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Did Iran Lure the 2 U.S. Navy Boats into its Waters on January 12th?

Updated on January 23, 2016

Two U.S. Navy Boats Captured by Iran

On January 12, 2016 shortly before President Obama was scheduled to give his State of the Union Speech, the media reported that two U.S. Navy Riverine boats and the ten sailors manning them had been captured by Iranian naval forces in the Persian Gulf.

First reports stated that the boats had been captured after entering the 12 mile territorial waters surrounding the Iranian island of Farsi.

These reports claimed that engine problems resulted in the vessels drifting into Iranian territorial waters. Claims of mechanical problems were soon replaced by reports that the violation of Iranian territorial waters was the result of navigation errors. By Monday January 18, 2016, with the crew and the boats returned, the Defense Department and the Navy were claiming that the capture of the two boats in Iranian waters was the result of poor navigation by the crew, a stalled engine on one of the boats and problems with communication equipment.

U.S. Navy Riverine Command Boat


The Navigation Error Claim Reminded Me of My Experience as an Air Force Navigator During the Cold War

When I heard the words navigation error in conjunction with the boats’ capture my first thought was did the Iranians hack the sailors’ navigation system and lead them into Iranian waters?

Back in the early 1970s I was serving in the 128th Air Refueling Squadron of the Wisconsin Air National Guard (ANG) as a navigator on board a KC-97L Stratofreighter aircraft.

The Vietnam War was being fought and the Air Force had moved a squadron of its newer KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft to Southeast Asia for air refueling operations in support of air operations in Vietnam.

To replace the KC-135 tankers and provide continued air refueling support in Europe the Air Force arranged for the Wisconsin ANG and four other ANG air refueling squadrons to provide air refueling service on a rotating basis with each squadron being temporarily deployed to Rhein Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt, Germany for two week tours three or four times per year.

As the navigator on a military aircraft operating in Europe one of the first things I was instructed to do was make sure that the aircraft we were flying did not enter a buffer zone that stretched along the west side of the Iron Curtain - the name given to the Soviet fortified border that divided Europe between East and West with the East being the Soviet Union and the satellite states it controlled in Eastern Europe.

Frankfurt, Germany is less than 300 kilometers by air (about 186 miles) from the Czech border. At that time Czechoslovakia was one of the Soviet satellite states on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain.

I don’t remember what the buffer zone was called or exactly where it started but it was marked on our air navigation charts and I know that the start of the zone was a short flying distance east of Frankfurt and that I had to make sure we stayed away from it.

The zone was within Germany and only applied to aircraft. Its purpose was to keep aircraft, especially military aircraft, from straying across the border into Soviet occupied territory. On land the border was clearly marked by the Soviets with barbed wire and guard towers occupied by soldiers with machine guns. However, in the air there were no fences or signs and, when flying above clouds no way to tell where we were other than by our electronic navigation systems and communication with ground air traffic control which was monitoring and directing aircraft with radar and other electronic systems.

While there was a slim chance of a human navigation error that could cause the aircraft to accidentally stray across the border and violate Soviet controlled airspace, the purpose of the buffer zone was to keep planes far enough away from the border to avoid the threat of the Soviet military electronically jamming the aircraft’s navigation and communication systems and using false navigation signals to lure it into Soviet controlled airspace on their side of the border.

Could the Iranian Military Have Interfered With the Navigation Systems on the Navy Boats?

The sea, like airspace, has no signs, fences or landmarks. Once beyond view of the shoreline, seagoing vessels have to rely on navigation equipment to find their way. Prior to the creation of electronic navigation and communication equipment ships had to primarily rely on a magnetic compass and sextant (an instrument used to navigate based upon the known positions of celestial bodies). The aircraft I flew on was equipped with both a magnetic compass and sextant in addition to electronic navigation tools.

The electronic navigation systems I used relied on me tuning into radio signals from a transmitter shown on the navigation chart I was using. A line of position (LOP) could be drawn on the chart from the radio transmitter to me. Then using a signal from a second (and preferably third) radio transmitter I could get another one or two LOPs and determine my current position by looking at the point where the LOPs intersected.

The electronic systems were fast and accurate but the signal from the radio transmitter I was tuning in could be overridden by another transmitter broadcasting a powerful signal on the same frequency closer to the plane’s location. Following the new signal would lead the plan across the border and into Soviet airspace. Fighter jets would then force the aircraft to follow them and land or be shot down.

Today's GPS Systems Can be Also be Hacked

Navigation today relies on satellite based Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

These systems use radio signals from satellites in stationary orbits over the earth to determine precisely where one is located on land, sea or air. These systems are easy to use and very accurate.

However, it is still possible to override or drown out and replace the satellite signal with a signal transmitted nearby. And, in this age of miniaturization the necessary equipment is very portable.

Did Iran Lure The Two Navy Riverine Boats into Their Territorial Waters?

My answer to the question Did Iran lure the two U.S. Navy Riverine Boats into their territorial waters? is - I don’t know.

That being said, given the information available in the media, a case can be made that Iran did electronically interfere with the navigation and communications systems on the two boats causing them to sail into Iranian territorial waters.

