British and U.S. Rules of Engagement Versus Iran

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 7 months ago

In Iran, Sadr and Iranian Forces Deployed Throughout the Middle East I discussed the British rules of engagement (ROE) and how they were a contributing cause to the abduction of the British sailors and marines.  The British rules of engagement virtually ensured their abductions without resistance.  Former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, said British rules of engagement were “very much de-escalatory, because we don’t want wars starting … Rather than roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were, in effect, able to be captured and taken away.?  Since this post things have gotten a bit more complicated.  At the EU Referendum blog there is an interesting discussion concerning ROE that sheds a bit of light on the subject of the abductions:

Our sailors and marines – why did they not defend themselves? They were not allowed to … their rules of engagement did not permit it.

This was raised in Defence Questions today by Ann Winterton MP. She put to the defence minister that “the current rules of engagement that allow no conflict in Iraqi waters with Iranian forces” and thus suggested that “this led directly to 15 of our service personnel being abducted by the Iranians”.

Defence minister Adam Ingram was evasive, telling MPs not to speculate. “Let us stand back and understand the sensitivity of the situation,” he pleaded. “There is too much speculation about what happened and what did not happen.”

Then, in classic fashion, he went on not to answer the question, offering only obscurity: “Those carrying out that mission clearly have to respond to the level of threat that is posed to them … We will have to investigate that when they are safely returned to these shores and we get their version of events rather than the speculation that is being paraded around in the media and elsewhere.”

But Winterton was not speculating. Directly from extremely angry servicemen recently back from Iraq, she had received information that boarding parties were under rigid instructions that left no room for discretion. Even though faced with Iranian Revolutionary Guards, every one of the Party knew that to fire a weapon (even a warning shot) would have ensured their personal Court Martial.

This still does not explain, however, why the boarding party was caught by surprise by six Iranian vessels (and no one has disputed that figure). The team was equipped with fast, highly manoeuvrable boats and, given an alert overwatch, the members should have got enough warning to enable them to break for the shore or call up reinforcements.

Interestingly, no further light has been shone on this murky episode in the unofficial Army forum, where such matters are often discussed at length. A moderator moved in quickly to delete threads and shut down further comment, on the grounds that, “there now exists a real danger that speculation and reported remarks influenced by genuine anger will be to the detriment of the safety of our people and OPSEC (operational security)”.

So the discussion of ROE was robust enough that it convinced a moderator to delete discussion threads, claiming potential compromise of OPSEC.  Turning to another robust discussion of this incident by friend of The Captain’s Journal, Oak Leaf who writes as Polipundit, there is a convincing argument that the term ROE essentially doesn’t apply in this case.

Yesterday, a web blog at the BBC had some comments from a senior military officer on the “Gulf Incident:?

Our forces were carrying out a routine inspection. They were approached at high speed by two heavily-armed Iranian boats, although they initially adopted a ‘friendly posture’. It was only at the last minute that the Iranians, armed with RPGs and heavy machine guns, became aggressive. By then, we were told, there was a distance of only a few feet between the British and Iranian boats – a distance too short, we were told, for an ‘arc of fire’.

That is in line with my original guess of the situation considering that the United Kingdoms position with Iran (economic and diplomatic) is much different than the United States.

Oak Leaf goes on in a subsequent but related post to argue that Iran, like Mexico or Canada with the U.S., has full diplomatic relations with the U.K.  Under such conditions it would make no more sense for the British to fire on an Iranian vessel than it would for the U.S. to fire on a Canadian military vessel that had wandered into waters patrolled by the U.S. Coast Guard.  Oak Leaf further argues that it might have been the Iranian intent to cause the sinking of her vessels in order to shore up nationalistic pride at home in order to bolster the sagging approval for the regime.

This last argument, while compelling, differs from that by Victor Davis Hanson, who after the Iranian hostage taking observed that:

… the West is engaged in moral anguish over GPS data, possible provocations, a prior lapse in “engaging” the Iranians, conspiracy theorizing over the Bush role in all this, etc. rather than just a simple: “The Brits appeared vulnerable and would not act, and so for the Iranian thugocracy it was too good a chance to pass up—given its prior success with the serial kidnapping of Westerners.

