The circumstances of the capture, confinement, release and return to the UK of the fifteen sailors and marines from HMS Cornwall is now well known, except that there are now more questions than answers than since the affair started.
The reason for the capture of the Royal Navy’s people put forward by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was that they had entered Iranian territorial waters. This seems unlikely. Each of the Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) had a GPS navigator, The Lynx providing ‘top cover’ for the boarding had an accurate system, whilst HMS Cornwall also had a satellite navigation system as well as a number of back-up systems. The ship being boarded was at anchor and remained so until well after the incident. Their crew believed that they had anchored in Iraqi waters. Finally, US Forces confirmed that the ship was in Iraqi waters. So by normal standards, there should have been minimal doubt over where on the Earth’s surface the incident took place.
The dividing line between the Iranian and Iraqi waters was in dispute, but only supposedly in small measure. The RIBs were operating with an agreed margin for error from the best estimated position of the boundary. Thus when the navigation fixes had been checked and counter-checked the Navy concluded that the incident took place 1.7 nm inside Iraqi waters. Yet the Iranian Navy/Revolutionary Guards produced no primary navigational evidence that their waters had been penetrated. The maps produced in various Iranian television interviews were little more than sketches for display purposes. So by most criteria, the Royal Navy won the skirmish of the positions.
But the Iranians kept on repeating their version bluntly and without supporting argument, let alone verifiable data. Eventually the lie, for that is what it seemed to be, gained some credibility amongst those looking for reasonable behaviour. The matter of positions, however, ceased to be central to the issue; for while it was ostensibly the cause, it became overwhelmed by the diplomatic storm that followed.
‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer’, as Francis Bacon the sixteenth-century philosopher noted.
Should not the sailors and marines have fought back, asked some brave souls? As the boarding party were armed with rifles and side-arms, and were at the time rather encumbered as they climbed down the side of the vessel they had searched, and as the Iranian craft had heavy machine-guns, the answer must unequivocally be, ‘No’. The RIBs were on a constabulary task; we were and are not at war with Iran – for all that their material assistance to the insurgents in south eastern Iraq, together with the infiltration of terrorists, has been both disgraceful and hostile - and what would we have gained except fifteen dead heroes? But more pertinent questions are whether the two RIBs should have got into the situation they did, in the way they did, so that there was no way out except through incarceration in Teheran. Any attempt to answer them raises more questions, some rather troubling.
First, HMS Cornwall, together with her aircraft had been conducting these stop and board operations for weeks as had her predecessors. I am sure they were well executed evolutions, but were they becoming predictable? Were they routine? Was an i-pod an appropriate accessory to take on such an operation? There have, since the incident, been reports of intelligence emanating from the Revolutionary Guards that they would do well to capture some American or British service-people. Was this true, was it well evaluated, and were appropriate precautions taken?
These questions, and others, do not predicate any particular answer, and hopefully all was as taut as it should be. The Navy may be, at this moment, locked in a gut-wrenching process of trying to learn lessons fast and thoroughly. The boarding task was important even if the outcome was unsatisfactory. But why were the Iranians able to spring the ambush? Is not the Lynx a suitable aircraft for maintaining a surface plot? Was it practice for the Lynx to return to its deck to refuel, while a boarding operation was underway? Did Cornwall have a second Lynx? Were there any Maritime Patrol Aircraft in the area? Was it usual for the frigate to stand-off some ten nm from where a boarding was taking place? Were her movements constrained by her draught? In that case, were vessels of shallower draught not available? Had enough assets been available, could the Iranians have been persuaded to back down? Could the Iranians have been deterred from their own operation? Did we deploy the right numbers and right sorts of assets for this particular brown-water operation?
Questions are easier to pose than to answer, yet if the right questions were not asked in the hours, days, months before this operation, perhaps they should have been?
Let us fast forward to the time of the captives’ release. Their captivity was much worse for them than it was for us sitting at home and trying to evaluate the prompted letters and the stage-managed briefings. The tactic of ‘controlled release of non-operational information’ seemed to work well and seemed, to me, to be proportionate to what we saw of the diplomatic exchanges. Also, we should remember that the fifteen were denied consular access, and were kept in solitary confinement for substantial periods. For a country with diplomatic relations with us, Iran did not do well, just because they might have done much worse.
Consequently, when the captives learned, doubtless after some stops and starts, that they were to be released and repatriated, their demonstrations of relief and happiness were at least understandable, and goofy grins, though discouraged in the best counter-interrogation hand-books, were cheering, and an indication that not much physical damage had been done. Deliberate or not, the Iranian timing was well-judged to maximize the reaction from the outside and to minimize the physical damage to the captives. Even the suggestion that the ill-fitting suits were considered the height of chic by off-duty Revolutionary Guards could raise a wry smile.
Unease crept in when the captives gathered round President Ahmadinejad for a farewell address, with perhaps a little too much rapt attention. But the enthusiasm with which the carpet-clad goody bags were received was unattractive. I have often heard inexperienced soldiers and marines recounting how they felt under fire perhaps for the first time. They speak of initial shock, and ‘then the training kicks in’. In this instance, either the training did not kick in, or else there had been inadequate training. Understanding for naivety goes a long way, but training is in part meant to reduce the naivety or its effects. It seemed to me that some of the captives appeared to behave in a way that was more conventionally correct than others. Was this a ‘marines/sailors divide’? If so, then one may wonder to what extent they were ‘all of one company’.
