Friday, October 27, 2006

A Tonkin Gulf in the Arabian Gulf?

Also posted at Kos. Stop by and recommend if you like.

I'm not yet convinced that a war with Iran or Korea is inevitable, but I don't dismiss the possibility that at the highest levels of the White House, such wars are already a done deal.

Daniel Ellsburg is among the latest high profile political figures to suggest that we may soon see a replay of the Tonkin Gulf incident. Ellsburg is the former State Department official who "leaked" the so-called Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. Among other things, the Papers implied that LBJ used exaggerated reports of engagements in the Tonkin Gulf between U.S. and North Vietnamese naval forces to justify pre-planned expansion of air and ground operations in Vietnam. Ellsburg and others fear that the current U.S. naval "build up" in the Arabian Gulf region could produce a déjà vu all over again situation. I think that's entirely too possible, and am also concerned that the same sort of thing could happen with North Korea.

Rules of Engagement and War Powers

Americans should be aware of two key war fighting doctrine documents, both of which are unclassified and available through official government sources.

First of these is the Standing Rules of Engagement for US Forces, last updated in January of 2000. The key concept--or "prime directive," if you will--of the SROE is the Inherent Right of Self Defense:
A commander has the authority and obligation to use all necessary means available and to take all appropriate actions to defend that commander's unit and other US forces in the vicinity from a hostile act or demonstration of hostile intent. Neither these rules, nor the supplemental measures activated to augment these rules, limit this inherent right and obligation. At all times, the requirements of necessity and proportionality, as amplified in these SROE, will form the basis for the judgment of the on-scene commander (OSC) or individual as to what constitutes an appropriate response to a particular hostile act or demonstration of hostile intent.

The Inherent Right of Self Defense exists under all circumstances--peacetime, wartime and in-between time, and no other directed constraints or limitations restrict that right. Embedded in the Self Defense doctrine are four key terms.

-- Necessity. Exists when a hostile act occurs or when a force or
terrorist(s) exhibits hostile intent.

-- Proportionality. Force used to counter a hostile act or
demonstrated hostile intent must be reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude to the perceived or demonstrated threat based on all facts known to the commander at the time.

-- Hostile Act. An attack or other use of force against the United
States, US forces, and, in certain circumstances, US nationals, their
property, US commercial assets, and/or other designated non-US forces,
foreign nationals and their property. It is also force used directly to
preclude or impede the mission and/or duties of US forces, including the
recovery of US personnel and vital US Government property.

-- Hostile Intent. The threat of imminent use of force against the United States, US forces, and in certain circumstances, US nationals, their property, US commercial assets, and/or other designated non-US forces, foreign nationals and their property. Also, the threat of force to preclude or impede the mission and/or duties of US forces, including the recovery of US personnel or vital USG property.

Where Things Get Tricky

Commanders and individuals are not only expected to respond proportionally when attacked, they have an obligation to do so when "the threat of imminent force exists."

Say you're in command of a U.S. Navy missile destroyer steaming in international waters off the coast of Iran or North Korea or wherever conducting blockade operations. Tensions between the U.S. and the target country are high. It's the middle of the night. You have no fixed wing or helicopter air cover. A group of three surface contacts in formation pop up on the edge of your radar horizon, coming from the direction of a known enemy port that harbors patrol boats and steaming straight toward you at flank speed. Given that innocent merchant ships don't leave port in formation at flank speed, you know these three ships have to be military patrol boats. Given the range of modern surface-to-surface weapons, you know you're already within range of theirs. You can also reasonably assume it's a given that they have you targeted; otherwise they wouldn't be steaming straight toward you at flank speed. And given the capabilities of modern surface-to-surface missiles versus your missile defense systems, it's a given that if they shoot off a volley of six or more missiles at your ship, one or more of them will hit it.

How long do you wait before you decide it's "necessary" to do it to them before they do it to you, and your ship, and the 200 plus members of your crew?

