Navy Confirms Boat Swarm Seen Alongside Carrier Group In This Satellite Image Was Iranian

The U.S. Navy has confirmed that “multiple” small Iranian boats ran alongside the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other ships from her strike group as she sailed through Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman earlier this month, as seen in commercial satellite imagery. The service has rejected reports that any of the Iranian craft harassed or otherwise acted provocatively toward the carrier, saying the activity was within “normal behavior patterns.” Still, the image of 18 small boats in very close proximity to Lincoln and her escorts is eye-opening and a stark reminder of the inherent risks of each transit through the Strait.

A PlanetScope satellite belonging to private satellite imagery firm Planet Labs, part of a constellation that takes images of much of the Earth every day, caught Lincoln making the transit out of the Persian Gulf by way of the Strait of Hormuz on Dec. 4, 2019. The image circulated for days in various formats on social media, causing considerable debate within the open-source intelligence community about what exactly was going on in the frame. Some media outlets, including in Iran, picked up on the narrative that the IRGC had “harassed,” or at least “escorted,” the Carrier Strike Group out of the Strait in a successful challenge to the United States amid a new spike in tensions between the two countries. We can now put this debate to rest.

“During the transit, multiple Iranian vessels followed the U.S. ships through the strait,” U.S. Navy Commander Joshua Frey, a public affairs officer for U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), told the War Zone in an Email. “Their activity was within normal behavior patterns for Iran and did not threaten the Abe [Abraham Lincoln] strike group.”

The satellite image shows what could be as many as 18 boats following Lincoln around 20 miles northwest of Oman’s Musandam Peninsula and some 30 miles from Iran’s Qeshm Island. 

Location of the carrier in the December 4th satellite image. , Google Earth

The bulk of the Iranian boats were in a neat formation to her rear, off the port side of the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Leyte Gulf, which was also sailing behind the carrier. The Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Farragut was leading the three-ship group. Other craft are seen alongside the port side of the carrier and the destroyer, as well as trailing behind to the starboard side. Some of them appear to be very close to the Navy ships, around approximately 1,000 feet in some cases.

No other American ships or boats, or any allied or partner vessels, were accompanying these elements of the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, according to Commander Frey. Planet Labs’ satellite also captured a commercial oil tanker sailing separately in the shipping lane in front of the American warships.

A filtered and enhanced version of the Planet Labs image that has been circulating online showing USS Abraham Lincoln in the middle of USS Farragut, sailing in front, and USS Leyte Gulf, following behind. A commercial tanker is seen sailing at the top right. The multitude of small Iranian boats are also clearly visible all around., PHOTO © 2019 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

Commander Frey categorically said “no” in response to a query about whether the Iranian boats had made any provocative maneuvers toward the carrier or its escorts, harassed it, or otherwise impeded its transit into the Gulf of Oman. “Interaction between U.S. and Iranian vessels was limited to routine queries via bridge to bridge radio,” he added. 

This sounds similar to an incident that occurred in September 2018 in the Strait of Hormuz involving the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and her escorts. In that case, Iranian state media released video footage purportedly showing small boats “harassing” the carrier. The Navy does not appear to have ever responded to those claims.

The following month, an Iranian anti-ship cruise missile-armed Peykaap class fast attack craft sailed with 300 yards the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Essex while then-U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) at the time, was on board. “I think they’re trying to watch what we’re doing, they’re trying to understand what’s happening out here, they’re trying to characterize it to fulfill their own [intelligence] collection responsibilities,” Votel subsequently told reporters.

The exact number and type of Iranian boats that shadowed Lincoln in the Strait of Hormuz this month remains unclear. The naval component of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGCN, operates a wide variety of speedboats and other small craft, including types armed with anti-ship missiles, such as the Peykaaps, and semi-submersibles capable of carrying mines and torpedoes. These fleets of small boats also often carry anti-armor guided missiles, shoulder-fired man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and unguided rockets, among other weapons. The U.S. government has accused the IRGCN of using some of its small boats to launch a number of attacks on commercial oil tankers using limpet mines in the Gulf of Oman earlier this year.

A portion of an official US Navy identification guide for Iranian warships and smaller craft, including the various boats in the IRGCN’s inventory., USN

On Dec. 17, the Navy did release pictures of a pair of Mk VI patrol boats escorting Lincoln out of port in Manama, Bahrain, where NAVCENT is headquartered. The captions for these pictures said that the Mk VIs had conducted a “high value asset (HVA) escort transit” with the carrier, initially suggesting that these boats, which have range of 750 nautical miles, might have accompanied the carrier all the way into the Gulf of Oman. However, an HVA escort transit simply refers to when naval security forces ensure that larger, high-value ships, such as carriers, safely enter and exit harbors, which are inherently constrained environments where the risks of close-in threats, such as explosive-laden suicide boats, are especially pronounced.

A US Navy Mk VI patrol boat, seen at the bottom right, conducts “high value asset (HVA) escort transit” with the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 2, 2019., USN
Another Mk VI pulls alongside of the USS Abraham Lincoln in Manama, Bahrain., USN
A view of the carrier from one of the Mk VI patrol boats during the high value asset (HVA) escort transit on Dec. 2., USN
The two Mk VIs that took part in the high value asset (HVA) escort transit sailing together in Manama, Bahrain on Dec. 2., USN

“U.S. Navy warships making this kind of transit anywhere in the world are always prepared to defend themselves,” Commander Frey, the NAVCENT public affairs officer, said. “In light of recent provocative, irresponsible and illegal actions in the maritime domain, we always maintain a heightened state of readiness when operating in the vicinity of IRGCN forces.”

