On June 2, just a few miles from the major port of Jask at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranian military oiler Kharg caught fire. The crew, dozens injured, had to evacuate, leaving the ship’s massive half-sunken carcass to smolder in the Gulf of Oman. As Iran’s only oiler, Kharg was central to Iran’s trans-Atlantic aspirations. The event serves not only as a strategic loss for Iran but as the latest in a string of high-profile naval disasters. Just over a year ago, in May 2020, Iran's Jamaran frigate struck the support ship Konorak with an anti-ship cruise missile during a scripted exercise mishap, killing 19. In January 2018, the Damavand, Iran’s most advanced frigate at the time, grounded on a rocky jetty, killing two Navy commandos and costing Iran the ship. While it didn’t involve Iran’s navies, it impossible to not mention when, at the height of U.S.-Iranian tensions following the U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian strike on al-Asad airbase, Iran shot Ukrainian Flight 752 from the sky in a catastrophic error.
The incidents don’t just embarrass Iran: they are the greatest obstacles to Iran’s own maritime goals. Losses like Damavand and Kharg push national objectives back by years. Investigations, repairs, and retraining come with real, tangible costs—a burden that Iran’s struggling economy can’t shoulder. Perhaps most importantly, when negligence kills, Iran suffers serious political consequences. In addition to creating a brisk détente with the U.S., the Flight 752 incident ignited over a year of internal strife that threatens the regime at its core.
A former colleague in Naval Intelligence dubbed this Iran's "pro-active defeat" strategy. This smirking satisfaction at Iran's missteps dominates the U.S. military's reaction to such events. But the United States can't afford to remain an armchair critic of these disasters. Instead, the U.S. Navy must look to Iran as a grim mirror of a possible future whether it likes it or not. This is because the issues Iran's navies confront are ones the U.S. knows and recognizes: errors borne of stress and exhaustion, a culture that prizes its high tempo over its professionalism, and leadership unwilling to take the dramatic steps needed for course correction.
It remains unclear precisely how Kharg caught fire, as initial reports only state the fire started in an engine room. We do know that Iran possesses only a handful of ships capable of resupplying on long journeys and routinely drives these ships to their breaking points. In a rare voyage attempting to round the southern tip of Africa, Bushehr was forced to dock in Durban, South Africa, for months to repair some unidentified damage.
To find a U.S. parallel of critical ships stretched to their limits, we don’t even need to leave the Persian Gulf. In 2019, with the possibility of war with Iran growing, officers confided that the U.S.’s minesweeper fleet rots in gross disrepair. Despite being central in any conflict with Iran, which holds the Strait of Hormuz at knife-point with a massive mine arsenal, the minesweeper fleet is overworked and underfunded, with officers estimating that many of the ships are in such poor condition as to be unusable in conflict. A fatal 2020 training incident involved amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs) shed light on the deadly nature of the vehicles, long-feared as deathtraps by the Marines who used them. A subsequent investigation found fewer than half of all AAVs were appropriately watertight despite being the primary tool Marines use for beach landings.
In both of Iran’s recent fatal misfires, we see evidence of similar causes: failure to follow standard procedures and breakdowns in communication. Militaries—navies especially—live and die by checklists and formality. When processes fall apart, it’s because Iran has pushed its people to their breaking points, just like its ships. The Konorak friendly fire incident occurred during a major exercise with cameras rolling, the likes of which Iran is no stranger to. These frequent, major exercises when Iran’s navies already routinely mobilize for real threats ensure ships and their crew have little downtime. Add the high stakes of senior-brass scrutiny, and mistakes are guaranteed. The case for personnel stress and exhaustion is even clearer for the Flight 752 shoot-down. Iran claims that the air defense operators had just finished relocated their command center following a strike on a U.S. airbase in Iraq. As a result, command chains were unclear, communication channels were interrupted, and, most importantly, soldiers were sleepless and afraid.
The official reports for both the John S. McCain and the Fitzgerald in 2017 claim that sailors’ fatigue played a critical role in the mishaps, echoing Iran’s recent disasters. Similar moments dot the Navy’s timeline, and the number of unreported near-misses is unimaginable—I, along with every sailor I know, have found myself falling asleep standing up while at the controls of a ship. This is because ships often have too much work and not enough people to do it. A new report from the watchdog Government Accountability Office shows that the Navy routinely masks its lack of personnel with creative accounting and prioritizes the few qualified sailors it does have to forward-deployed commands and ships preparing to deploy. Even if a ship spends less than half its time at sea, its sailors spend far more; when a ship finishes a deployment cycle or starts an extended period in port, it's common that its sailors receive orders to transfer. While ships experience operational tempo in waves, sailors only get the wave crests.
The final common thread between both Iran and the U.S. is the shared inflexibility, deflection, and intransigence from senior leadership when confronted with the effects of crew and equipment exhaustion. For Iran, this takes the form of casting blame on the most junior personnel involved, coupled with scatter-shot disinformation. The U.S. military’s trademark “extreme ownership” means that blame ascends further—a ship captain, sometimes even an admiral—but the lack of serious policy changes to curb the causes of mishaps means that this “ownership” stops short of the top. In late 2019 I asked former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer if he felt he had done enough to ensure that the lapses that caused the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain incidents weren’t repeated. He said he felt changes to the culture of shipboard officers through the creation of special leather jackets and required log books would go a long way. The answer would be hilarious if such out-of-touch attempts to put bandaids on the massive hull breach on the U.S. Navy weren’t also so painfully common.
All ships at sea, be they Iranian or American, follow the same “Rules of the Road.” These rules state that to avoid disaster, ships must take action that is “positive,” “made in ample time,” and “large enough to be readily apparent.” Put another way, when the ship is in danger, you have to turn sharp enough and fast enough so as to leave no confusion. Iran’s ship has already run aground. For the U.S. to avoid collision, it needs to turn the rudder hard.
Michael O. D. Pruitt a veteran U.S. Navy officer of eight years. After two deployments to the Persian Gulf as a ship-driver and personnel manager, I worked as a senior analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence, leading a team that tracked threats to ships in the Middle East. I currently work for the Urban Institute in DC and begin as a student at UVA Law School in August.
This article first appeared at Real Clear Defense.