie, is still sub-judice, there is a need to try and understand what could have gone wrong in the shooting incident on 16th July near the port of Jabel Ali at in Dubai about 16 kilometers from the coast where in a US supply ship Rappahannock (T-AO-204) fired on a fishing boat killing one Indian crew off Dubai and severely injuring three others. It is no secret that the US forces are operating in the area to prevent the closure of the Straits of Hormuz due to the spat with Iran.
The ship (see Figure 4 below) has claimed that it followed the established procedures for engagement by first warning the approaching vessel and then engaging the boat (Figure 3) when it did not heed the warnings.
From the point of view of the US ship it was based on the assessment (assumption) by the bridge team that the boat was possibly carrying suicide squad from Al Qaeda that wanted to ram the ship with explosives ala USS Cole attack (This ship was attacked in the Gulf of Aden by an explosive laden Al Queda boat in October 2000 resulting in heavy damage and killing of seventeen crew of the ship).
According to Associated Press from Bahrain, one of the spokesperson from the 5th fleet reiterated that “US ships have an inherent right to self-defence against potential threats. The US crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach.”
Be that as it may, no one is contesting this aspect of self-defence, particularly in the light of some determined attack attempts by suicide squads; the point is that the crew of the boat and that of the US ship were not on the same page.
There was a total communication gap and there is no evidence that something was being done to bridge this gap. The surviving crew members have maintained in TV interviews that there was no warning of any sort. Presuming or even knowing that the warning was issued, the onus of ensuring that the warnings issued / heard/seen and interpreted correctly squarely lies on the shoulders of the captain and the bridge team.
The captain and the bridge team are always in an unenviable position of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. So the crew have to be in total control of their actions related to both peace time and war time actions.
There are issues of weather, sea state, wind direction, visibility, and the ambient conditions on the target vessel that may not allow them to see a warning and an emerging threat to their very existence. Also, even as per the Rules of the Road (RoR), the bigger more manoeuvrable ships needs to keep out of the way of fishing vessels and not the other way round. By sheer common sense and logic, not only should a warning be issued when required but also should also be seen /heard/understood as a warning issued with clear understanding of repercussions of failure to comply. This can even be done before any vessel sails out to engage in a maritime activity of any description. It is to be borne in mind though that not always will the ship have the luxury of time on its side though in this case, it appeared that the ship could have enhanced the time required for making a more accurate decision based on additional inputs to be obtained by interacting with the other security agencies in the area.
The defence of short reaction time if any does not hold water as according to the published time line, the initial detection of a vessel of interest was at five nautical miles when the vessel was doing some 20 plus knots. This was also day time with good visibility that may have even allowed the use of helicopters, aircraft or UAVs for additional inspection of the vessel in question. Tactically, the US ship by doing a similar speed (capable according to open source literature) away from the boat could have bought time and maintained a safe distance till it established the true intentions. It could have requisitioned for some air effort from Dubai/Bahrain being the headquarters of the fifth fleet, to establish what was being carried by the vessel including explosives that would constitute a potential risk to the US ship. Also, it is not clear if there was a mobile sterile zone established around the ship and promulgated. This is another practice to indicate the areas of operation of a ship and to indicate the distance to which the ship engaged in a particular operation (like launching of aircraft from a carrier) can be closed without endangering the safety of either party. A dispassionate analysis though suggests that the command team was perhaps paranoid about an Al Queda type of suicide attack and perhaps did not consider other options though available.
Dubai’s police chief, Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, (he had earlier lead the investigation in to the assassination of a Hamas leader on 20th Jan 2010 in Dubai and established the role of Mossad) as reported in the daily National published by Abu Dhabi apparently indicated that the firing was a mistake and said initial investigation suggests “the boat was in its right course and did not pose any danger. In an interview he has also been quoted as saying”. Investigation shows the small vessel was on its right course and it stopped when it saw the navy vessel. It tried to change route so it would not look like it was attacking”. That should have given the navy a clear indication that it was not dangerous. Whoever made the decision to shoot made a clear misjudgement.’ This damning statement by the top man who has a great reputation as an efficient police chief clearly indicates that the crew on the US ship was trigger happy and failed to assess the intentions of the fishing vessel in unambiguous terms. The statement attributed to Tamim quoted in Wall Street Journal “Lives have been taken and ….We are treating this incident as a murder case.” says it all. Though the investigations are ongoing, It appears that he has enough inside knowledge to describe the firing as “the action of an irresponsible soldier” who misjudged the situation. It may also be noted that UK does have a Royal Navy managed UK Maritime Trade Organisation (UKMTO) office in Dubai to provide all information to sea farers on developing situations including piracy. It is not known as to what type of coordination is available between the US forces and UKMTO for exchange of information. Also Bahrain is host to the US navy which has the US Naval Forces Central command and the US Fifth fleet.
