Iran Seizes US Sailors. Unanswered Questions

Posted on: March 8th, 2016 by Will Rodriguez 18 Comments

The seizure of two US Navy riverine patrol boats January 12th has been widely reported.  For those not following or remembering details, two Navy Riverine Command Boats (RCB) were captured by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces near Farsi Island, a sensitive Iranian naval base.  One of the boats had engine trouble and somehow the GPS units on both boats malfunctioned putting both boats 9 miles inside Iranian territorial waters.   Four craft (one visible in photo) carrying Iranian Revolutionary Guard sailors “helped” the US sailors at gunpoint and released them 15 hours later after taking numerous photos, videos and getting an apology from the US commander.  Photos of sailors on their knees under gunpoint, a female sailor wearing Islamic style head covering, the apology by the detachment’s commander and embarrassing video of one of the sailors crying were streamed across the world.

My focus here is not on the mistakes that lead to the capture.  Discussions about Iran spoofing GPS to create the incident and route selection and navigation can be discussed elsewhere.  My focus is the stunning behavior during the Iranian seizure of US warships and subsequent crew behavior until they were released.  This is a subject that has been largely untouched and will remain so even after the official investigation is complete.  The incident is just too damaging to domestic and international political agendas as well as the reputation of the US Navy.

The Code of Conduct is an ethical guide for US service members addressing behavior during combat and in the event of capture.  It is not military law though violation of the code could be addressed under some general articles of the UCMJ.

Article II and V are most applicable to the incident.  Article II of the Code states, “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.”   Article V states, “When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.”

The largely unspoken and towering question, “Why did two US Navy ships fail to resist their boarding and the subsequent capture of the crew?”  Yes the ships were outnumbered.  The Navy has been outnumbered before and not surrendered without resisting.  The only reasonable explanation justifying the Navy’s riverine boats boarding and subsequent lack of resistance is the ships were unarmed.  Doubtful, some of the published pictures show ammo.  Do we just don’t let warships traverse open bodies of water unarmed especially when they have weapons mounted on them as has been documented?  Ammunition is a requirement if for no other reason to defend oneself from pirates or having your weapons or ship taken by criminals.  Maybe there’s another issue at work here?  Was a highly restrictive ROE the culprit for allowing Iranians to close with the US boats?  Even in that case the lack of resistance is difficult to accept let alone understand?

Even more difficult to understand is the statement made by the commanding officer, Lt. David Nartker.  In video taken very shortly after his capture and without visible duress he said , “”It was a mistake. That was our fault and we apologize for our mistake.  It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.”  Apologizing/thanking armed Iranian sailors for boarding one’s boats, putting one’s crew on their knees, stripping them of their outer garments and shoes hardly seems treatment deserving a thank you over.  What about “name rank and serial number”?  I’m not asking for a gunfight but the surrender of sovereign US territory (a warship is considered US territory) with no resistance whatsoever.   Adding an apology and  thank you is just beyond the pale.

There is an ongoing investigation.  Considering how long the Bergdahl case has taken don’t expect much.  The political spin has been to depict the seizure and quick return of our sailors along with Iran’s propaganda campaign  as a victory and example of the new relations between our countries, a result of our “successful” nuclear negotiations.   A military investigation finding that our boats were surrendered with no resistance, our crews propagandized or the disciplining of an officer for apologizing and thanking Iran for embarrassing the US and its Navy would directly contradict the narrative.  Not likely to happen.

What are we teaching our sailors and their officers?  What does this portend for future service member conduct when captured?  This, the Bergdahl court martial saga, as well as other incidents must have a significant impact on changing the mores and standards our forces have operated under for centuries and upon which their reputations and a nation exist.

Be Respectful, Candid and Pertinent. No Posers, No Trolls…
  • YankeePapa

    …Good points.  As to ammo, I don’t know.   Iranian photos showed some belted ammo, but it was severely rusted.  If really American ammo, a number of people need to be cashiered.  Why did the Iranians stage that?  Was the ammo in containers?  Worse… was there no ammo…?  If so, somebody needs to go to prison.  
    …The ships had the right of “innocent passage” and given the time an place of their interception it was obvious to any cheeseburger that they were not staging a raid.

    …The only reason that the crews were released in a rational period of time was because the freeing of Iranian funds not far off.  Otherwise the crews would have been held for months at least… maybe put on trial for espionage… and the ships would never have been returned.  I just hope that the administration did not pay an under the table ransom.  
    …The crews were sent twice as far as their prior experience… in a very nasty neighborhood.  The senior officer should never have used the word “apology…”  At Nordstrom the policy was that customers were due an apology if we screwed them over… not because they might be unhappy.  “I am sorry that this has upset you.  I’m sorry that you’re a gabbing icehole…etc”   “I’m sorry that this happened…” is not an apology.
    …One massive question is just what the ROE was out there.  Was it, “…don’t fire unless fired upon…?”  Was the commander… once that he was aware that he was not being approached by pirates… but by flagged naval forces of Iran… caught between a rock and a hard place?   More questions than answers.
    -Yankee Papa-

  • Luddite4Change

    There are literally dozens of unanswered questions.  Likely, some of them will be partially answered over the next several months as the investigation concludes and some punishments are handed out.

    I’ve tried to keep an open mind on this, and wondered how our Navy and Coast Guard would react to a similar incident in our waters.  I don’t think some of the procedures would be that different.

    You rightly bring up the Code of Conduct, but I’m more interested in what level of SERE training the unit commander had in peacetime detention.  My guess is not much.

  • YankeePapa

    Luddite4Change .
      Of course overlooking the fact that armed Iranian boats of the same description unlikely to be found in U.S. waters, whereas U.S. Naval presence for decades in their waters…  Might be disarmed.. might be searched.  Wouldn’t be massive propaganda films if they were in peaceful transit… and certainly those intercepting would not be awarded medals.  

