How the sailors wound up in Iran

Foreign Policy:
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The sailors in Kuwait who were captured by the Iranians were trained to operate riverine command boats, or RCBs — small, speedy craft about 50 feet long that are used to transport special operations forces, patrol coastal waters, or escort larger ships. The sailors, under the command of 27-year-old Lt. David Nartker, were ordered to Bahrain to take part in an exercise and had less than 24 hours to prepare. Only one of three boats at their disposal was in working order. The crew members had to cannibalize one of the broken vessels to get an engine part so they could have a second boat to sail.

The trip required the crews to travel about 240 nautical miles, more than twice the usual distance they were accustomed to. That meant the two riverine boats would have to refuel at sea roughly midway through the journey, said one U.S. official who confirmed details of the trip.

Due to problems getting their communications gear to work, the sailors set off from Kuwait three hours late. The late start put pressure on the sailors as they tried calculate how long before they would need to refuel in daylight and the optimum speed for their boats, according to a second person familiar with the sailors’ accounts.

The boat crews asked that a refueling tanker meet them before nightfall, as they were not trained for refueling in the dark. Arranging a rendezvous proved difficult because the sailors had no direct communication with the tanker and had to relay messages through a U.S. operations center in an undisclosed location in the region. As the boats sought to meet up with the refueling tanker, they mistakenly ventured into Iranian territorial waters, just west of tiny Farsi Island.

The U.S. sailors were using a GPS device to navigate, but Farsi Island is so small that it did not appear on their screen when it was zoomed out to a wider view. As they drifted within sight of land, the Americans did not even know that it was Farsi Island, said the person familiar with the sailors’ account.

Throughout the cruise, the positions and direction of the two boats were automatically relayed to the operations center every 30 minutes via an electronic tracking device, the U.S. official said. But for reasons that remain unclear, commanding officers or others at the operations center did not inform the boat crews that they were headed in the wrong direction.

Traveling at a swift pace, the two U.S. vessels might have passed through the area without encountering any Iranian patrol craft. But one of the American boats — the one that needed repair back in Kuwait — broke down. As the sailors worked to revive the boat’s engine near Farsi Island, two IRGC patrol boats showed up, weapons pointed at the Americans. One American sailor waved a wrench in the air, to signal they had engine trouble and had no hostile intent. But the Iranians showed no interest in helping out: Soon another Iranian vessel arrived at the scene, followed by a fourth ship that was larger and more heavily armed.

As the Iranians encircled the boats, the U.S. sailors managed to repair the faulty engine. Now the Americans had a choice. With 50-caliber machine guns and GAU-19 miniguns on their boats, they outarmed the Iranians. And their RCBs were bigger than the Iranian patrol craft. But escaping would mean opening fire on the Iranian forces or ramming their vessels — actions that could lead to a wider conflagration. The young officer in charge, Nartker, opted to cooperate.
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There is much more.

It appears the Navy command put these sailors in an untenable position providing them defective equipment for a mission their boats were ill-suited for.  Their navigation error added to the fiasco.  But those responsible for designing and ordering the mission will probably bear some of the blame for the mess.  Sen. John McCain has been demanding answers and has threatened to subpoena the sailors if the Navy does not quickly provide answers.  That could be as embarrassing for the Navy as the original operation.

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