A “Remember the Maine” moment?

by Craig Hooper on March 26, 2010

In February, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Cuba.  Within two months, the U.S. was at war with Spain.

A similar Maine-like provocation (today’s loss of the South Korean warship Cheonan after an explosion) could tip the tense Korean Peninsula over the edge, changing the game in Asia.

Let’s be blunt: When a warship mysteriously explodes and sinks, the risk of political miscalculation is very, very high.

First, no Navy is eager to identify an avoidable accident as the cause of a lost vessel, and second, if

given an a nearby and accessible rival the temptation to accuse the “usual suspects” is overwhelming.  Public emotion and

political pressure make a thorough investigation difficult–concrete facts are few, far between and often submerged.  In many cases, attribution of an attack is, quite simply, impossible.

Caution is warranted.  In Asia, given the proliferation of quiet submarines, sea mines and other potentially lethal items, the potential for third party involvement in an unattributable attack is a small–but growing–risk for countries engaged in tense standoffs.

Torpedoes, mines and UUVs do not come with a “return to sender” address on them.

Though I suspect the usual suspects myself, this sort of an incident could be seen as a high-risk, high-gain opportunity for the right country or terror organization…

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{ 3 comments }

James March 27, 2010 at 3:24 pm

It’s been pointed out in other places that the Cheonan is one of the ASW versions of this corvette and carries 12 depth charges at the stern. It’s not unheard of to lose them overboard; the USS Wasmuth was destroyed in 1942 when two depth charges rolled off in a storm and exploded under the ship. They’ve also been known to explode on deck, but that’s not likely to sink the ship so quickly. Old mines are another possibility as is, of course, a torpedo from a North Korean submarine.

No one will know for sure until the wreck is examined and even then it will be hard to fingerprint the weapon used. If it was the North Koreans it’s hard to see what they would gain by it: intimidation and anonymity would seem to be mutually exclusive in this case. But the North Koreans do not always play the game in a rational way.

para March 28, 2010 at 9:53 am

The difference between the Maine sinking and this one seems rather clear to me. In 1898 the US were not exactly unhappy to go to war with Spain. One might even suggest that this incident was most convenient. Neither South nor North Korea however seem to be interested in a hot war and the official reactions were tame (South Korea) or non-existent (North Korea…non-existent being their version of “tame”).

@James: Judging North Korean diplomatic manouvres over the last twenty years, I’d argue that their approach is so rational as to bordering on being completely transparent, as far as motivation is concerned. Exuberant rhetorics do not equal irrational behavior, in my opinion.

In any case, the first thing, that came to my mind when I read about the incident, was “mine”. Probably an old one…

Craig Hooper March 28, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Anything can happen after the South Korean public gets stirred up!

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