Destroyer diplomacy: USS Cole brings symbolic punch to tense Middle East

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

It's a time-honored tradition among world powers to send warships to politically volatile regions around the world as symbols of stability and naval might. The term that describes this phenomenon is Gunboat Diplomacy, and it's been part of the global political landscape for more than 200 years.

The latest "gunboat" in this continuing tradition is the United States guided missile destroyer USS Cole , which is being dispatched off the coast of Lebanon in the Eastern Mediterranean as a deterrent to outside meddling in the internal politics of Lebanon. The chief suspect is Syria.

Ordinarily yet-another manifestation of Gunboat Diplomacy wouldn't be worthy of comment -- perhaps not even of notice -- but for the choice of the vessel this time, the USS Cole . Certainly this warship has more symbolic value than real hitting power. This ship is a destroyer, after all. It's not as though the Cole packs the punch of an aircraft carrier.

But let's remember the role of the USS Cole in the war on terror. This ship was on the front lines even before most people had recognized a war on terror. Even before the 9/11 jetliner attacks on the Twin Towers, the Cole was a casualty of an al-Qaida attack in Yemen when a small boat full of explosives and suicide bombers blew a hole in the Cole's side big enough to drive an SUV through.

That attack was 12 Oct. 2000 -- 11 months before 9/11 -- and it killed 17 members of the Cole's crew, and wounded 39 others. This vessel was an early symbol of the war on terror, and endures so to this day.

Let's glance at the Cole's power in a purely military sense. It's an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, gas turbine powered, with land- and sea-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Standard SM-2 anti-aircraft missiles, MK 32 torpedoes, one 5-inch gun, two 25-millimeter machine guns, four .50 caliber machine guns, and a Phalanx Gatling gun for self defense.

Suffice it to say that, relative to other U.S. Navy warships, the USS Cole isn't exactly one of the most heavily armed and intimidating vessels on the ocean.

But think of this ship's symbolic value in the Middle East. Unlike many other vessels, this one has already been bloodied in battle. If things get dicey while the Cole is on patrol off Lebanon, moreover, do you suppose that ship's crew might be in the mood for a little payback?

The accompanying photo is of the USS Cole being readied for repairs after the October 2000 terrorist attack.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12
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