WASHINGTON - When the USS Cole sailed into Aden harbor in Yemen one morning in October, its crew was equipped with fire hoses and rifles to repel any would-be terrorists.
A small boat laden with explosives sailed lazily toward the Aegis-class destroyer and then detonated next to the ship, leaving a gaping hole and 17 dead sailors. No sailor had pointed a weapon, or even a fire hose, at the boat.
A Navy investigating officer has faulted the Cole's captain and crew for failing to take all the necessary precautions and has suggested that the explosion could have been averted. But a growing number of Navy officers and officials are coming to a vastly different conclusion: that the Navy has not done enough to guard against a small-boat terrorist.
"I feel we're vulnerable," said a Navy commander who serves aboard an Aegis cruiser that visited Aden harbor several months before the Cole and spoke on condition of anonymity. "There's nothing in my experience from keeping small boats at a fixed distance away from the ship."
A retired Navy officer, now a Senate staffer, agreed and dismissed the effectiveness of a sailor equipped with a fire hose.
"I think they're good for Greenpeace and benign protesters," he said. "Fire hoses and 500 pounds of high explosives don't seem to be an even match."
Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore Jr., commander of regional U.S. naval forces in the Middle East, disagrees with the investigating officer's assessment of blame, Pentagon sources say.
Moore believes the fault for the lapses that led to the attack lies not with the Cole's crew but with the Navy, for failing to devote enough effort to combating small-boat attacks, the sources say.
Some current and retired officers say the Navy has taken great strides to provide security when a ship is tied to a pier. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic faces strict scrutiny. But the Cole was in the middle of Aden harbor, tied up to a refueling station, and thus vulnerable to small boats approaching from all sides.
"We were concerned about water-borne attacks," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the former commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Middle East region, who helped pave the way for Navy ship visits to Yemen in 1998. "We have always felt more comfortable with a tie-up at pierside."
Several officers said they fault a Cold War mindset for the Navy's failure to come to grips with the possibility of a small boat attacking a U.S. ship. The Pentagon remains focused more on high-tech aircraft or missile threats traveling faster than the speed of sound than on stopping a possible terrorist aboard a slow-moving plane or boat, one naval officer said on condition of anonymity.
Another problem relates to the reality that U.S. warships that enter foreign ports do so at the invitation of the host government, which has sovereignty over waterways that are often clogged with boats. A heavy-handed approach to security needs in such ports can ruffle diplomatic feathers, some officers said.
"For the past 25 years, we've talked about this scenario," said the Senate staffer. "There are vast numbers of boats, even in U.S. ports. But the Cole demonstrated we have to do something."
The Cole attack has spurred Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of naval operations, and Navy Secretary Richard Danzig to study ways to improve the protection of U.S. ships in foreign ports. Some possible solutions include better weapons and counter-terrorism training for sailors, along with surveillance boats and stricter and more detailed security agreements with foreign nations.
"We live in a dangerous world," Clark said recently. "We need to analyze all the assumptions that we are making right now about our force-protection posture and go out and do everything we can to make this difficult for the enemy."
Clark and other naval officials say that long-term fixes could include more sophisticated sensors to detect any approaching small boat. They are also considering such disabling devices as booms or cables that could encircle a Navy warship, preventing a small boat from coming too close. Navy officials are expected to ask Congress for more money to buy some of these new technologies.
Other naval officers argue that U.S. warships heading into foreign ports should include a contingent of Marines or Special Forces troops trained to deal with armed and experienced terrorists.
Currently, sailors in the ship's crew - who could include the cook or the sonar technician - are asked to stand watch with a shotgun, said one retired captain, who suggesting increased training for the crew or more specialized soldiers from nearby U.S. commands.
A Navy commander who serves on a destroyer said his greatest concern was not terrorism but a loaded weapon in the hands of a young and inexperienced sailor on watch. "I was worried about someone discharging a weapon and hitting someone," said the officer.