USS Mason, Yemen, Missiles and the "Fog of War"
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Clausewitz wrote of the "fog of war." Recent events in the Gulf of Yemen and the Red Sea are a good example of what he meant. The USS Mason, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, may have been attacked on Saturday, October 8th, off the coast of Yemen by anti-ship cruise missiles for the third time in a week. The ship was not hit. In response to the possible attacks, the destroyer USS Nitze (DDG-94) fired Tomahawk missiles at three Houthi radar sites believed to have been used help target the anti-ship missiles. The Tomahawk strikes raised concerns that the US might be getting drawn into the Yemeni civil war. One critical question remains unanswered, however, — did the attacks actually take place?
The Navy is being careful in its language in describing what may have been cruise missile attacks. CNN reports: Officials … were uncertain about what exactly happened, if there were multiple incoming missiles or if there was a malfunction with the radar detection system on the destroyer. "We are aware of the reports and we are assessing the situation. All of our ships and crews are safe and unharmed." one US defense official commented.
So, the Navy cannot say for sure whether the ship was attacked or suffered a radar malfunction. This is not to say, however, that the risk of missile attack in these waters is not very real. On October 1, a missile believed to have been fired by Yemeni Houthi rebels, struck the ex-US Navy HSV-2 Swift as it was transiting the Bab Al Mandeb strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The ship, an original "proof-of-concept ship" for the U.S. Navy's Joint High Speed Vessel program, was being operated by the United Arab Emirates. The vessel was seriously damaged in the attack but remained afloat. The Swift was believed to have been hit by a Chinese designed C-802 anti-ship missile.
The uncertainty surrounding the possible attacks on the USS Mason and the Tomahawk counterattack is both disturbing and not surprising. In close quarters and with high stakes, mistakes happen, often with dire consequences.
In 1988, Iran Air Flight 655, a commercial airplane on a scheduled flight, was shot down by two missiles from the USS Vincennes after it was mistaken for an F14 fighter plane. The United States did not admit legal liability but paid $61.8 million to the families of the 290 passengers who died when the plane was shot down.
Likewise, on August 4, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson make an announcement on national television, describing an attack that day by North Vietnamese vessels on two U.S. Navy warships, Maddox and Turner Joy. He requested Congressional authority to respond militarily. The resulting Gulf of Tonkin Resolution greatly expanded US involvement in the war in Vietnam. What exactly happened over a two night period in the Gulf of Tonkin has been the subject of considerable controversy. Evidence exists of a North Vietnamese attack on August 2 but the second attack on August 4 was probably due to radar "ghosts" and not North Vietnamese patrol boats. In a 2003 documentary, the former United States Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted that the August 4 Gulf of Tonkin attack never happened. The name of the documentary was The Fog of War.
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