Whether the Iranians intended to sink her own vessels or merely bully the Brits notwithstanding, Oak Leaf’s prior point is fascinating and important, and since his reasoning is tight and compelling we will assume the verity of his position.  However, armed with this knowledge we are faced with a conundrum.  Either Iran and the U.K. have full diplomatic relations and any discussion or ROE is no more relevant than a discussion of ROE between the U.S. and Canada, or the discussion of the incident had become so robust over the discussion forums that it compromised OPSEC.  Logically, both simply cannot be true.

The Brits appear to be caught in a paradox, where they are discussing ROE with respect to a country with which they have full diplomatic relations.  This all forces us ponder our axioms and presuppositions.  The Brits will not be able fully to understand this whole incident unless and until they answer the question, “just why do we have full diplomatic relations with Iran, when an incident with them causes us to have robust discussions about our ROE, a subject usually reserved for engagements with your enemies?”

More recent developments should convince the Brits that this can no longer be considered to be a dispute between gentlemen.

The Iranian hostage crisis took a sinister turn last night when Tehran withdrew an earlier offer to release one of the 15 captive sailors and marines and issued a second, strangely-worded letter in her name calling for Britain to withdraw from Iraq.

The letter, signed by Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the only woman in the naval crew seized last Friday, was addressed to “representatives of the House of Commons”. Although the letter was handwritten, it was stilted and lacked the personal tone of the first letter, sent to her family the day before. The second letter appeared to have been dictated to her.

 ”Unfortunately during the course of our mission we entered Iranian waters. Even through our wrongdoing, they have still treated us well and humanely, which I am and always will be eternally grateful,” the letter said.

“I ask representatives of the House of Commons after the government had promised this type of incident would not happen again why have they let this occur and why has the government not been questioned over this? Isn’t it time for us to start withdrawing forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?”

Concerning the U.S., there is no question what ROE applies when engagements with Iran occur.  Nonetheless, while General David Petraeus announced that the officer corps would support the enlisted ranks when questions concerning ROE arose, such a promise seems vacuous without any concrete changes to the ROE or their application.  For the Marines in Haditha, this promise is less than comforting.

As for the Marines on Haditha’s streets, some have taken the extreme measure of wearing helmet video cameras in case they need indisputable proof if their actions are questioned. “I’ve seen squad leaders and Marines with that,? Donnellan said. “It’s disheartening because you feel like they’ve lost their confidence that we’re going to take care of them. When the whole story comes out, they will realize that what’s happening to them and the firefights they’re engaged in are nowhere near any of these kind of accusations.?

Another perspective on the difficulty of the application of ROE in a counterinsurgency is brought to us by Free Republic.