Photos the Navy released earlier in December of the transit itself do not show any of the Iranian boats, but typical close-in force protection measures are visible. This includes personnel keeping watch onboard Farragut, as well as an MH-60R Sea Hawk equipped with a .50 caliber machine gun and four Hellfire missiles leaving the destroyer for a patrol around the elements of the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group. The helicopter’s armament would have been ideal for engaging small boats.

An MH-60R Sea Hawk takes off from the USS Farragut as the destroyer leads the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Leyte Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz., USN

The large number of Iranian boats that were present as Abraham Lincoln transited the Strait of Hormuz this month is particularly notable given that, in recent years, the Iranians have all but abandoned the long-standing practice of actively harassing American ships in the region with small boats in favor of doing so with drones and, to a lesser extent, with manned aircraft and helicopters. Employing unmanned aircraft carries significantly lower risks for the regime in Tehran.

In July, amid another period of heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions, Iran flew at least one small drone within a “threatening range” of the Navy’s Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer. Marines on that ship subsequently used an electronic warfare jamming system to bring down the unmanned aircraft.

Activity onboard the USS Boxer during its transit in July 2019. The electronic warfare jamming system that Marines used to knock down an Iranian drone is visible at on the flight deck to the right., USN

Though no other friendly ships accompanied the Lincoln, Leyte Gulf, and Farragut, aerial assets, including U.S. military manned aircraft and drones almost certainly monitored their progress. Maritime patrol planes and unmanned aircraft, as well as bombers and combat jets, have also been flying regular patrols in the region with a particular eye toward Iran for much of the year. This has included U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles armed with cluster muntions, a loadout that is also well suited to engaging boat swarms, something The War Zone

was first to report.

US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles carrying cluster munitions and other weapons refuel during a maritime patrol in the Middle East in June 2019., USAF

Regardless, the large number of IRGCN boats in the general vicinity of Lincoln and her flotilla earlier this month, actively threatening her or not, only underscores the very real threats that these small craft pose to Navy ships, as well as other warships and commercial vessels, in the narrow confines of the Strait of Hormuz. That the Navy considers this “normal behavior patterns” only further reinforces this. The boats also represent just one of the capabilities that Iran could bring to bear in the waterway. Anti-ship cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, midget submarines, suicide drones, mines, and more all also present significant threats, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece.

Iran has also long specifically threatened the U.S. carriers that regularly deployed to the Persian Gulf, as well. The IRGCN notably conducted a swarming boat attack against a mock aircraft carrier during its “Great Prophet IX” exercise in 2015. 

This all raises questions about why the Navy did send one of its most prized and politically sensitive military assets through the Strait without its own small boat escorts, such as the Mk VIs, to provide screening. The service also has larger Cyclone class patrol craft forward deployed in the region, as well as various types of other boats that are smaller than the Mk VI that could still have provided additional close-in security for at least portions of the transit.

It also shines a light on the still limited capabilities of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships, which the service had envisioned being forward deployed to the Middle East to provide exactly this kind of additional support. The main mission sets for the Surface Warfare Modules for the two classes of LCS was supposed to be defeating swarming boat attacks. Eleven years after the first Littoral Combat Ship was commissioned, the class of ships still does not deploy to the Middle East.  

All of this is even more glaring considering that the transit occurred at the same time that flurry of reports emerged about new U.S. intelligence about potential attacks on American forces throughout the Middle East from Iran or its regional proxies. The Lincoln Carrier Strike Group had only moved into the Persian Gulf in late November 2019 in the first place, the first time it had done so since arriving in the region in May, almost certainly due to the increased risks the ships would face simply by being in this constrained littoral environment.

It’s possible that things may only become more complex in the future, as well. Tomorrow, the regular Iranian Navy will begin its first-ever trilateral naval exercise with Russian and Chinese forces, which could point to increased maritime cooperation between those three countries in the region. The United States itself is also still looking to expand the number of participants in its latest maritime security construct in the region, known as Operation Sentinel, which is ostensibly aimed at deterring Iranian aggression. A number of American allies and partners have or are planning to send forces to the region to conduct their own independent operations.

“The Strait of Hormuz and Arabian Gulf are international bodies of water and the U.S. conducts all transits and operations in full compliance with international law,” Commander Frey, the NAVCENT spokesperson, said. “Our presence demonstrates the U.S. and its regional partners’ commitment to the free flow of legitimate commerce, maritime regional security, and freedom of navigation.”

Increasingly harsh U.S. sanctions on Iran, which have already further fueled tensions and provocative behavior, such as restarting uranium enrichment activities earlier this year, make it very unlikely that the IRGCN’s “normal behavior patterns” toward Navy ships in and around the Strait of Hormuz will change any time soon. So, despite the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group’s safe transit into the Gulf of Oman earlier this month, the large number of Iranian boats shadowing it shows that there certainly remains a real risk that, if the security situation were to seriously devolve, it could lead to much more dangerous closer encounters.

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