And what measure of "proportionality" does it take to do what's necessary short of whacking the patrol boats with your own surface-to-surface missiles?

Where Things Get Trickier

So you pop off some surface-to-surface missiles of your own and sink the three patrol boats, and report the engagement to higher authority. National Command Authority (NCA, which is the President and the Secretary of Defense) uses this incident as an excuse to unleash a larger, pre-planned operation against the enemy.

When the smoke clears, the enemy claims that the three patrol boats were merely getting underway at flank speed in response to an SOS plea from a small merchant ship that was wallowing off of coastal waters.

Then it sucks to be you. The National Command Authority has high cover for unleashing its pre-planned offensive operation, and you wind up in the bottom of the dumpster.

Where Things Get Trickiest

I'm just saying…

If you are the destroyer skipper who the NCA used to justify their hidden war agenda, you might think that Congress had some sort of power to reign them in. But you'd be wrong.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973, originally intended to restrict presidential authority to start another Vietnam, actually does the exact opposite. It gives a president up to 90 days to conduct full-scale wars overseas without so much as a by your leave from Congress or anybody. And three months into any war in which the U.S. has suffered combat casualties, is it likely that any Congress would pull the plug on it?

Tricky Dick's Progeny

You'd like to think that the Bush administration chicken hawks aren't hatter-class mad enough to pull the kind of stunt I've just described, but consider the stunts they've already pulled on Iraq.

Richard Nixon protégés Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are still in power, and anyone who doesn't suffer from autism knows there's no skullduggery they're not above.

Acorns and trees, and all that.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.


  1. Anonymous8:00 AM

    The passages in Robert Fisk's "The Great War for Civilisation" that pertain to the USS Vincennes may interest you.

    He writes of crass incompetence among some members of the USN in the Gulf at the time. Fisk was leaked to by - among others - Brits at Dubai's air traffic control, and wrote a devastating article for the Times. When his editor wouldn't run it, Fisk moved to the Independent. By the way, the Times belongs to the same media group as the Faux News channel.

    Perhaps I'm overly optimistic, but I don't think the locals in the Gulf would go for too blatant a provocation.

  2. Anon,

    Vincennes happened early in my career, I was stateside at the time. I've probably heard more criticism and replay than anybody, and it all sounded pretty hosed up to me.

    If we try to blockade in the Gulf, we're asking for trouble again.

  3. The other day I posited that the Administration was working to manipulate the public conversation so we the public, by being recipient to the "mantracization" (new word?) of a menu of very limited policy choices via the MSM, would opt for some resurrection of the draft ourselves. They would never even have to utter the "D" word, we would do it for them.

    We the public would be murmuring among ourselves, mulling over the two or three options we are "permitted" to think about, and rationalize a dialectic resolving in only one and obvious conclusion: we can't "cut n' run" as this is for wimps, and that be we not, so we must "stay the course," which will therefore mean we must deploy more troops, which at this juncture must rationally imply going beyond voluntary forces.

    However, after listening to Bush give us his fair and balanced assessment of public opinion after having talked to a couple guys in the local coffee shop in Crawford, I got to thinking that while the above strategy seems clearly released upon us, it doesn't really matter. If Bush says the people want the government to send more troops, that has now become the immutable truth. Why? It would not matter if 300 million people save Bush, Laura and the dog were against it, there is no estabished network to communicate that fact. Since the national opinion of record is still formed largely by whatever appears above the fold of the established news media, and these media are beholden to this bunch at this hour, they function as the "uniting" force that tells us what and how we as a nation should think.

    Therefore, a number of glaze-eyes absorb this without question. Many others ignore it. They believe otherwise, but -- critically -- think they are simply a minority, as they do not see their views presented credibly or even at all via the priesthood of public information. They shrug their shoulders in frustration, or equivocate, wondering if there is something wrong with them, or just walk away in their hearts and minds; que sera, sera.

