Terrorist Predictions Before USS Cole
AS A NAVY MAN, Joseph Darlak looked toward the water and quickly realized his service faced a "major threat": A terrorist in a small boat laden with explosives that sidles up to a U.S. warship.
The best way to counter such a threat, he believed, was to use small patrol craft manned by sailors armed with .50-caliber machine guns or 20 mm. cannons as well as mortars.
Many in the Navy would undoubtedly agree with Darlak. After all, it was a small boat full of plastic explosives that left a 40-foot wide hole in the USS Cole last fall in Yemen, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.
But Darlak wrote those words in August, 1988. He was a third-class midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, at a time when Tehran radio was reporting that "martyrdom-seeking" volunteers were practicing suicide missions on dummy enemy ships.
Writing in Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute's magazine, Darlak said the Navy had shown little interest in using these small patrol craft, which it relegated to the Reserves. And the Pentagon had decided not to send Coast Guard patrol craft to help protect Naval forces in the Persian Gulf.
Two years ago, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Rancich also pointed to the threat from small boats. As anti-terrorism force protection officer for the commander of the Atlantic fleet, he proposed beefing up sailors' anti-terrorist training, using high-tech sensors along with picket boats to try to deal with an unwelcome small boat.
"We were saying, 'We have a waterborne threat.' [Navy ships] were vulnerable to small-boat attacks, and we needed to do something to decrease that risk." But superiors at the time brushed aside the corrective measures, he said, although they nominated him for the "Most Outstanding Anti-Terrorism Innovation Award." The Pentagon did not grant him the award.
"People said, 'Wouldn't that be nice. But we don't have the time. We don't have the money,'" Rancich recalled, saying his superiors also talked about the diplomatic problem of armed U.S. boats patrolling the harbors of a host nation.
"The answer was, 'We're not going to deal with this issue.' It was very frustrating," said Rancich, a Navy SEAL who is now operations officer with Special Warfare Group Two in Little Creek, Va.
Top Navy officials are now acknowledging that a small-boat attack is a threat that received little attention. In the coming weeks they will ask Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars for new anti-terrorist efforts, from extra training and high-tech sensors to oil-boom-like girdles that will belt a ship and prevent a small boat from getting too near.
And they will also use those extra terrorist-fighting dollars to send Navy Reserve patrol craft and Coast Guard personnel overseas to help with port security, much like Midshipman Darlak suggested 13 years ago.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, on his last day in office Jan. 18, told reporters that the Navy was "too narrowly focused" on possible threats to its shore installations or attacks on its warship from boats at sea. The Navy simply didn't focus enough on the likelihood of a small boat pulling alongside a warship and detonating.
Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of naval operations, said in his official response to the Cole disaster: "This attack revealed weaknesses in our force protection program," leaving ship's captains with "inconsistent" measures and "inadequate" guidance.
Rancich, writing in Proceedings last November, said that while senior leaders have called anti-terrorism protection "a 'No. 1' priority, they are slow to respond to proposed solutions or requirements." He wrote the article a year before the Cole bombing.
The Navy has shown a "prejudice," he wrote, in focusing their efforts primarily on possible attacks from an adversary's military rather than the threat from a stateless terrorist. As a result, most of the Navy budget is geared toward combating conventional threats from the air, sea or underwater.
Marine Gen. Charles Krulak, who stepped down in 1999 as the Corps' top officer, agreed. "You don't stop a rowboat with an F/A-18E/F," Krulak said in an interview, referring to the Navy's new Super Hornet fighter. While in uniform, Krulak often said that the U.S. military should focus more money and efforts on terrorism as well as guerilla and "unconventional" warfare like that the Russians face in Chechnya.
A Pentagon report by two retired four-star officers, Adm. Harold W. Gehman and Gen. William Crouch, was spurred by the Cole bombing and also found that the nation's intelligence community should focus more of its efforts on terrorism.
After the deadly 1996 terrorist attack on a U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia, the intelligence community said the Navy should pay particular attention to shore installations and ships that pull up alongside a pier. The most likely terrorist tool was a large-vehicle bomb; a Navy ship had never been attacked before by a small boat.
