Analysis 01-23-2016


Questions Remain About Iranian Capture of 2 US Navy Boats

The Obama Administration and Pentagon downplayed the detention by Iranian gunboats last week of 10 U.S. Navy sailors aboard two riverine craft near Farsi Island. Meantime, differing versions of the event coming from government sources indicate that there are many questions remaining.

This is not the first time that the two forces have clashed. In December, the US accused Revolutionary Guards vessels of firing several unguided rockets near US warships including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman in the Strait of Hormuz. The US later released video it said showed the incident.

According to the Navy, the two boats that were captured were on a training mission and travelling from Kuwait and Bahrain. They are based in Bahrain and were likely conducting exercises in the delta area separating Iraq and Kuwait.

This type of boat is used for port security, troop insertion or extraction, counter-insurgency operations on rivers, air and fire support, supporting amphibious landings, and supporting drones. They frequently work with Special Forces, although it appears that this wasn’t the mission at the time.

The administration’s earliest version of last week’s events is that one of the U.S. vessels had a mechanical problem and drifted inadvertently into Iranian waters near Farsi Island, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps outpost from which its naval forces operate.

However, since then, serious questions have emerged.

“The Navy has to explain why you have small ships transiting 300 miles of open ocean,” former naval officer Chris Harmer told CNN. He was once deputy director of future operations for the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and now at the Institute for the Study of War. Other officers have questioned why the boats didn’t hug the Saudi coast instead.

The fact is that the boats, which were GPS-guided, would have known long before they sailed into Iranian waters. In addition, the boats should have been in contact with other Navy ships in the area, which would have warned them they were getting closer to sovereign Iranian territory. In addition, the route taken from Kuwait to Bahrain would have been planned in advance by the boats officers and quartermasters, and that special attention would have been given to the avoidance of Iranian territory.

As for the “wounded” boat story, Navy experts say all such craft are thoroughly checked out mechanically prior to being sent on missions, and that they always carry more than enough fuel for the mission. The boats also have two engines apiece. The fact that two boats were on the mission indicate that in the unlikely event one became disabled it could be towed by the other.

As questions were raised about this story, the administration said that the boats were in good operating condition and were sailing in international waters but were intentionally intercepted by Iranian gunboats – craft that were faster and better-armed, leaving U.S. personnel little choice but to be taken captive. If that is the case, then it means the Iranians planned their intercept, and mostly likely because they knew in advance that the Obama administration – fearing an incident and eager to preserve its nuclear deal with Tehran – would downplay the incident.

Although the US response was mild, so as not to scuttle the nuclear deal, Iran was much more aggressive in its reaction. Experts agree that the Iranians should not have detained the U.S. crews in the first place, and that standard practice, if a vessel is disabled, is to provide assistance in international waters, not take crews hostage. In fact, US warships have assisted Iranian craft in the past.

Others have pointed out that capturing members of an opposing military and utilizing their capture as propaganda is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. However, the Obama State Department dismissed that.

John Kirby, the State Department’s spokesman said, “I think it’s important to remember, though, that the Geneva Convention only applies in time of war, and we’re not at war with Iran.” In that case, the capture and detention of U.S. sailors is even more egregious.

Given the aggressive reaction by the Iranians and the tight lipped reaction by the Obama Administration, many defense analysts think that the incident may indicate that the Iranians can disrupt American GPS systems and even “hijack” them.

This could be a major problem. The Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation in 1998 because US naval ships were relying totally on GPS and Navy leadership had decided that navigation by the stars was no longer necessary. All celestial navigation training – even for navigators and enlisted ended in 2006.

Needless to say, the midshipmen were relieved. Celestial calculations were painfully difficult, requiring a nautical almanac and volumes of tables.

However, this 20-year lapse in celestial navigation training means that all the field grade and company grade naval officers are totally reliant on GPS – including the naval officers onboard the two boats.

Ironically, the Navy’s attitude was only reversed a few months ago as the academy reintroduced celestial navigation classes for the midshipmen. The reason was a concern that GPS could be “taken down” by a cyber-attack.

It now appears that fear is quit real. And the most recent event isn’t the first time it appears that Iran has “hacked” into GPS.

On December 4, 2011 a RQ-170 Sentinel crashed into the Iranian countryside. Iran claimed its electronic warfare unit brought the plane down. The Pentagon said the aircraft was flying over western Afghanistan and crashed near or in Iran.

However, the drone was found 140 miles inside Iran’s borders. Although the US dismissed the idea of Iran’s military having the technology to down one the most sophisticated drones in the world, it appears the Iranians didn’t just down the aircraft, they took control of it mid-flight. later reported.

According to them, by using its knowledge of the GPS frequency, Iran initiated its ‘electronic ambush’ by jamming the drone’s communications frequencies, forcing it into auto-pilot.  According to a GPS expert, ‘By putting noise (jamming) on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain.’

“The team then use a technique known as ‘spoofing’ — sending a false signal for the purposes of obfuscation or other gain.  In this case the signal in questions was the GPS feed, which the drone commonly acquires from several satellites.  By spoofing the GPS feed, Iranian officials were able to convince it that it was in Afghanistan, close to its home base.  At that point the drone’s autopilot automatically kicked in and triggered the landing.  But rather than landing at a U.S. military base, the drone was captured at an Iranian military landing zone.

Obviously the Iranians have acquired the complex ability to give the drone the proper forged distance and find and fine an appropriate altitude landing strip to make sure the drone landed as it did in Afghanistan.

The latest stories now indicate that the sailors got lost. According to Secretary of Defense Carter, “All the contributing factors to that we don’t know yet, and we’re still talking to those folks, and we’ll find out more … but they were clearly out of the position that they intended to be in.”

However, the chance that the two boats lost their GPS navigation systems at the same time is slim. In addition, it appears that both boats lost radio communication and all other communication during the incident.   The most logical explanation for the loss of all communication equipment and GPS systems on two boats at the same time probably means electronic warfare.

Do Iran’s actions constitute an attack on the US? It’s not a simple question. Electronic warfare and cyber warfare have become common place. Russian penetrations of NATO airspace are a common electronic warfare tactic that reveals air defense frequencies and reaction of NATO forces.

The most important takeaway from this incident is to remember the high-tech military of the United States has a major vulnerability – its reliance on GPS. It’s a vulnerability that was exploited by Iran. And, Iran is not a nation that is seen as technologically well advanced compared to U.S. Obviously, if Iran can exploit it, China and Russia certainly can. There are also reports North Korea has been able to successfully disrupt the GPS system.

Beyond simple navigation, the US military employs the GPS system to guide missiles. If the Iranians can jam and spoof their way into controlling a drone, it isn’t a huge leap to believe they have the ability, or will soon have the ability, to do the same thing with guided missiles.

It also shows that the drone warfare system used extensively in the Middle East has a fatal flaw. Experts are hinting that Iranians and their allied forces may soon be able to defeat American drones throughout the region. This compounds a recently reported problem of US drones (especially the Reaper drone) crashing at records rates in 2015. And, without drones, the US will be forced to either send more men to the region or face defeat of its allies in Syria, Iraq, and other places.

We may never know the full story of the capture of the two boats. Experts believe the 10 American sailors will be specifically barred from talking publicly about the incident.

Some former special forces operators who specialized in such riverine missions say Iran likely stripped the American vessels of GPS and other equipment, making it impossible for the U.S. Navy to assert its vessels were not in Iranian territorial waters (if they were taken in international waters, as some believe). The electronics will also be invaluable for intelligence purposes and will help Iran upgrade its anti-GPS capability.




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