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Trump Keeps Talking About the Last Military Standoff With Iran — Here’s What Really Happened

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Megan Rose, Robert Faturechi, and T. Christian Mille report in ProPublica:

Just before sunset on Jan. 12, 2016, 10 American sailors strayed into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, a navigation error with potentially grave consequences. On their way to a spying mission, the Americans had set sail from Kuwait to Bahrain. It was a long-distance trek that some senior commanders in the Navy’s 5th Fleet had warned they were neither equipped nor trained to execute.

Surrounded by four boats operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the U.S. sailors, in two small gunboats, surrendered rather than opening fire. The officer in charge of the mission later said he understood that had a firefight erupted, it could well have provoked a wider conflict and scuttled the controversial nuclear deal the two countries were poised to implement in mere days.

The Navy dialed up an elaborate rescue mission to free the sailors from tiny Farsi Island involving fighter jets and a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group. But the return of the sailors was ultimately secured peacefully. The nuclear deal went forward with the U.S. providing sanctions relief and unfreezing billions in Iranian assets in exchange for Tehran’s promise to curb its nuclear ambitions.

President Donald Trump explicitly invoked the 2016 incident last week as he weighed actions against Iran amid rising tensions. Trump told Time magazine that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had mishandled the high-stakes confrontation, a mistake he would not make. “The only reason the sailors were let go is that we started making massive payments to them the following day,” Trump said. “Otherwise the sailors would still be there.”

But a ProPublica investigation makes clear that Trump’s repeated claims about the captured sailors – Obama’s weakness; that the money was improper – obscure the more troubling realities exposed by the Navy’s 2016 debacle in the Persian Gulf. The Farsi Island mission was a gross failure, involving issues that have plagued the Navy in recent years: inadequate training, poor leadership, and a disinclination to heed the warnings of its men and women about the true extent of its vulnerabilities.

Now, the Navy, and the 5th Fleet based in the Persian Gulf, are staring at the possibility of a military conflict, standing ready for a commander in chief who lacks a permanent secretary of defense and is thus more dependent on uniformed military leaders.

In the wake of the Farsi Island incident, the outlines of the Navy’s fumbles were widely reported. But ProPublica reconstructed the failed mission, and the Navy’s response to it, using hundreds of pages of previously unreported confidential Navy documents, including the accounts of sailors and officers up and down the chain of command. Those documents reveal that the 10 captured sailors were forced out on dangerous missions they were not prepared for. Their commanders repeatedly dismissed worries about deficiencies in manpower and expertise.

Prior to the mission, the sailors had received little training on their weapons, and the crew of one boat forgot to load the limited number of guns at their disposal during the transit. One sailor prepared to record the potentially hostile encounter with the helmet camera she’d been issued but couldn’t get it to work. So she filmed it on her personal iPhone 4. And when they were captured, a rescue seemed unlikely given that no one back at shore had yet realized they were off course.

The Farsi Island episode is consistent with ProPublica’s findings in its ongoing examination of the Navy’s state of combat readiness. ProPublica’s detailed review of the Navy’s two accidents in the Pacific in 2017, which killed 17 sailors from the 7th Fleet, shows that the most senior uniformed and civilian leaders mishandled years of warnings about degraded ships, undertrained and overworked crews, and the potentially fatal costs of tasking vulnerable sailors with an unceasing number of sometimes ill-conceived missions.

Immediately after the release of the Farsi Island sailors in early 2016, Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan launched an investigation that would divide the highest levels of the Navy over the question of who was to blame for the embarrassing incident. The findings of that investigation, completed in February 2016, did not spare the commanders and crew of the two riverine combat boats, or RCBs. They had violated fundamental Navy doctrines regarding navigation and leadership, the report found. Senior 5th Fleet commanders were also faulted and two were relieved of their commands.

Donegan’s investigators, though, dug deeper. They concluded that the riverine unit had not been properly manned or trained before being dispatched to the Persian Gulf. Riverine sailors had had to train themselves. The sailors had done most of their exercises on smaller patrol boats instead of the RCBs used in the Gulf. They had received a minimum amount of training on the latest navigation system. They had never conducted a lengthy training voyage in the open sea, something they would be asked to do routinely in the Gulf.

he investigation’s files included the personal plea of one of the enlisted men taken captive on Farsi Island, Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Diebold.

“I cannot, nor am I in a position to, determine the exact reasons why my crews were captured,” Diebold wrote. “This is something that should be discussed frankly and openly.”

The seeds of the mishap, Diebold wrote, did not “materialize on the 11th of January, nor do they end, neatly, on the morning of the 13th. It is my hope that the current investigation and the team’s findings are used not to punish 10 sailors, but educate and refocus a critical, if neglected force, if not our Navy as a total warfighting organization.”

