Iran’s Attempted Theft Of U.S. Navy Drone Boat Is Likely A Sign Of What’s To Come

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, or IRGCN, attempted to capture a Saildrone unmanned surface vessel operated by the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in the Arabian Gulf yesterday. A Navy patrol boat responded to the incident, and the Iranians subsequently released the unmanned craft. However, the attempt nonetheless underscores growing concerns over the threat of capture faced by unmanned vessels. 

According to the Navy’s official statement on the matter, the incident occurred at around 11:00 PM local time on August 29 when the service’s 5th Fleet was transiting international waters and observed the IRGCN’s support ship Shahid Baziar. Being towed in its path was the United States’s Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel (USV), which you can read all about here, in what the Navy claims to have been an attempt on the IRGCN’s part to capture the ship. 

Screenshot of a video showing support ship Shahid Baziar, left, from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy unlawfully towing a Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel. Credit: U.S. Navy

In response, the patrol coastal ship USS Thunderbolt (PC-12) was redirected from its operations nearby and the Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26 launched an MH-60S Sea Hawk from an undisclosed location for further support in addressing the situation. Both the 5th Fleet and Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26 are headquartered in Bahrain and operate out of the Arabian Gulf. After what the Navy reports to have been a four-hour exchange, the IRGCN vessel disconnected the towing line to the USV and departed the area reportedly without any further complications.

“IRGCN’s actions were flagrant, unwarranted, and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet (NAVCENT/5th Fleet), as well as the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces in the region. “U.S. naval forces remain vigilant and will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows while promoting rules-based international order throughout the region.”

“The professionalism and competence of the crew of the USS Thunderbolt prevented Iran from this illegal action. This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s continued destabilizing, illegal, and unprofessional activity in the Middle East,” Gen. Michael Kurilla, Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), also added in a separate statement.

The coastal patrol ship USS Thunderbolt (PC 12) transits alongside other PCs during a formation exercise in 2014. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor M. Smith/U.S. Navy

The solar-powered Saildrone Explorer USV is just one of the many unmanned systems that the Navy’s 5th Fleet operates and was launched on its first mission in the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea in 2021. As part of a demonstration exercise nicknamed Digital Horizon, the mission was overseen by Navy personnel assigned to Task Force 59, which is one of the nine task forces that currently operate under the Navy’s 5th Fleet. Task Force 59 specifically is focused on operating unmanned systems to aid in establishing better maritime domain awareness by stitching together sensors and unmanned technologies for more robust intelligence-gathering abilities. 

Knowing this about Saildrone’s situational awareness role, it’s safe to assume that the Navy had picked up on the vessel’s unusual movements thereby prompting the 5th Fleet’s response. However, the minimal detail provided in the Navy’s statement has made it so it isn’t immediately clear if that was the case. It’s also possible that it became disabled for some reason. The War Zone has reached out to NAVCENT/5th Fleet for more information on this matter but has yet to hear back.

A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel sails in the Gulf of Aqaba during International Maritime Exercise/Cutlass Express 2022. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth/U.S. Navy

It is also important to mention that in its announcement the Navy very pointedly noted that the Saildrone is U.S. government property equipped with sensors, radars, and cameras, but is made up of commercially available technology for navigation and data collection. Because of this, Saildrone luckily wasn’t storing highly sensitive information or systems at the time of the attempted theft. 

The Iranian military isn’t new to seizing the naval assets of other nations, either. Most recently, the IRGCN seized a South Korean-flagged tanker ship carrying 7,200 tons of “oil-based chemicals” in the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGCN later claimed that the seizure took place after a request to do so was passed down from the country’s Ports and Maritime Organization under a warrant issued by the coastal Hormozgan province’s prosecutor’s office for violating environmental protocols. After this week’s incident, it will be interesting to see if the IRGCN tries to claim that Saildrone had violated any international concords.

The lack of human presence aboard unmanned vessels, though, significantly lowers the barrier to the potential for hostile actions similar to those carried out by the IRGCN this week. Without human operators, there is no risk of fatalities, taking captives, or any other actions that could otherwise create a much more precarious international incident. 

IRGC boats swarm the South Korean flagged tanker Hankuk Chemi on Jan. 4, 2021. Credit: Tasnim News Agency

A similar abduction occurred in 2016 when crewmembers from the Chinese Dalang III class rescue and salvage ship Nan-Jiu deployed a small boat and plucked one of two U.S. low-buoyancy underwater glider drones that were in the process of surveying the area right out of the water, then took them back to the ship for inspection. The Pathfinder class survey ship USNS Bowditch (T-AGS-62) was right nearby in the process of recovering the drones and watched the entire situation unfold.

Soon after, China released a statement explaining that the confiscation was meant to prevent the device from posing danger to the safe navigation of passing ships and personnel and eventually relinquished it back to the Navy. Even though underwater gliders are used primarily for oceanic research and are not a classified technology, the situation once again proved how easy it can be for adversarial nations to intercept, steal, or even neutralize an unmanned system if compelled to do so.

The ocean research vessel USNS Bowditch. Credit: U.S. Navy

There are similar complications to the response side of the equation as well, as were tangentially exemplified when Iran shot down a Navy Global Hawk in 2019 and the United States struggled to decide on an appropriate reaction to such an attack on an aircraft that resulted in no human casualties or captured prisoners. While this situation was very different from that of the Saildrone incident considering it involved the actual destruction of U.S. government property, it still highlighted similar issues in determining a proportional response. The United States did consider punitive strikes but decided against them in the end.

This issue will likely only grow in its complication as the Navy follows through on its pledges to expand its fleets of various tiers of uncrewed vessels. The Navy gave us quite the peek at what this could look like during this year’s Rim of the Pacific PHOTOEX when a line of the service’s unmanned test ships sailed alongside navies from across the globe. 

Ships sail in formation during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022. A line of unmanned vessels can be seen off to the far left led by USS Michael Monsoor. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan Lavin/U.S. Navy 

Also known as Unmanned Surface Vessel Division 1, or USVDIV-1, the fleet is made up of Sea Hunter and Seahawk as well as two Ghost Fleet Overlord offshore support vessels designated as Nomad and Ranger. USVDIV-1 is a part of Surface Development Squadron One (SURFDEVRON), which is the experimental unit to that all three Zumwalt class destroyers, among other unmanned surface vessels, belong. SURFDEVRON will actually be taking over for Ghost Fleet Overlord, which the Pentagon put an end to earlier this year in hopes of better honing the evolution of high-end unmanned surface vehicle operations and technologies as the Navy attempts to reach its goal of developing an additional 150 unmanned vessels by 2045.

Keeping human lives out of harm’s way is certainly one of the more notable arguments in favor of the widespread utilization of unmanned systems in the military, that’s a given. And there are many other advantages to unmanned systems, and especially vessels. However, removing the flesh-and-blood sailor from vessels invites the opportunity for illegal operations like that of the IRGCN’s to proliferate in ways that the Department of Defense may have to address, at least in certain circumstances. And many future unmanned surface vessels will be packed with more sensitive gear and weapons.

While this recent incident appears to have somewhat resolved itself without issue, the future of such actions is more uncertain.

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