As ships gather in the northern Gulf of Suez for the 100 mile north-bound trek up canal to the Mediterranean, it’s common for the "Hey Joe" boats to swarm around them offering cigarettes, carpets, baskets, pottery, CDs, cold drinks and all types of local treasures for sale. These waterborne huckster entrepreneurs ply their trade in the northern Gulf of Suez as they do in many other areas where people gather and wait. (Have you been stopped at a red light lately only to have pan handlers approach the car offering to wash your windshield?)
The "Hey Joes" (as US sailors have been calling them for years) are well aware that in this post USS COLE attack world, they should not approach US Navy combat ships without permission. After COLE was almost sunk by suicide bombers in a “Hey Joe,” the word went out that a quick way to get shot is to get too close to a Navy ship. There would be no more closures to the point where the Navy ship would find itself unable to stop the intruder before the boat could get within lethal range of a suicide payload or any other weapon that could be brought to bear. (The exact distance is classified as are most Rules of Engagement.)
Now reports are somewhat sketchy but it appears that after dark on Monday night as the Motor Vessel Global Patriot, a commercial Roll on Roll Off (“RORO” in maritime jargon), cued up to await the departure of the daily north bound convoy transit of the canal, several small boats approached. The occupants – if they were simply locals trying to sell their wares — probably saw the MV Global Patriot as just another commercial merchant ship… which it is… except for the fact that she is currently under lease by the Military Sea lift Command (MSC) and as such, was carrying military cargo and — more importantly to this story — had a US Navy security team aboard self protection.
As the small boats approached, an Arabic speaking crew member warned them via standard bridge to bridge radio that all ships monitor and then later through a bull horn to stay away from the ship. When these measures failed, warning flares were fired. One boat reportedly continued to approach at which point warning shots were fired reportedly 20 to 30 yrds from the bow of the approaching boat. At this point the boat turned and departed the area.
Here is where reports differ.
The Navy and crew of the MV Global Patriot report that they accounted for the bullets fired and that the rounds landed well in front of the boat. The Egyptians report that one person was killed and up to three injured.
So what COULD have happened? A quick look yields one HYPOTHETICAL scenario:
The Hey Joes saw a comercial RORO cued up for the transit and they approached the potential customer quickly because time is money. So their outboard motors were probably roaring. Perhaps being small boats, they had not installed or held hand carried radio to hear the bridge-to-bridge warning and could not hear the bull horn over their outboards. When the flares were fired, that was probably very startling and two of the boats stopped immediately. But the third, for some reason yet unexplained, continued. When the warning shots were fired, depending on the angle, bullets could have ricocheted off the water and struck people in the boat.
The above is purely conjecture but what follows is not. These are dangerous times and there will not be another USS COLE if anyone in a Navy uniform can help it. The Navy is not "trigger happy" by any stretch of the imagination and is in fact very disciplined in its use of deadly force. Recent harassment in the Gulf by Iranian speed boats that did not draw fire from Navy ship drew fire from critics who thought that the Navy should have fired. That said, Naval officers and sailors are also taught to make sure they don’t "take the first hit."
This incident was bound to happen as local systems butt up against the increased awareness and security measure post USS COLE. The Navy and the local authorities need to work out systems whereby each understand what the warning signs are and make sure they know that if violated, there will not likely be a "do over." In fact, there may be just such an understanding in place in the northern Gulf of Suez because it appears the crew of the MV Global Patriot were stepping very systematically though a practiced routine.
All of this will be sorted out by the Commander of the Fifth Fleet in his investigation. If there was a fatality or injuries, they were not intended and thus this is indeed an unfortunate incident. Once rounds fly – even if they are warning rounds – bullets will go where they will go and lives can be ended suddenly. The US Government has procedures in place to award damages to the families involved. The message is clear however. Americans shall defend themselves. American crews should not second guess the actions taken by the security team on the MV Global Patriot. Instead, they should continue to adhere to their procedures, rely on their training and execute their duties professionally to make darn sure that doubt does not creep into well practiced ROE if they encounter a similar situation.
Other than some predictable inflammatory press in the Arab media, the immediate result of this will be that the local Hey Joes will probably give all ships a wider berth and perhaps approach more slowly and deliberately. Given al Qaeda’s threat to maritime traffic, that in itself is probably a good thing.