      The Iranians behaved exactly as events since the Shah unassed that AO should have led us to expect.   However, it took place at a time where the Iranians had a lot on the line… otherwise they might have pumped it up into a real “Pueblo” circus…


  • Luddite4Change 
    Conventional forces typically don’t get SERE training except if you are aircraft crew.
    On the other hand all troops receive Code of Conduct training.  Officers get even more and Academy grads (the commander in this case is a Naval Academy grad) get some pretty expansive instruction on the Code of Conduct.

  • YankeePapa

    majrod Luddite4Change …When I was a Marine cadet (April 1965 until April 1968 when I enlisted), one of the Marine buildings that we used on base had post Korean war era prints re the Code of Conduct.  I remember the prints as well as the Code itself.  Could not find any images on line except two in an E-Bay auction…  -YP-

  • YankeePapa majrod Luddite4Change 
    The Code of Conduct definitely seems to have taken a back seat in training schedules.  Considering all the sexual harassment, diversity, suicide prevention, safety briefings etc. it’s a wonder there’s any time to do tactical training.

    Then there’s the reality that our conflicts don’t generate a lot of prisoners.  Except for Bergdahl every captured service member since 911 has been outright executed.  It appears that just like combined arms warfare, some seem to believe we’ll never need that training.

  • Luddite4Change

    YankeePapa Luddite4Change 
    Our guys would just hang the video on YouTube.  
    This wasn’t just a little navigational mistake, the boats were well into Iranian territory.  There are Navy policies which state how close our vessels can come to Iranian facilities for the specific purpose of preventing these types of “errors”.

  • Luddite4Change

    majrod Luddite4Change 
    As a graduate of SERE; you know that the context of Code of Conduct training is important, as it is presented in the context of being at war.  Which is not the case with Iran.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this incident doesn’t force the Navy to evaluate who gets what level of SERE training.  I think the Army has already moved in this direction.

  • Luddite4Change YankeePapa 
    Yep, they would.  And they’d likely share the fate of the Marines in the urination videos, felony convictions/kicked out of the service.
    I didn’t even want to touch the navigational side of this issue.  That story alone likely deserves relief for cause.  Forget GPS and that Farsi Island sits out in the middle of the Gulf.  It boggles the mind that someone didn’t look at the radar and say, “what the heck is an island doing on the screen?”  Then there’s the guy that’s supposed to be watching the horizon…  (They were three miles from the island.)

  • Luddite4Change

    majrod Luddite4Change YankeePapa  You know, you can actually download the chart for that piece of the ocean.  It very clearly shows where international waters end. 

    There appears to be a general lack of awareness, and basic seamanship.  Even with one boat, they could have pulled the other away from Iranian waters. 

    Prediction of no value:  LT gone as well as his next two commanders.

  • Michael_mike

    Luddite4Change majrod YankeePapa Lack of awareness is an umbrella here. Navigation is a lot more complex than it seems, and I won’t be surprised that training was cut back because technology make everything look so simple and reliable. And they got an autopilot?

    In a world were gamers are king -and everywhere- I wonder whether having fun with a smartphone could be enough to make it happen.

    I bet that if you wait to have a message saying GPS failure on your screen before monitoring where you are and where you are going, you are fucked, training or not. (though great argument about spotting that island).

    But technicality apart, while they could be held accountable, I doubt that the lack of red line was solely the fault of that crew.

  • Michael_mike

    majrod Great article (though a little hard to keep the focus on). Don’t know why the newspaper are only broadcasting a sterilized version of the video. That one is more than infuriating.

  • Luddite4Change

    Michael_mike Luddite4Change majrod YankeePapa In aviation circles folks like these a known as “children of the magenta”.  They follow the magenta line on the GPS screen and use little else.  

    The current commandant of the Marine Corps had a story recently when he went to a fire base in Afghanistan and the LT couldn’t show him a map and had to brief off the Blue Force Tracker.

  • YankeePapa

    Luddite4Change Michael_mike majrod
    was more dangerous than a 2nd Lt.  in the jungle with a map and a 

      The reality was that American infantry (all but the most
    bone dumb) trained in basics.  Unlike the Soviet Army where,
    except for specialists… only officers were allowed to have
    map and compass.

    majrod YankeePapa

  • Luddite4Change

    YankeePapa Luddite4Change Michael_mike majrod 
    I used to teach their (Red Army) maps and graphics in the 80’s.  The maps they did have kicked ass.

  • Luddite4Change YankeePapa Michael_mike
    Land navigation like personal camouflage and a slew of other “fieldcraft” type skills have atrophied greatly. In the early 90’s as GPS started to flourish I was the only company in my BN that didn’t allow my Lieutenants to use GPS exactly because I saw the danger to not learning land nav skills.  That kind of decision would be virtually impossible to enforce today with the cost of GPS being mangeable and how command and control systems are highly integrated with GPS capability.
    BTW, Navy started teaching celestial navigation again last year.  It’s a wonder they stopped almost two decades ago.
    FWIW, the Navy isn’t alone.  I’ve heard many anecdotes about how land navigation has “changed” in Army programs of instruction.  I wonder if they still have the mandatory graded orienteering test at West Point.  I do know West Point’s orienteering team won the 13th consecutive national intercollegiate championship last year.  Maybe Navy shouldn’t focus as much on football? .

  • Michael_mike majrod 
    The media isn’t going to show how bad it really was.  They don’t want to mobilize public opinion.  It’s the same reason the media ignored the previous investigation into Bergdahl’s desertion and why Benghazi never got the curiosity it truly deserved.

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