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U.S. Navy Ships Right to Self Defense

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

USS Wasp (LHD1), a 40,000 ton landing helicopter dock ship

In general, international law, Navy regulations and ROE permit the use of force in peacetime only in self-defense. Their policy is to restrain aggression, to prevent the outbreak of hostilities, and to limit escalation if shooting starts. There are, however, a few circumstances where shooting first is permitted.

Put another way, barring any other rules of engagement put in place by U.S. Naval leadership or civilian leaders, ,a commander of a U.S. warship has an absolute right to defend their ship. This right allows acting Navy Captains commanding ships to act peremptorily in defense of their ship. In other words, if the Captain feels that his ship is in eminent danger he can fire first in an attempt to neutralize the threat.

Implied in the right of self-defense is the right of exercising effective self-defense. Implicit to the right to exercise effective self-defense is the right to scale defensive actions to the level necessary to safely deal with the threat. For example, a couple of small open boats approaching a U.S. Navy ship at high speed with a total of eight soldiers bearing small arms will warrant a different response than a swarm of dozens of attack boats capable of carrying missiles and or being packed full of high explosives.

For a more thorough and general discussion on this topic see this U.S. Naval War College paper by internationally recognized diplomat and Navy veteran George Bunn.

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