Marine Anti-Drone Buggies On USS Boxer Knocked Down “Threatening” Iranian Drone (Updated)

The Pentagon says that personnel on the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer knocked down an Iranian drone that came within a “threatening range” as the ship sailed through the volatile Strait of Hormuz. Subsequent reports said that a U.S. Marine Corps all-terrain vehicle with an anti-drone detection and jamming system sitting on the ship’s flight deck brought down the unmanned aircraft with an electronic warfare attack.

President Donald Trump was first to announce that Boxer had taken defensive action in the Strait of Hormuz during a press conference at the White House on July 18, 2019. The Pentagon subsequently released a statement regarding the incident. The amphibious assault ship, which is carrying elements of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was sailing in a convoy at the time that also included a Harpers Ferry class dock landing ship, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, and the expeditionary sea base USS Lewis B. Puller, a highly specialized vessel the War Zone

has profiled in-depth in the past. A Henry J. Kaiser class underway replenishment oiler was also present for at least a portion of the voyage. The first-in-class USS Harpers Ferry was likely the dock landing ship that was sailing with Boxer as that ship is presently assigned to the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group. Puller, one of the Navy’s main anti-mine warfare platforms, which is capable of supporting MH-53E Sea Dragon mine-sweeping helicopters, is permanently deployed to the Middle East region.

“The Boxer took defensive action against an Iranian drone, which had closed into a very, very near distance, approximately 1,000 yards, ignoring multiple calls to stand down, and was threatening the safety of the ship and the ship’s crew,” Trump said. “The drone was immediately destroyed.”

The Pentagon’s complete statement, from chief spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman, was as follows:

“At approximately 10 a.m. local time, the amphibious ship USS Boxer was in international waters conducting a planned inbound transit of the Strait of Hormuz. A fixed wing unmanned aerial system (UAS) approached boxer and closed within a threatening range. The ship took defensive action against the UAS to ensure the safety of the ship and its crew.”

So far, Iran does not appear to have confirmed or denied the incident. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters that he had “no information” to offer.

Neither Trump nor the Pentagon has, so far, identified the drone in question. Iran operates a wide array of different fixed-wing unmanned aircraft of different sizes. Iran has armed some of these designs, but we do not know if the drone in this case appeared to be carrying any external weapons or was a kinetic weapon itself. 

Even without external weapons, the drone could have presented a real threat to the Boxer and personnel on board, either by acting as a loitering munition or otherwise harassing or interfering with the ship’s operations, especially the launch and recovery of any aircraft or helicopters from its flight deck. A mass drone attack, to say nothing of one from an actual swarm of unmanned aircraft networked together, could overwhelm the defenses on even the most heavily defended ship and wreak havoc.

CNN initially reported that personnel used a “soft-kill” electronic warfare attack rather than a missile, such as the ship’s

RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM), or a gun system, such as the Phalanx Close-in Weapon System (CIWS). Fox News then subsequently reported that the system in question was the Marine Corps’ new Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS). Pictures the Navy has released of the Boxer making the transit in the Strait of Hormuz already showed a specially configured 4×4 Polaris MRZR associated with LMADIS on the ship’s forward flight deck.

The LMADIS buggy parked on Boxer‘s forward flight deck., USMC

LMADIS, which you can read about in more detail in this past widely circulated War Zone piece, consists of a pair of MRZRs, both of which are equipped with the RADA RPS-42 hemispheric air surveillance active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar system. One them also has a CM202 sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared full-motion video cameras. The CM202 offers an additional means of positively identifying potential threats that the RPS-42s detect. 

If it becomes clear that the target is hostile, Marines can then use a Modi jammer to disrupt the drone’s links to its ground control station, potentially causing it to crash. The Marine’s specifically developed LMADIS to respond to the ever-growing threat of small unmanned aircraft. In January 2019, USS Kearsarge, another Wasp class ship, deployed the same system as it passed through the Suez Canal.

An LMADIS buggy during an exercise., USMC

If the electronic attack doesn’t deter or destroy the unmanned aircraft down, Marines can switch to a kinetic option, such as the FIM-92 Stinger man-portable air defense system, or MANPADS. In recent years, the U.S. military has been upgrading the Stinger specifically to make it more capable against small drones. In a maritime scenario, the aforementioned point defense systems on Navy ships could also engage the drone.

Iran using drones to harass U.S. ships, as well as aircraft, in the Persian Gulf is hardly new and it has largely taken the place of the much riskier practice of doing so with small, manned boats. In 2016, Iranian forces notably flew very close to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and her associated strike group. The Iranians regularly release video from these flights, especially of major warships, such as carriers, for propaganda purposes.

But Boxer‘s transit through the Strait of Hormuz comes at a time of particularly high tensions between the United States and Iran. In June 2019, things took a particularly worrying turn when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a Navy RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) drone flying over the Gulf of Oman. The United States almost retaliated by striking targets in Iran.

In addition, there have been a number of attacks and other incidents linked to Iran involving commercial oil tankers in the region in recent months. Earlier on July 18, 2019, the IRGC had announced that Iran had detained the Panama-flagged tanker Riah over alleged fuel smuggling.

So, it’s also not surprising that, beyond the LMADIS, the pictures the Navy released also highlighted other components of the layered force protection capabilities the ship can employs while passing through these kinds of high-risk areas. 

One shows a Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter armed with Hellfire missiles and a 50 caliber machine gun escorting an Iranian Navy Bell 212 helicopter away from the Boxer. Another offers a good look at a Marine AH-1Z Zulu Cobra attack helicopter carrying, among other weapons, an AIM-9M Sidewinder air-to-air missile, which it could use to engage other helicopters, low-flying aircraft, or small drones. 

A US Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from Boxer, at right, flies alongside an Iranian Navy Bell 212 helicopter in the Strait of Hormuz., USMC

The AH-1Z was also carrying AGM-114 Hellfire missiles as well as a pod full of laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) 70mm rockets, all of which these helicopters could employ against swarms of small boats that might threaten the Boxer. This is in addition to the helicopter’s 20mm cannon. Other pictures showed Marines on the ship’s deck with small arms providing very close-in defenses. 

An AH-1Z assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit conducts a patrol during Boxer‘s transit through the Strait of Hormuz., USMC

In recent years, the Marines have also taken to strapping HMMWV and Growler light tactical vehicles, as well as LAV-25 light armored vehicles, to the decks of amphibious ships during sensitive transits to provide extra force protection with their turreted machine guns and automatic cannons. Putting TOW anti-tank guided missile launchers, which can also just provide added situational awareness thanks to their electro-optical and infrared sighting systems, up on the deck has also become increasingly common.

When it comes to LMADIS, the system represents a stepping stone toward a more robust array of short-range air defense options that the Navy and Marines, as well as the U.S. Army and Air Force, are working on now, including various directed energy weapons, such as lasers and high-power microwave beams. But, as one can see from the Boxer’s encounter with the Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz, this capability to defeat lower-end threats is already extremely valuable.

UPDATE: 8:45pm EST—

The Wall Street Journal had a reporter on board the USS Boxer during the transit. That paper has now reported that there were a number of other instances where U.S. and Iranian forces came relatively close to each other in the Strait of Hormuz beyond the drone shootdown and the MH-60R escorting the Iranian Navy’s Bell 212 away from the ship.

The Navy convoy passed a number of Iranian fast boats along the way, but there does not appear to have been direct altercations with them. An unspecified larger Iranian warship also sailed within 500 feet of Boxer. Lastly, an IRGC Y-12 twin-engine turboprop, an aircraft the organization’s air arm uses for surveillance missions, flew near the Boxer.

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