Then they got down to RAF Chivenor for medical checks and de-briefing; a happy ending loomed as the captives were re-united with their loved ones, and while hardly a martial epic, at least damage had been limited, and diplomacy had produced a tolerable result. A media conference followed in which the two officers were joined on the podium by two sailors and two marines. They were there to put their point of view, and to describe what had happened to them when they were not ‘on stage’ in Iran. As was to be expected they had endured a rougher time than their captors and the Iranian news agencies had indicated, with intense psychological pressure. Nevertheless, it was perhaps more moderate than they had feared.
The next day, the extraordinary news broke that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had authorized the former hostages to sell their stories, due apparently to the ‘exceptional circumstances’. Precisely how exceptional circumstances were to be defined was unclear, but the example of Victoria Cross winner Private Beharry was cited. To compound the inappropriateness of the decision, four soldiers were killed in Basra the following day when a mine exploded under their Warrior APC. Their deaths put into context the apparent largesse of President Ahmadinejad in releasing the fifteen naval hostages. Perhaps it also put into context one suggestion diffidently put forward by one of the officer-hostages that selling the stories could help some of the hostages to get over their traumas: a suggestion received with some incredulity.
The news caused a storm, into which most factions were drawn, that blew hard for several days and from which the MoD plainly would have liked to remain detached. Sadly, several families of British force personnel killed in Iraq were also drawn in, attracting deep sympathy but their privacy was breached. I suspect that subsequently the sailors and marines may have regretted allowing themselves to be led into the media market-place.
There was a lot of snorting and fortissimo harrumphing from big cheeses in the media and the peripheral principal pundits. Some of these lacked much sense of proportion or context, but inevitably questions came to be asked as to how this decision, that many felt instinctively was misguided, came to be made. The Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, properly took responsibility for the decision, making it clear that it was the navy’s decision in the first place. The Navy agreed that it had been their decision and Vice Admiral Adrian Johns, the Second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Personnel fronted up that it was indeed his decision. Almost nice and clean, but I’m not sure that this is how decisions like this - covered in flashing red lights, bells, and whistles, oozing sulphurous fumes and dripping acid – are made. There is inevitably consultation upwards, and those who collude with a grave nod and a barely perceptible wink, must bear a share of the responsibility. And then there are advisers: special advisers, corporate communications advisers, policy advisers both inside the MoD and across Whitehall in the Foreign Office and Downing Street. Did all of them fail to distinguish between a light at the end of the tunnel and an oncoming train? There is a painful need for truth; but the public certainly seems not to have been told the whole truth, and maybe in discrete instances something other than the truth. As Professor CEM Joad might have said: ‘it all depends what you mean by truth’.
In ending, I want to make three further points.
First, on the role of women in the front-line. Having played a small part in introducing women into the Fleet in 1990, as we were working up for the first Gulf War, I have seen and followed the evidence of how useful and professional they can be. Not all are perfect, but they contribute at least their fair share towards fighting effectiveness. Leading Seaman Faye Turney was driving her RIB not because she, or the Navy, was making a point about equal opportunities, but because she was the right qualified person at the time onboard HMS Cornwall to do that task. I am fairly confident that Leading Seaman Turney’s experience in captivity was made rather nastier because she was singled out as being special by the British media. Similarly, she was offered the most for her story because she was a woman, and will probably take longer to settle down again when the circus leaves town. The media interest that surrounded the women who joined my ship in 1990 was understandable, if largely irrelevant and irritating after the first few days. Today, after seventeen years, the media really needs to get used to the idea that women are at sea in the Fleet – as they are in the front-line of the Army and the Royal Air Force – and they play a full part; they share in the good things and also the discomforts and dangers. There is some growing up to be done. I’m sure the individuals of the media would hate to be accused of being prurient, but sometimes it seems like it.
Second, the Iranians won the media war hands down, playing largely to Middle East audiences. At times, they seemed crude, but they were highly effective. They seemed to have a plan, they retained the initiative, and they were agile with their media tactics. This was an information operation. How do we do better next time? For if we cannot do better, there surely will be a next time.
Third, the Navy has at times been made to look like a bunch of bozos. For sure there are many questions to be answered, but there is a reality in perceptions no matter how unfair they may be. However, what the Navy has been doing in the northern Gulf in the last months and years has been a success story. They have led in the restoring of the Iraqi Navy which is making impressive progress towards a full operational capability. They have made a substantial contribution towards inhibiting the regime of smuggling and infiltration that, if unchecked, could further destabilize Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. And, at the invitation of the Iraqi government, they have done much to bring security and stability to Iraqi territorial waters, which not only cover the key approaches to the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and the main port of Umm Qasr, but more importantly contain the vital oil rigs that produce 90 per cent of Iraqi oil and make a similarly huge contribution to Iraqi GDP. It has been a success story: quiet, unglamorous and hard-grafting, but a success story for all that.
Finally, a thought if I may offer it. At a time when there are those who spring to judgement that the Royal Navy is a rather less than fully combatant adjunct to the land forces, it is worth recalling the answer given by Admiral Cunningham to his staff, when they suggested abandoning the Army in Crete during the Second World War to protect the Royal Navy’s ships. ‘It takes the Navy three years to build a ship. It would take three hundred to rebuild a tradition’. The capture of the fifteen sailors and marines was bad, but it was not a catastrophe; it will not become one unless we make it so. So first we hold on; second we learn the lessons.
Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold
The views expressed in this piece are the views of the author and not the corporate view of RUSI.