We call it “the war in Iraq.” But to many of the Marines here, it’s not really a war – at least not on their side. “They are fighting a war,” a Marine from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment tells me – “they” meaning the insurgents lurking “outside the wire” of a Marine forward operating base in the Euphrates River town of Barwanah, in western Al Anbar province. “But us?” the Marine goes on. “We aren’t fighting a war. We’re just doing a police action.” The young Marine is right. While the insurgents here and throughout Iraq battle American Marines and soldiers with deadly weapons of warfare – IEDs (“improvised explosive devices,” or roadside bombs), sniper attacks, mortars, two of which exploded near this forward operating base just the day before – the Marines have to respond under “rules of engagement,” or “ROEs,” that would be familiar to any cop in America. Are the Marines catching sniper rounds from a cluster of buildings in the city? In a conventional war, that would be reason enough to light up the buildings with suppressive fire. But under the Iraq ROEs, unless the Marines get “P.I.D.” or “positive identification” – eyes on a guy with a rifle, or a muzzle flash, something very localized and specific – they can’t fire back. Do the Marines see four young males fleeing the scene of an IED attack? The Marines can try to chase them down in vehicles or on foot – this while the Marines are carrying 60 or 70 pounds of equipment on their backs – but they can’t even fire warning shots from their M-16s, much less lethal ones, to try to make them stop. Under the rules, if the suspects are running away, if they pose no direct and immediate threat to the Marines, the most the Marines can do is shoot “pyro,” small flares, as a warning – a warning that Marines believe simply leaves the fleeing enemy laughing. And so on. By tradition and temperament, a Marine infantry company is a blunt instrument, designed to storm a beach or take a building with force and violence that overwhelms the enemy; it’s a hammer, not a scalpel. But in the confusing world of urban counterinsurgency warfare, Marine infantrymen here find themselves bound by rules that often seem more appropriate to the streets of an American city than to an actual combat zone. True, in the rare event of an all-out firefight, a direct confrontation with the enemy, the rules change. When faced with a conventional attack by insurgents, Marines can respond conventionally, with overwhelming firepower. But in routine, day-to-day operations, every single shot fired by Marines here must be documented and reviewed by higher command. Let me repeat that: Every single shot fired by Marines is reported to and reviewed by higher command – regimental level or above – to make sure that it conformed to the ROEs. The rules are unquestionably well-intentioned, and in the long and bloody annals of warfare, almost uniquely American. They are designed to minimize Iraqi civilian casualties – and in a conflict that is as much or more political as it is military, at the upper levels of command perhaps the rules make sense. But to the grunts on the ground, where the wounding and dying is, they are a source of endless frustration. “Seems like you can’t even spit around here without getting investigated,” says one young Marine – although of course he didn’t actually say “spit.” “It’s absurd,” says a Navy corpsman assigned to the Marines. “It makes the bad guys think we’re weak.” Even senior Marine officers, whose job it is to see the big picture, and to enforce the rules of engagement established by higher command, understand only too well how hard it is for a 19- or 20-year-old lance corporal to be shot at or IED’d day after day and not be able to shoot back at enemies who hide behind and among civilians. “It’s a tough, tough thing for them,” says 3/3 battalion commander Lt. Col. Norm Cooling. “I always tell them (the junior Marines) that fighting a counterinsurgency is a lot harder, mentally, intellectually and spiritually, than fighting a conventional war. … The (insurgents) know that they can play by a different set of rules than we can, and they take advantage of it.” It wasn’t always that way. Young Marines on their first tour in Iraq are often astonished – and even a little envious – when I tell them about being with a Marine infantry company in OIF I (Operation Iraqi Freedom I), the initial march up to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. There were rules of engagement then, too, but it was also an actual war – and the basic, unwritten rule of engagement was that for every enemy round that came in, the Marines would send a thousand rounds back. Did that sometimes cause Iraqi civilian casualties? Yes, unavoidably. But it also saved American lives – and you could argue that in the long run it saved Iraqi lives as well, because it left the enemy either intimidated or dead, and shortened the initial conflict. But no longer. The Marines here know they are under close scrutiny – by the press, by the politicians and by the often fickle American public. And that knowledge permeates almost everything they do. For example, I sat in with Marine officers and NCOs planning a night raid to capture a sniper who had been taking potshots at Marines in Barwanah. Aware that a reporter was present, and not sure how their comments might be interpreted, some of the Marines were careful to describe the sniper not as simply “the sniper,” but as “the alleged sniper.” These are tough, brave men, American warriors. But sitting in that briefing room, it was almost as if the Marines saw the ghost of Johnnie Cochran hovering in the corner, just waiting to sue them for violating the sniper’s – that is, the alleged sniper’s – civil rights. Still, while the Marines may gripe about the ROEs, they are Marines – which means they also obey them. Anyone who thinks American troops are running wild in Iraq, recklessly shooting at anything that moves, has probably never been to Iraq. For every charge of excessive force by American troops, such as the allegations about the killings of civilians in Haditha, there are hundreds of unreported and unheralded examples of American Marines and soldiers showing astonishing restraint in their use of force. Again, in counterinsurgency warfare, where battle is waged not only in the streets but in hearts and minds and TV news broadcasts, perhaps that is sound policy. If the goal is to win over the people, and not just to kill the enemy, perhaps there is no alternative. But no one should doubt that American Marines and soldiers are paying for their restraint, and for the American concern about civilian casualties.. They are paying for it in blood – their own blood. The day after I spoke with those Marines in Barwanah, an IED hit a Marine 7-ton truck that was on patrol in the town, fortunately causing only minor injuries, and insurgent mortar rounds again landed near the Marines’ forward operating base. The enemy was continuing to wage war. And the Marines were continuing their police action.

Prior:

 

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This article is filed under the category(s) Iran,Rules of Engagement and was published March 30th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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