Tons of conjecture and so called eye witness accounts have been made regarding the SEAL piracy rescue, but nothing from any of the operational commands, as it should be. While the Commander in Chief clearly maintained a low profile during the hostage event, it is easy to assume he was avoiding direct on-scene contact. That may or may not have been the case; I do believe he was briefed constantly by NCA staff, and perhaps communicated with SECDEF throughout.
It is highly unlikely that the tactical decisions were made above CENTCOM, NAVCENT and/or JSOC, or even CTF 151 Commander Rear Admiral McKnight or [his successor, Rear Admiral] Howard. I’m not sure who had command, in any case.
There is an extended operational command structure between CINC, SECDEF level, to the six Unified Combatant Commands, oh by the way, making life and death calls hourly, 24/7. NAVCENT, a CENTCOM Component Command, commands 5th Fleet, and three combined task forces—CTF 150, CTF 151 and CTF 152. CTF 151 was formed up in January by Vice Admiral Gortny under direction from General Petraeus at CENTCOM as the counter-piracy naval force in the region. This, by the way, is a coalition maritime force under NAVCENT. I can’t believe that a hold-then-go directive was directed from the White House. Standing Rules of Engagement (ROE) had to be established at the formation of CTF 151 or they had no legal direction for counter-piracy operations. There may have been a conditional approval required for the exceptional situation, but I doubt it.
Additionally, there are some facts that were assumed and, I think, incorrect. As part of CTF 151, Bainbridge was steaming in the Gulf of Aden around Boxer, the carrier and flagship of 151 which, by the way, had a heavy Marine contingent aboard—complete with excellent precision shooters, Marine snipers, more than capable of taking a very short shot. (40 to 50 meters? You and I shoot sub-minute at that range.) So holding up the SEAL team is a moot point with respect to appropriate tactical capabilities as soon as Bainbridge arrived.
Bainbridge, Halliburton and naturally Boxer have helicopter capability. When Bainbridge, the first vessel on scene, slithered close aboard to Alabama during the night, I can assure you that Marine snipers were already on the fantail, as the mission was clearly going to require a boarding party and/or small arms expertise, not normally found aboard a naval destroyer. Once Bainbridge was on station, negotiations began in earnest. I suspect that NAVCENT requested JSOC support at the earliest to provide hostage rescue assets and perhaps additional capabilities should conditions require that. As you remember, there was saber rattling coming from the Somali pirates prior to the takedown. There might have been a SECDEF approval required to authorize the OPORDER which could have resulted in a courtesy approval request to the President.
Let’s assume the JSOC Tier One maritime unit was mobilized with respect to time line. This equates to beeper recall response time, guessing here, to wheels up around 4 to 6 hours. A reasonable C-17 flight time of 18 hours to the area of operations (AO) equates to 22 to 24 hours to the drop zone. Taking that scenario and adding jock-up time at sea– without a hold, so the 36-hour delay reported in the statement you sent me does not reflect a hold, but rather a very long trip and extremely fast mobilization on the ground and at sea. This wasn’t exactly a training operation in Chesapeake Bay. The on-scene commander was not the captain of the Bainbridge, at least for tactical control of the shooters. If rescue mission plans were to be submitted for authorization, which I doubt, they went to the task force commander aboard Boxer, steaming in view of the scene, who would have had standing authority to make those decisions. Admiral Gourtney, NAVCENT, was also close to the AO. It is ludicrous to believe these senior naval officers and the tactical leadership commanding the shooters would not or could not make the call to neutralize without distant authorization.
If the Tier One team did respond, they would have boarded Boxer, rigged for ops and deployed teams, one of which probably went to Bainbridge to reinforce shooters already aboard. In any case, I’m sure there were many operational scenarios—they would have been ready Finally, three shots were fired through the starboard plexiglass windows of the lifeboat. I’ve seen them in film. The bow windows were intact, not affected at all; thus no shots came from a bow aspect, which one would expect if the lifeboat was underway in tow behind the Bainbridge.
A caveat here – it is possible that the lifeboat broached to port, exposing the right window to shots if kicked over by sea or the tow line went slack. Given the above, a reasonable argument could be made for multiple shooting platforms around the lifeboat at night, not visible to the pirates high on Khat and uber-focused on activity aboard the Bainbridge.
Harry Humphries graduated as the Honor Man of Class 29 which started in Jan 1963. He served two tours with the SEALs in Vietnam. He maintains his contacts in the SEAL community. Currently he is president of Global Studies Group GSGI International Security Consultants, providing security services and tactical training to the international market. He is a consultant to the film industry and the former technical advisor to the ill-fated SOF TV series.