The Persian Gulf is one of the busiest commercial sea lanes in the world. About 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil exports passes through the Strait of Hormuz, and commercial fishermen still ply these waters to supply fish to the increasingly wealthy citizens of both sides of the gulf. The chances of US navy ships, Iranian naval ships, and commercial vessels coming into close proximity are great.
The US State Department said that the Rappahannock had opened fire on the fishing boat only as a last resort.
"An embarked security team aboard a US navy vessel fired upon a small motor vessel after it disregarded warnings and rapidly approached the US ship near Jebel Ali," the State Department statement said. Jebel Ali is a port city in the UAE.
"The US crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel's operators to turn away from their deliberate approach,” the statement said. "When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-calibre machine gun."
While firing on a small fishing boat may seem excessive, it was precisely this kind of scenario that US Navy planners fear the most in tense times like this. In October 2000, a small boat packed with explosives rammed into the USS Cole while it was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 sailors. In May, a US military drone strike killed the suspected Al Qaeda militant who is believed to have organized the attack on the USS Cole.