USS Cole was taking proper precautions, Pentagon says

Herald news services

WASHINGTON — The USS Cole was following proper security rules when it was attacked Thursday, the Pentagon said.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen said he didn’t think there were any specific threats that might have tipped off officials to a pending attack.

"I don’t think we missed any specific threats," Cohen said in response to a question at a Pentagon press conference. "There are general threats in the region. And we understand that, and that’s the reason why we have … precautionary measures we take."

Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, said that the ship was under what the military calls "threat condition Bravo," the second lowest level in a four-tier security rating system.

In addition, when a ship enters a new area of operation, in this case the port, the ship’s commander is required to submit a "force protection plan" for the area. And the commander did so, Clark said.

"They were in the posture that they were required to be in for this threat condition and entering this port, which would include armed personnel topside," Clark said.

He said the commander would not have had reason to suspect a threat from a support boat being employed in the harbor to help with mooring for the fueling operation.

"Any commanding officer that was working in a situation in a port like this has to assess the threat and the movement of ships and boats and so forth in the harbor," Clark said. "And a boat that was involved in the mooring … he would not expect to be a threat," Clark said.

U.S. ships have used the Yemen fueling facility three times since May, Clark said.

The U.S. ship, and the boat suspected in the attack, were following "absolutely standard" procedures for such an operation when the attack occurred.

He said ships get verbal clearance from port authorities and then the support boats are sent to help them.

"You make assumptions about the credibility of that support, and I think that’s appropriate and the way we deal with people all around the world," Clark said. "We don’t automatically suspect people that are sent forward to help us in an official way."

"The problem here is we are so powerful that nobody wants to go toe to toe with us and so people look for opportunities for the asymmetric attack, or what used to be called ‘dirty tricks,’ " said Joseph Collins, a retired Army colonel who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"We can improve our intelligence, continue to strike back at people who hit us and do our best to deter it," said Collins, echoing the assessments of several analysts. "But I think this is inevitable to a large degree, a condition of the modern world for the United States."

U.S. warships in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and other high-threat areas are always tied into a sophisticated air defense network and are prepared to defend themselves with surface-to-air missiles.

In recent years some of their weapons, including the Phalanx gun system — which detects, automatically tracks and fires on close-in weapons such as sea-skimming cruise missiles — have been modified to handle surface threats.

The USS Cole incident, however, suggests that none of these "force protection" measures can absolutely prevent attack.

Ron O’Rourke, a naval analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said "thin-skinned" ships like the Cole are heavily armed for offensive operations but have little in the way of defense against unexpected threats in port.

"Maintaining port security in general is the responsibility of the host nation, and for the ship itself it’s a matter of maintaining general alertness and an armed watch," O’Rourke said.

The Navy currently has 22 ships, 66 aircraft and almost 13,000 sailors and Marines in the Persian Gulf region, including an aircraft carrier, two cruisers, six destroyers, two frigates, an attack submarine and various amphibious and support ships.

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