by DAVID AXE
A nearly disastrous daylight raid by U.S. Special Forces in Somalia four years ago ended with a surprising intervention by a U.S. Navy warship — and illustrates the largely unheralded role the Navy’s vessels are playing in the ongoing American intervention in Somalia.
On June 1, 2007, a small team of Navy SEALs and U.S. Air Force commandos — most likely Joint Terminal Attack Controllers — slipped into the town of Bargal in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of northern Somalia. Six months earlier, Ethiopian forces had invaded Somalia from the west, clearing the way for American Special Forces to escalate their hunt against Al Qaeda operatives hiding out in the lawless country.
The 2007 raid was first reported by Sean Naylor of Army Times.
Al-Qaeda fighters had set up shop in Bargal — and apparently in greater numbers than the Americans suspected. The raid escalated into an all-out gunfight. The commandos were pinned down.
As luck would have it, help was close by. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Chafee, was just a few miles off the coast on an unrelated mission when the commandos came under fire. A quick radio call from the embattled troops sent the crew of the 9,000-ton-displacement warship into action.
“We had just been tooling around off the coast of Somalia for a while,” says one member of Chafee‘s crew, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “To be totally honest, it felt more like Groundhog Day than anything else. Same stuff different day.
“We were deployed to that area to do counter-piracy operations. Not much was going on with that. We heard a few distress calls but they were usually too far away for us to respond in time. The initial call for fire came in totally out of the blue on one of the unencrypted circuits we use for talking to aircraft. At first everyone just looked around confused since we definitely weren’t expecting to hear anything. After the second call came in on the radio we got our act together.
“Once all the various teams involved with the gun shoot got manned up, it turned into a case of hurry up and wait,” the sailor continues. “Everyone was tense to be sure, but I think most of it stemmed from finally getting to do ‘real stuff’ that we had trained for. You can practice all you want but it’s not quite the same. We had to wait a few hours for approval from up the chain of command (I’m not sure how high the decision to shoot had to go).
“Once the go-ahead was given, it was all over pretty quickly. I’d say within a few minutes. By this time it was night and everyone in [the Combat Information Center] was watching the scene on the thermal camera that is tied into the gun system. It was a very strange feeling watching the five-inch rounds going off. It felt more real than a video game, but still detached from reality.”
Chafee‘s barrage covered the commandos long enough for them to escape Bargal. Chafee returned to her previously-assigned mission. The energized mood aboard the vessel lingered.
“Everyone involved was very excited about the prospect of shooting the gun in an actual combat situation. During our workups for deployment, we had spent an extra three days at San Clemente Island off the coast of San Diego (the Navy’s West Coast explosives range) expending an extra 400-plus rounds of five-inch [ammo] training a large group of Naval Gun Liason Officers. That year we had more practice and shot more rounds of five-inch than any other ship in the Navy, and we just happened to be the ship that responded to the call. Talk about a small world.”
Chafee wasn’t the only warship to engage in combat off of Somalia. In recent years U.S. warships have served as staging bases for commando raids and drone patrols and have fired cruise missiles at terrorist targets. For the ships’ crews, it can be a strangely disconnected experience. “We never really learned much about who the guys on the ground were,” the Chafee sailor muses.