Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Failures and complacency

As the Iranian hostage situation moves into its final climax, my co-editor is covering the latest developments which appear to have resulted in an Easter release.

We must not forget, however, how these hostages came to be captured. And, in this morning's Daily Telegraph we have an article by defence correspondent Thomas Harding, which does take us a little further forward in our attempts to understand how the boarding team from HMS Cornwall fell such easy prey to the marauding Iranian revolutionary guards.

An examination of that crucial issue must not be allowed to lapse, buried in the relief and euphoria that will prevail for the next few days. The Navy and the politicos would be only too happy to see embarrassing detail forgotten.

Harding's piece itself gives good reason why the issue must not be forgotten. It is headed, "Navy accused of failures and complacency" and he has it that, according to serving officers, "Royal Navy intelligence gathering has been criticised as being 'poor' for allowing 15 personnel to fall into the hands of the Iranians".

This may have more than a germ of truth in it and, if it is the case, I suspect much of this lies at the door of Commodore Nick Lambert. As we unearth more about him, he comes over as one of those "media warriors", who runs his command with more than a weather eye on the media opportunities afforded. Thus we see (top left) another one of many media shots, this time our Nick entertaining a Sky News television reporting team, and another (right) as he addresses Cornwall's company.

Of course, having made such good friends with the media, they are now less likely to point the finger at him, which might also explain why he is being given such an easy time.

Anyhow, returning to Harding's Telegraph piece, he also conveys accusations that the training of boarding parties was also "inadequate", with insufficient funding or time for proper instruction. Others, according to Harding, have also accused the Cornwall's crew of "complacency" for not picking up the Iranian fast boats on radar and not heightening its "threat posture" after the detention of five Iranians by US forces in January.

One officer, recently returned from the Gulf, is cited as saying: "The Government has to realise if they want to carry out gunboat diplomacy then they really need to start spending money on warships that they are willing to use."

It has been suggested, writes Harding, that commanders became complacent without any serious incidents during the 66 searches in three weeks before the Cornwall's final search. But, he adds, with the American capture of five Iranians allegedly helping the insurgency in Iraq a few weeks earlier, the Navy operating in the Gulf should have been "significantly more wary" of Iran

Officers have also complained that they were never passed intelligence on what the possible Iranian navy plans were. "This was either because it was deemed that we did not have enough security clearance or that they simply did not have the any intelligence in the first place," a Navy source is also cited as saying.

The US link may well be significant – not one that we have fully explored – and that may explain the increase in Iranian naval activity reported by CNN, where Iranian boats were actually filmed in Iraqi waters.

But what is fascinating about Harding's report is the claim he records that "commanders became complacent without any serious incidents during the 66 searches in three weeks before the Cornwall's final search."

This is slightly at odds with the earlier Navy claim (also conveyed by Harding) that the Iranians had been playing "cat and mouse" for some months.

If the picture Harding offers is accurate, then it sounds deeply suspicious. After elevated activity, the Iranians, in the lead-up to the Security Council resolution – which was due the Saturday (i.e., the day after) following the Cornwall team's kidnap – an unexplained fall-off in activity, far from being reassuring, might well have triggered alarm bells.

Thus, in the last part of Harding's piece, we see him record that there was criticism "that the Cornwall's boats were sent close to the Iranian border without enough firepower or support." He then goes on to say that American boarding parties usually "have four patrol boats with at least two standing off to provide covering fire," adding that one defence expert asked why the Iranian boats were not detected more rapidly on the frigate's radar as they closed in on the Navy vessels.

On the American practice, I am not sure the claim stands up. I have reviewed now hundreds of photographs and articles on US activities in the Gulf and elsewhere, and see no evidence whatsoever of four-boat parties being used. I do see some evidence of boats standing off while the party is aboard though, but in all cases there is always a warship standing off, in visual contact and in weapons range, guarding the boarding team. That seems even the case with French Navy boarding practice (pictured).

Nevertheless, Harding gives the final word to the Royal Navy, citing a spokesman claiming that "its training was among the best in the world".

Meanwhile, adding to the growing body of evidence that the Navy was operating in very dangerous waters is this piece from January 2006 which reports on an incident where Iranians had killed an Iraqi sailor after a skirmish with "Iranian coast guard forces" which had attacked at one of its vessels. Additionally, Iran had detained at least eight other sailors, who were returned to Iraq on shortly after the incident.

Whatever else, there was clearly no room for complacency.

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