USNS Rappahannock - click photo for US Navy account of shooting at boat mistaken for pirates
The irony of "unintended consequences" is that you're seriously setting out to do one thing, and unexpectedly end up doing quite another. Wikipedia mentions some interesting examples, such as the Africanized bee, and I'm sure you can think of many examples from your own life. War is full of unintended consequences, which is why it should never be undertaken lightly - although it usually is, probably an unintended consequence of letting sweet, perfectly harmless children grow up to become politicians. 

Unintended consequences can be positive, too, but when most folks use the term it's in a negative sense. The campaign against piracy, especially off East Africa, seems to be chock-full of those!

ENRICA LEXIE (click "Fishermen Shot" in the Categories column on the right side of the page) was one famous unintended consequence of the use of embarked security teams. In that case, you'll remember, two Indian fishermen were shot by the ship's armed military escort because they were mistaken for pirates. It appeared in that case that the only attempts to warn the fishermen were "warning shots" which were apparently not seen or heard. And that's easy to understand. It's noisy on a small boat under power, so the noise of gunshots - apparently so loud on the ship - can be drowned out by the background noise on the boat, and splashes from gunfire may not be visible, either. An unheard warning is no warning at all!

Now we hear about USNS RAPPAHANNOCK, an underway replenishment ship, shooting an approaching suspicious small boat, killing one Indian fisherman and injuring three more - see this story from The National. The Navy has released the timeline and plot below:

This blog post from Madden Maritime makes the point that this incident is not like ENRICA LEXIE - the sailors aboard USNS RAPPAHANNOCK, according to the US Navy account"repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel's operators to turn away from their deliberate approach." Only when the boat had approached within 100 yards did they fire shots at the vessel.

We don't know what the warning attempts consisted of. The Navy statement, quoted in the gCaptain story, only said this: “In accordance with Navy force protection procedures, the sailors on the USNS Rappahannock used a series of non-lethal, preplanned responses to warn the vessel before resorting to lethal force. When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun.”

I can readily understand, in our post-USS COLE world, why they did that. 100 yards is pretty close and the boat was large enough to contain a lot of explosives. Although we don't know what the "non-lethal, pre-planned responses" consisted of, once they'd been delivered and the boat continued to close, the sailors had to do something. And what they did was effective.

But the warnings delivered to the boat apparently were not effectiveThis story quotes the Indian fishermen aboard the small boat as saying they heard no warnings, although they were apparently prepared to heed them if they did: “When we came close, we slowed down to let [the USNS Rappahannock] pass to avoid any accidents. Once we crossed them from behind, they started firing at us. Usually, we know alarms and sirens are sounded by ships. But there were no warnings.”

Another misunderstanding - resulting in another death, and another family who will never be the same. Clearly the technology, or methods, for warning possible hostile small craft before firing on them needs to be radically improved. Someone needs to look at the problem from the point of view of the small boat's crew, not just from the ship's standpoint. The two environments are radically different. Again, a warning unheard is no warning at all.

The current situation is not only dangerous to fishermen; it also puts the crews of ships who are equipped to respond with lethal force in an intolerable situation. From a moral standpoint, no one's life should be taken in such an unnecessary manner. And no one wants to be responsible for taking another's life, either, even when he felt he had to. From a legal standpoint, the company and crew of a vessel making this mistake can pay dearly. 

How about you - can you speak to the "warnings" problem? Do you think the tragic "unintended consequences" of using lethal force could be reduced through better warnings - and do you understand the small boat environment well enough to suggest an improvement? Please let us know in the Comments section!

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