Trillions of dollars are being spent on enhancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) often flaunted as the means to prevent such surprises. In essence, it is the means and methods by which a commander is able to establish the What, Where, When, Whither and Why related to the presence of any vessel and its intentions. It is clear that all the components of MDA were not available or not used properly to establish the capability of the fishing vessel and its intentions to attack the warship.
It is sad that one Indian fisherman was killed and three others injured in this avoidable incident. These fishermen were driven to taking up jobs in the Middle East both due to dwindling stocks along the Tamil Nadu coast as well as the recent resistance by Sri Lankan fishermen to allow fishing by Indian fishermen around Kacchativu an Island that was ceded to Sri Lanka by the Indian Government in 1974 while demarcating the maritime boundary between the two countries. There have been reported cases of shooting in Sri Lankan waters and loss of lives. The Sri Lankan Navy has also intensified its anti poaching efforts and has been catching erring fishing boats from India. So it is the unfortunate case that they are shot at in the Sri Lankan waters, off the Kerala coast by the marines on Enrica Lexie and now in the territorial waters of Dubai where they had gone to work alongside fishermen from Dubai in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of that country.
The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms Jayalalithaa has joined the issue and has appealed to the Prime Minister by stating “I request you to kindly take up this matter with the Governments of the United States and Dubai, to cause a detailed inquiry into the incident. I also request you to ensure that due compensation is paid to the families of the deceased and injured fishermen,” ….”As the dead and injured fishermen are innocent fishermen who were conducting fishing in the sea only for their livelihood, please ensure that justice is rendered,” While this appeal to the Prime Minister is justified, there is a lot more that the Tamil Nadu State can do itself to improve the lot of the fishermen who are at the receiving end. The proposal for enabling TN fishermen to engage in deep sea fishing by creating the necessary infrastructure, acquiring of deep sea fishing vessels and imparting skill based training to this section of fishermen is moving at a snail’s pace if at all. The related issues are covered in an article carried by SAAG vide http://southasiaanalysis.org/papers48/paper4741.html
There are larger issues of regulating the conduct of warships who are operating in different parts of the world in pursuance of many missions such as anti piracy, counter proliferation and other traditional naval /constabulary roles. Each Navy would have laid down their own set of rules for action depending on the levels of threat in a particular area of operation. In this case of this shooting, the US Ship was within the territorial waters of Dubai and has asserted that it acted in self defence and also according to the current policy of Rules of Engagement. The Gulf Today while reporting that the investigations are ongoing has highlighted that the US Ship moved away from the scene without reporting the incident to international waters. It is quite possible that though it is a warship it wanted to avoid any interaction with the law enforcement authorities in Jabel Ali. By all accounts this cannot be construed as a responsible and professional action. It is also not clear if the US ship was in touch with the port control and also the naval authorities in Dubai to ascertain if they had tagged the fishing vessel on their plots. In the case of Enrica Lexie, the ship though in international waters did heed to the call of the Coast Guard and entered Kochi (either by default or by design) to enable the arrest of the marines and the follow up investigation.
The incident clearly establishes that there is a clash of fisheries and livelihood interest with that of security of naval ships albeit on legitimate missions around the world. The permission to carry armed guards on merchant ships likewise has brought in new dangers to fishermen operating in high risk areas around the world. What clearly needs to be understood is that the fishermen have more rights in their respective EEZs to indulge in the legitimate fishing activity and are not expected to be fully aware of the way the warships act in different parts of the world. It would be the responsibilities of the navies of the world to lay down the code of conduct along with the Rules of Engagement depending on the areas in which they operate. Not all fishermen are educated and knowledgable and they do act differently based on the levels of their own understanding of the environment. Their actions are not necessarily in conformity with the expectations of well trained naval personnel. The responsibility of establishing the intentions beyond doubt should lie squarely on the professional service and its representatives.