The Navy ignored the sailor’s request. In internal Navy memos, commanders criticized parts of the investigation for being “deficient,” “incomplete” and “unsubstantiated” amid disputes over how much training has actually taken place. To address the differing views, the Navy ordered a second investigation and embraced its findings that pre-deployment training and manning for the RCB unit, in fact, had been adequate.

“Pre-deployment training and manning were not contributing factors to this incident,” the second investigation, which was released to the public, concluded.

The Navy’s top commander, John Richardson, signed off on the more reassuring set of findings.

“I’m not prepared to say that there’s a larger problem,” Richardson told reporters in 2016.

Over the weekend, the details of Iran’s downing of an unmanned American drone that further escalated the confrontation remained unclear, but it seemed possible the Navy had again mistakenly entered Iran’s territory. Iran insists the plane had penetrated its airspace; the United States says it was in international territory. Last week, The New York Times quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying Trump had pulled back in part because of emerging evidence that the Global Hawk drone or a second, manned U.S. spy plane may have indeed breached Iranian territory. Trump cited the high number of possible Iranian casualties.

In a written response to questions, the Navy said it had implemented reforms to improve the coastal riverine units. U.S. trainers now keep careful track of the instruction gunboats and their crews receive while deployed. New maintenance teams are ready to fly into deployed areas to make repairs. The RCB boats have been replaced by a newer gunboat known as the Mark VI.

Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy’s spokesman, said that many of the changes were still being implemented, but that the Navy’s most senior leaders were confident that “the Coastal Riverine Force is ready to carry out all missions assigned in any numbered fleet area of operations.”

Brown also said the Navy’s investigation was “conducted in an independent manner.”

“There were no instances of facts or opinions being silenced,” Brown wrote.

Brown also offered a broader defense of the Navy’s preparedness.

“No naval forces are deployed without ensuring full readiness,” he said. “There should be no doubt — U.S. Navy Forces deployed globally are ready in all respects.”

In an interview with ProPublica on Friday, Donegan, who stepped down as commander of the 5th Fleet in September 2017, said the margin for error is small in such extraordinary circumstances. Training matters. Mistakes can prove dire.

“My biggest concern is about miscalculation,” said Donegan, who now works as a security consultant. “When you have heightened tensions, no direct communications between the two sides and forces in close proximity, an event that one side thinks is low-level might compel the other side to respond in a way that leads to expanded conflict.” . . .

Chapter 1. “What Are We Doing Here?”

To some at the Navy’s outpost in Kuwait, the last-minute mission for which they were briefed on Jan. 11, 2016, seemed preposterous.

The RCBs would have to travel from Kuwait to Bahrain — a 260-mile trip, two times longer than any they’d ever done — carefully avoiding nearby territorial waters. Once there, the National Security Agency, as part of its intelligence operations, would load up their small boats with listening equipment and have them float along the Persian Gulf’s coastline. The mission was given a name: “Radio Creep.” It was unclear who they’d be spying on, but several officers took the order as urgent, and, given worsening weather conditions, one decided the sailors would have to launch within 24 hours.

The crew raised what seemed to be an essential problem: Only one of the three RCBs was currently operational.

They might be able to fix one of the two disabled boats, Gunner’s Mate Isaac Escobedo guessed, but it would be a rush job, he later told investigators.

The boats had been run 3,000 hours beyond the cut off for required overhauls.

Lt. Kenneth Rogers, the officer in charge of the RCB unit, also had concerns. The boats were needed for another mission; to make it to Bahrain, they’d have to refuel at sea, something they’d only done once before — while they were close enough to base to make it home if it didn’t go well; and the crew, if it scrambled to get at least one more boat ready, would be exhausted when it set out, Rogers argued.

Cmdr. Greg Meyer, Rogers’ boss, was sympathetic to Rogers’ concerns, records show, and took the case up the chain of command.

Kyle Moses, the commodore with ultimate authority over the RCB unit, didn’t want to hear any of it. He thought the worried officers were being “overly cautious.” Moses said he didn’t know why so many of his officers were concerned about the riverine command boats making this kind of trip, since “the RCB is a boat and boats float.”

“Navigation is navigation,” Moses, an explosives expert, later told investigators.

The Navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain and is responsible for about 2.5 million square miles of water and some 20 countries. The vast expanse includes three critical chokepoints at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab al Mandab at the southern tip of Yemen. The 5th Fleet has been a vital nerve center for American action and interests in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 5th Fleet, though, doesn’t have warships of its own and instead relies on vessels and aircraft rotated in from the enormous 7th Fleet in the Pacific as well as stateside fleets.

Riverine boats, if a modest segment of the Navy’s full arsenal of ships and aircraft, have nonetheless been a staple of operations for decades, typically deployed to patrol rivers and marshes, whether they be in Vietnam or Iraq. The RCBs were then the most recent incarnation of the gunboat: 53 feet long, holding crews of eight and loaded with heavy machine guns and high-tech navigation gear.

In the Persian Gulf, the RCBs for years mostly performed escort missions for  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2019 at 2:29 pm

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