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U.S. tanker’s shooting at sea raises stakes in volatile Gulf

USNS Rappahannock extends its fuel probes to the assault ship USS Essex at sea. Essex is part of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group and is conducting operations in the western Pacific.

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Casey H. Kyhl/U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy gunners blasted a fast-moving small launch in the tense Persian Gulf Monday, killing one person and injuring several others with a burst of heavy machine gun fire that was eerily reminiscent of previous incidents that brought Iran and the sole remaining superpower to the brink of war.

A U.S. naval gunnery team on board the otherwise civilian-manned USNS Rappahannock, a lumbering 200-metre tanker that refuels and replenishes American warships at sea, fired on the small craft with a .50-calibre machine gun that is mounted on the tanker as protection from pirates and al-Qaeda suicide attacks.

A spokesman for the United Arab Emirates foreign ministry said one person was killed and three seriously injured in the incident, and identified them as Indian nationals.

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Other details were vague. The U.S. Navy said the small craft, with three outboard motors, defied repeated warnings, including warning shots. In the still-evolving aftermath, nothing, so far, suggests a genuine threat, either from Iranian irregulars, al-Qaeda operatives, or pirates. Rather it seems innocent fishermen came under U.S. fire, perhaps after failing to understand the gravity of the warnings.

"Sailors on the USNS Rappahannock ... repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel's operators to turn away from their deliberate approach," the U.S. Navy said in a statement hours after the small boat was hit. The incident happened about 16 kilometres off the Dubai coast near the huge, man-made port of Jebel Ali where U.S. carrier battle groups routinely visit for resupply and recreation.

The damaged boat sped away after it was hit by at least one burst of gunfire. It docked at Dubai's small boat harbour, used mainly by fishermen, and was shrouded by UAE officials.

If, as seems likely, the burst of U.S. gunfire killed and wounded fishermen, it will only complicate the already-complex and difficult shipping patterns in the Persian Gulf where U.S. Navy battle groups jostle with small, fast, Iranian gunboats while 20-per cent of the world's ship-borne oil exports funnel through the tense Straits of Hormuz choke point.

Investigations are under way, both in the United Arab Emirates and inside the U.S. Navy.

With Tehran threatening to block the straits in retaliation for punishing new U.S.-led sanctions on Iranian oil exports, the buildup of naval firepower in the region has matched heightened tensions. In addition to the carrier battle group normally in the region, led by a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with more than 80 warplanes on board, the Obama administration has repeatedly deployed a second group as talk of a pre-emptive strike against deeply buried Iranian nuclear installations has waxed and waned in recent months.

Getting it wrong in the trigger-fingered confrontations with small boats has repeatedly led to blood and recriminations. In 2000, lax security aboard the USS Cole, a powerful guided-missile destroyer anchored for fuelling inside Yemen's main port of Aden allowed al-Qaeda suicide bombers in a small launch to ram the warship, blowing a huge gash in its side, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding scores of others. The attack inflicted the greatest damage on a U.S. warship in decades and was a huge embarrassment to the Navy.

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Twelve years earlier, the even more powerful USS Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser, was sparring with a swarm of Iranian fast launches close to – and then inside – Iranian territorial waters. The warship's command centre wrongly identified an Iranian passenger airliner as an attacking warplane and the captain ordered the firing of a surface-to-air missile that destroyed the civilian Airbus inside Iranian airspace, killing all 290 on board.

In recent years, pirates using small fast launches have infested the Arabian Sea outside the straits of Hormuz. Inside the Gulf, Iranian volunteers have manned small launches festooned with provocative slogans and dogged U.S. warships while the Iranian navy boasts of its prowess in using swarms of small, missile-firing launches to overwhelm larger warships.

Deterring and destroying fast-closing small launches possibly packed with tonnes of high-explosive can be extremely difficult. While some warships have automatic, rapid-firing Gatling guns designed to put up what is termed a "wall of lead" that can shoot down incoming sea-skimming missiles and can quickly obliterate a small launch, firing a .50-calibre heavy machine gun from a pitching ship at a moving target is difficult.

At the same time, U.S. warships have – several times – intervened to save Iranian fishermen whose vessels have been seized by Somali pirates, underscoring the delicate and often-dangerous task of determining friend from foe in the high-stakes maritime game of posturing, piracy and looming confrontation in region.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have repeatedly attempted to develop effective seagoing versions of vehicle-borne suicide bombs; although igniting a fully-laden tanker has proved very difficult.

A Japanese tanker was attacked by al-Qaeda as it transited the straits in 2010 although little damage was done. Documents seized by U.S. Special Forces in the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year in his Pakistani hideout showed planning was under way for further tanker attacks.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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