According to U.S. Navy accounts the boats were being moved from a U.S base in Kuwait to a U.S. base in Bahrain, a distance of about 290 miles. Since the riverine boats did not carry enough fuel to make the trip they were scheduled to meet the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy to refuel at sea about half way to Bahrain.

Despite the fact that riverine boats were designed for use in rivers and other shallow coastal waters these two boats followed a route in open sea out of sight of land.

Some accounts have indicated that the Navy may have made them sea ready when they were moved to Kuwait and that part of this mission may have been to test them in open sea.

Another theory voiced by other commenters on a January 19th article on was that Saudi Arabia, being angry over the U.S./Iran Nuclear Agreement, denied permission to the boats to travel along their coast inside their 12 mile limit thus forcing the Navy to have the sail further out in the Persian Gulf.

Boats Captured in Waters Next to Farsi Island - Not Iran Propert

It should be pointed out that the boats did not enter the territorial waters off the coast of Iran itself but rather the Iranian territorial waters surrounding Farsi Island which is a part of Iran but sits in the middle of the Persian Gulf. Since both Kuwait and Bahrain are on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf, the logical route would have taken the boats between Saudi Arabia and Farsi Island.

There appears to be close to 90 miles of sea between Farsi Island and the coast of Saudi Arabia. Subtracting Farsi Island’s 12 mile territorial limit and Saudi Arabia’s 12 mile territorial limit leaves a path through international waters between the two territorial limits approximately 66 miles wide for the two boats to sail through.

January 18th articles in both USA Today and the Wall Street Journal reported that about 5 hours into their trip and shortly before they were to rendezvous with the Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy for refueling, the two boats deviated from their course and entered Iranian territorial waters around Farsi Island.

At this time their communications systems became degraded causing them to lose communication with U.S. authorities. Shortly after this two small armed Iranian boats arrived and while the U.S. sailors were arguing with them a couple more Iranian boats arrived.

The crews of the U.S. Navy boats were taken prisoner by the Iranians and were moved with their boats to Farsi Island on which the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard maintains a naval base.

What Did Iran Gain from this Incident?

Iran gained some propaganda points with the pictures of American sailors, with hands held up in surrender and with the public apology by the mission commander both of which were distributed world-wide. They then graciously returned the sailors and the boat to American custody. America and its Navy, to say the least, was subject to worldwide public humiliation.

Iran appears to have gained diplomatically as well since implementation of President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran was scheduled to take effect later in the week on Saturday January 16th. The President was facing increasing criticism over this deal, especially following Iran’s recent flaunting of other UN sanctions against its ballistic missile testing. Additional sanctions were threatened in response to these tests.

In addition, secret negotiations between the U.S. and Iran were continuing regarding release of other American citizens held captive illegally by Iran. Many Americans, including the Republicans who controlled Congress, were upset about Iran still holding these American citizens hostage and were threatening to block the release of the $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets called for in President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Video Of Capture and Detention of the U.S. Boats

The capture and release (after separate secret negotiations) of the Navy crew and boats may have given Iran the leverage to ensure the release of the frozen assets along with the rest of the very favorable terms in the nuclear deal - terms which many in the U.S. opposed. The Iranians also obtained an additional $1.7 billion as settlement of a dispute related to the sale of military equipment by the U.S. prior to the 1979 revolution in Iran.

Finally, there is the intelligence aspect. While the Navy claims that the boats contained no classified equipment (which is a standard national security and bureaucratic denial in situations like this) Iranian technical teams had nearly 15 hours to examine every aspect of the boats and their systems.

They also took the SIM cards from each boat’s satellite mobile phone - there is speculation that these cards may have contained information that could help show that Iran lured the boats off course with electronic interference of their navigation and communications systems.

Many of the Actual Details of this Event are Still Not Known

National Security concerns combined with the desire by politicians and bureaucrats involved to avoid further embarrassment will work to keep the full truth hidden at least for the present. At some future time full information relating to this incident, held in American and Iranian archives, may be available to future historians.

What I have provided here is an explanation of how Iran could have used electronic technology to cause the 2 U.S. Navy Riverine boats to change course and be lured into Iranian territorial waters for the purpose of advancing Iran’s political and diplomatic interests.


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    • Chuck profile image

      Chuck Nugent 2 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Lipnancy - thanks for visiting and commenting on this Hub.

      As to your question, there are some facts available and more may leak out over time. However, the full story probably won't be available for some time as governments and, especially military, are not anxious to disclose full information for a couple of reasons. National security is one reason. Releasing the full story of an event like this could provide adversaries with insights into our capabilities and how we operate. A second reason is embarrassment. Political and military leaders and their staffs don't like to be embarrassed by having their mistakes and short comings made public - in addition to the humiliation aspect there is the fear that their opponents in the government may use the information to reduce funding and cut staff. For elected leaders there is also the possibility their electoral opponents will use the truth if it is available to try to defeat them in the next election.

      Thanks again for visiting and commenting.

    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 2 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      I too noted the many conflicting reports about what actually happened. With that being said, would it really take that much investigation to learn the truth.