The Cole was not at a pier but moored to a refueling barge in the middle of the Yemeni port of Aden when it was set upon by two terrorists in a 35-foot white boat with fire-red trim.
"There was certainly a capability for an attack by a small boat," said a Navy official, who requested anonymity. "All the reports we'd seen from the intelligence community indicated that was a much lower priority." The U.S. spy network never picked up that terrorists were planning on turning a small boat into a virtual torpedo.
"We still think the large vehicle bomb is going to be the modus operandi," said the official. "But we now have a new method of delivery we have to consider."
Adm. Robert J. Natter, who became commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet last year, was among those who said the Cole's skipper should not be punished for allowing a small boat to detonate next to the ship's port side.
"I don't think the intelligence community or the Navy picked up on this particular threat," he said. "I don't think we realized the [terrorist] capability was out there."
Asked about Rancich and others banging the drum on guarding against terrorists in small boats, Natter said: "There are a lot of people banging a lot of drums. ... You can find writings out there on anything." It was only after the Cole bombing that Yemeni investigators learned that terrorists had also tried to blow up the USS The Sullivans, a destroyer, which pulled into Aden nine months before the Cole. But the terrorist's small boat sank because it was overloaded with explosives, officials said.
Navy officials agree that the best way to deter a terrorist in a small boat is to use a small boat with armed sailors. The Cole is equipped with two 24-foot. inflatable boats. But the Cole's skipper, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, told Navy investigators that under the security alert in effect that that day, he was not required to use them for patrol.
Only under the next level of alert, "Threat Condition Charlie," would Lippold have been required to put his boats in the water armed with sailors.
Still, Lippold told investigators he nevertheless considered using these picket boats but decided against it, citing among his reasons that the ship was only making a quick four-hour stop for fuel. If he used the boats, Lippold told them, he would have questioned any ship that was making "a perpendicular approach to the ship."
"We never had trained (or been directed to train) using small boats in this way," Lippold said, according to the Navy's official transcript. "We were never told it was OK to put boats in the water."
Lippold also said he was aware that a Navy ship making an earlier trip into Aden used its inflatable boat for patrol and the Yemeni Navy launched a protest with the U.S. Embassy, saying the action infringed on the country's sovereignty. Naval officials confirmed that occurred and said that of 30 Navy ships that entered Aden in the past two years, that ship was the only one to use its inflatable boats.
In the spring of last year, a military officer in the U.S. Embassy in Yemen held talks with the Yemeni navy about security. And he eventually received assurances from the country's defense minister and a top Yemeni military officer that the U.S. Navy could put patrol boats in Aden harbor as long as the harbor master is notified, according to the Navy's report on the Cole disaster.
"Any ship visiting a foreign port is restricted in the self-protection measures it may employ while in the sovereign territory of a host nation," Natter wrote in the Navy's Cole report. If the nation declines to offer adequate protection and support, "the U.S. should procure its fuel and provisions elsewhere," he wrote.
Now such patrol boats have taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Cole disaster.
One Navy official, who asked not to be named, said that picket boats from either the Navy or a host nation will be used to patrol around U.S warships in the future, no matter what threat level it is under when it sails into a foreign port.
"We would prefer the host nation provide that outer defensive perimeter," said the official. "They've invited us in as their guest. They're responsible for providing that protection."
Even before that perimeter is set up, the Navy's coastal warfare personnel together with Coast Guard personnel will serve as an advance team for the visiting U.S. warship. Experienced in harbor defense and equipped with sophisticated sensors and other technical tools, they will meet with port officials and assess the security climate.
The visiting warship will likely have some type of cable or oil-boom-like belt that will prevent small boats from getting too close. Natter is experimenting with such protective measures in Norfolk.
Moreover, the crew will have more rigorous anti-terrorism training and likely be equipped with some more non-lethal measures to stop an unwelcome waterborne guest, such as rubber bullets. Now the only non-lethal measure is a fire hose.
"We're raising that bar throughout the Navy," said the official.
Last June in San Diego, the official said, there was a Navy conference to look at such "waterside security" for ships, spurred by concerns raised in the fleet. There were preliminary meetings about a course of action to protect ships in the harbor. "Still, at that point there was no specific indication of a threat," he said, "no specific warning."
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