    The blogosphere has certainly brought a great amount of relief, but only to the relatively small number it reaches -- and again critically -- even were 300 million people opposed to this Administration's execution of its job, we don't have any real idea of who else is of like mind. Thus disunited we slouch, disillusioned and in all practicality alone.

    Hence, Bush could say the world is flat, and the world is flat. As long as he is insulated by his covey of special interests, opportunists, and sycophants, and has the power of leviathan at his fingers, it seems he never need face anything contrary to his personal musings; things like facts for instance. So it appears that whatever the conclusions of this manipulated national dialog (and sadly it seems it is going as planned, anyway), if Bush decides that public opinion is nearly unanimous that we must send more troops, then it must be so, it will be so.

  4. Anonymous7:08 PM

    A more bizarre analogy might be Stark. They waited too long and were hit by the Exocet. I don't know how (or if) Stark and the Vincennes made it into the rationale for the SROE you talk about (it was after my time), but I am sure that the TAO on a boat looking at three targets inbound would be making exactly the recommendations you cite.

    I can't imagine in this day and age not having some sort of air cover up there. Whether it was an E-2 double-cycled in figure-8s at marshall, or someone out doing SSSC 24/7. Even though there are no Bears flying against battlegroups and requiring escort inside of 200 miles anymore, I can't imagine any SAG/Battlegroup commander not having something up, or something on an alert-5. Especially in the region of the Straits of Hormuz.

    And, we return again to my worst case scenario: they hit the auxilliaries, less defended, almost always steaming independantly, and HVTs... now there's a mess in the making.

    disclaimer: I knew a couple of guys who were on Stark. They got screwed.

  5. Anonymous4:09 PM

    Jeff, I've looked around your blog for some information about how long you were in the navy, but I do not find it. Could you say more about your own history, or point out where I can find it? Also, I'd be curious to hear more about your earlier education in writing. Was your pre-navy writing education of use in the navy itself? I don't think of the military as a writing type of job, but I know nothing at all about it.

  6. eccl,

    Yeah, that's pretty much how it works. False limited choices. With us or against us. It was invade Iraq or do nothing. etc. I'm not convinced "more troops" in Iraq would do any good at this point. There's not an enemy with a center of gravity that we can defeat.


    As I recall, the Peactime Rules of Engagement for naval forces, the precursor to SROE, were already in place at the time of the Stark incident, so they had the "inherent right" to shoot first, assuming they had the situational awareness to realize what's going on.

    My cut on the 24/7 ops deal is that in my experience both as an E-2 guy and a carrier ops officer, you can't guarantee a surface contact won't sneak through the clutter.

    And yeah, the way I heard it, a lot of guys on Stark got screwed.


    I was in the Navy for 21 years. I was an English minor as an undergrad, and did quite a bit of comedy writing in college and afterwards before I joined the Navy.

    You do quite a bit of writing as an officer, although most of it is boilerplate stuff like award writeups, performance evaluations and so on. I started writing articles for professional military journals about 1990. Most of the writing I do today is of the prose style I developed between then and now.

    When I was twelve or so, I wanted to be Robert Benchley. It's been a rather odd journey getting from there to where I am now, but I think I've finally found a niche that fits me.

    Best to all,


  7. Anonymous9:46 PM

    Your definition of proportionality is wrong. Proportionality is an assessment of:
    (a) the anticipated civilian damage or injury from a military action;
    (b) the anticipated military advantage from the same action;
    (c) and whether (a) was "clearly excessive" in relation to (b).

  8. Anonymous9:59 PM

    Proportionality. The use of force in self-defense should be sufficient to respond decisively to
    hostile acts or demonstrations of hostile intent. Such use of force may exceed the means and intensity of
    the hostile act or hostile intent, but the nature, duration and scope of force used should not exceed what is
    required. The concept of proportionality in self-defense should not be confused with attempts to
    minimize collateral damage during offensive operations.