Cole attack put spotlight on priorities

Safety: Though warnings about small-boat attacks were raised before terrorists hit the ship, officials say, the Navy focused on other threats.

January 28, 2001|By Tom Bowman

AS A NAVY MAN, Joseph Darlak looked toward the water and quickly realized his service faced a "major threat": A terrorist in a small boat laden with explosives that sidles up to a U.S. warship.

The best way to counter such a threat, he believed, was to use small patrol craft manned by sailors armed with .50-caliber machine guns or 20 mm. cannons as well as mortars.

Many in the Navy would undoubtedly agree with Darlak. After all, it was a small boat full of plastic explosives that left a 40-foot wide hole in the USS Cole last fall in Yemen, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.

But Darlak wrote those words in August, 1988. He was a third-class midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, at a time when Tehran radio was reporting that "martyrdom-seeking" volunteers were practicing suicide missions on dummy enemy ships.

Writing in Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute's magazine, Darlak said the Navy had shown little interest in using these small patrol craft, which it relegated to the Reserves. And the Pentagon had decided not to send Coast Guard patrol craft to help protect Naval forces in the Persian Gulf.

Two years ago, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Rancich also pointed to the threat from small boats. As anti-terrorism force protection officer for the commander of the Atlantic fleet, he proposed beefing up sailors' anti-terrorist training, using high-tech sensors along with picket boats to try to deal with an unwelcome small boat.

"We were saying, `We have a waterborne threat.' [Navy ships] were vulnerable to small-boat attacks, and we needed to do something to decrease that risk." But superiors at the time brushed aside the corrective measures, he said, although they nominated him for the "Most Outstanding Anti-Terrorism Innovation Award." The Pentagon did not grant him the award.

"People said, `Wouldn't that be nice. But we don't have the time. We don't have the money,'" Rancich recalled, saying his superiors also talked about the diplomatic problem of armed U.S. boats patrolling the harbors of a host nation.

"The answer was, `We're not going to deal with this issue.' It was very frustrating," said Rancich, a Navy SEAL who is now operations officer with Special Warfare Group Two in Little Creek, Va.

Top Navy officials are now acknowledging that a small-boat attack is a threat that received little attention. In the coming weeks they will ask Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars for new anti-terrorist efforts, from extra training and high-tech sensors to oil-boom-like girdles that will belt a ship and prevent a small boat from getting too near.

And they will also use those extra terrorist-fighting dollars to send Navy Reserve patrol craft and Coast Guard personnel overseas to help with port security, much like Midshipman Darlak suggested 13 years ago.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, on his last day in office Jan. 18, told reporters that the Navy was "too narrowly focused" on possible threats to its shore installations or attacks on its warship from boats at sea. The Navy simply didn't focus enough on the likelihood of a small boat pulling alongside a warship and detonating.

Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of naval operations, said in his official response to the Cole disaster: "This attack revealed weaknesses in our force protection program," leaving ship's captains with "inconsistent" measures and "inadequate" guidance.

Rancich, writing in Proceedings last November, said that while senior leaders have called anti-terrorism protection "a `No. 1' priority, they are slow to respond to proposed solutions or requirements." He wrote the article a year before the Cole bombing.

The Navy has shown a "prejudice," he wrote, in focusing their efforts primarily on possible attacks from an adversary's military rather than the threat from a stateless terrorist. As a result, most of the Navy budget is geared toward combating conventional threats from the air, sea or underwater.

Marine Gen. Charles Krulak, who stepped down in 1999 as the Corps' top officer, agreed. "You don't stop a rowboat with an F/A-18E/F," Krulak said in an interview, referring to the Navy's new Super Hornet fighter. While in uniform, Krulak often said that the U.S. military should focus more money and efforts on terrorism as well as guerilla and "unconventional" warfare like that the Russians face in Chechnya.

A Pentagon report by two retired four-star officers, Adm. Harold W. Gehman and Gen. William Crouch, was spurred by the Cole bombing and also found that the nation's intelligence community should focus more of its efforts on terrorism.

After the deadly 1996 terrorist attack on a U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia, the intelligence community said the Navy should pay particular attention to shore installations and ships that pull up alongside a pier. The most likely terrorist tool was a large-vehicle bomb; a Navy ship had never been attacked before by a small boat.

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