Navy Shoots Down Iran’s Claims It Forced U.S. Helicopters To Land

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says it threatened to open fire on U.S. Marine Corps and Navy helicopters covering a group of American warships as they passed through the volatile Strait of Hormuz recently, prompting them to land. The U.S. Navy told The War Zone that no U.S. helicopters headed back to their ships while supporting the transit for any other reason than to refuel.

Pictures and video footage Iran released via the semi-official Tasnim News Agency yesterday show one of the country’s new sea base-esque vessels, the Shahid Mahdavi, and other vessels, supported by drones flying above, very closely shadowing the U.S. naval contingent as it passed into the Persian Gulf last week. The actual transit occurred on August 17.

Only the U.S. Navy’s Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Bataan and Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Thomas Hudner are visible in the Iranian pictures and videos. However, USNI News reported last week that the Harpers Ferry class amphibious warship USS Carter Hall had also sailed through the Strait of Hormuz on or about August 17.

A view across the flight deck of the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Bataan as it sailed in the Gulf of Oman on August 17, 2023. The Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Thomas Hudner is seen out in front to the right. USN

At one point in the Iranian video clips of the transit, seen below, a member of the IRGC-N can be heard hailing the U.S. Navy vessels in English.

“This is coalition warship. I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law. Over,” an apparent U.S. Navy sailor is then heard saying in response.

“Your helicopters is in vicinity [sic] of my vessel… and also sometimes going into [over] Iranian territorial waters,” the IRGC-N member is heard later in the video saying, again in English. “Advise you to take them on your boat and do not enter in Iranian territorial waters. If you do not obey my orders, we will open fire on your helicopters. Over.”

It is worth noting that the Strait of Hormuz is so narrow that much of it is territorial waters belonging to either Iran or Oman. During routine transits into the Persian Gulf, U.S. naval vessels use the same shipping lane as commercial vessels, which passes through Iranian waters. They do so under the international rules of innocent passage, which allow warships from one country to sail through the maritime territory of another with certain restrictions.

Bataan and Carter Hall arrived in the region earlier this month and are carrying elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Group (MEU). This includes an air component with AV-8B Harrier jump jets, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, and UH-1Y Venom armed utility helicopters. The complete U.S. naval force also includes MH-60 Seahawk helicopters.

The Iranian imagery shows at least one AH-1Z, UH-1Y, and MH-60 were airborne for a time during the transit. This is typical of U.S. force protection measures for ships moving through the Strait of Hormuz, which also includes personnel up on the decks making use of various weapon systems, including Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).

One of video clips Iran released looks to show a Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS) on Bataan‘s deck. This is an anti-drone electronic warfare jamming system and has been another standard force protection measure for years now.

A view of the USS Bataan in the Strait of Hormuz on August 17, 2023, which appears to have been shot by an Iranian drone. Clearly visible on its deck are AV-8B Harriers, MV-22 Ospreys, CH-53E Super Stallions. Other clips from the footage the Iranians released show that the three helicopters positioned along the port side of the flight deck are an AH-1Z Viper, a UH-1Y Venom, and an MH-60 Sea Hawk. Toward the bow on the port side there is what may be a Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS) country-drone system. IRGC capture via Tasnim News Agency

From the grainy footage Iran has released, it’s hard to tell how any of the U.S. helicopters may have been armed during the transit. The Navy did release pictures of the Bataan and Carter Hall operating in the Gulf of Oman prior to their transit into the Persian Gulf showing aircraft with live ordinance. This included AV-8Bs armed with AIM-9M Sidewinder and AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and AH-1Zs carrying AIM-9Ms, as well as AGM-179A Joint Air-to-Ground Missiles (JAGM) and AIM-114P Hellfire air-to-surface missiles. The AIM-114P and AGM-179A can be employed against various maritime threats, like small boats, as well as different types of targets on land.

A Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jump jet armed with one AIM-9M Sidewinder (under its left wing) and one AIM-120 AMRAAM (under its right wing) hovers over the deck of the US Bataan as it sails in the Gulf of Oman on August 14, 2023. USMC
A US Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter armed with AIM-9M Sidewinder, AGM-114P Hellfire, and AGM-179A JAGM missiles on the deck of the USS Carter Hall in the Gulf of Oman on August 14, 2023. USN

Tasnim‘s report claimed that during the IRGC-N “forced it [the U.S. contingent] to heed Iran’s orders” and that “choppers flew off the US helicopter carrier’s [USS Bataan‘s] flight deck, but were forced to land shortly afterwards.”

There is nothing in the Iranian video clips to corroborate the assertion that the U.S. helicopters landed back on the Bataan in direct response to Iranian instructions.

“The story is untrue. No helo returned early to deck during the transit, other than to refuel,” U.S. Navy Cdr. Rick Chernitzer, a spokesperson for U.S. Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, told The War Zone in a statement. “The US Navy will continue to fly and sail where international law allows.”

“We interact with Iran at sea every day,” Chernitzer added. “The overwhelming majority of interactions are safe and professional. This was the case last week.”

A screengrab from one of the video clips Iran released showing a U.S. helicopter appearing to land aboard the USS Bataan as it transited the Strait of Hormuz on August 17, 2023. IRGC capture via Tasnim News Agency

At a press gaggle earlier today, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh also pushed back against Iran’s claims.

“That is not true… We’ve seen In this from them [the Iranians] before, pushing out, I don’t know if it’s propaganda, but I would say untrue statements, and that just is not accurate,” she said. “have not seen the video… but I can just tell you that the reports that there was some type of intercept of a U.S. helicopter is just not true.”

Is unclear whether or not these statements about Iran’s claims being untrue extend to the explicit threat contained in the video released through Tasnim, and The War Zone has reached back out to U.S. Fifth Fleet for clarification.

When it comes to the actual capabilities of the Iranian force shadowing the U.S. warships on August 17, the largest ship in the contingent by far was the roughly 787-feet (240-meter) long Shahid Mahdavi, which the IRGC-N only took delivery of in March. The ship was converted from an Iranian state-owned and operated container ship known as the Sarvin, which had been previously sanctioned by the United States. It reportedly has a top speed of 18 knots and can sail up to 18,000 nautical miles without needing to refuel.

The Shahid Mahdavi taking part in the shadowing of US naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz on August 17, 2023. IRGC capture via Tasnim News Agency

Imagery of the Shahid Mahdavi that the Iranians released at the time of delivery showed two Russian-made Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip-type helicopters and various uncrewed aerial vehicles on a new flight deck of sorts installed forward of the main superstructure. Two small boats and what appeared to be launchers for four anti-ship missiles were also seen on the aft deck behind the superstructure. The ship was also armed with four twin 23mm automatic cannons and various mounted heavy machine guns.

The IRGC-N’s Commander, Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, has previously claimed that the Shahid Mahdavi has a phased array radar, but there is no actual evidence of this.

In addition to the Shahid Mahdavi, the Iranian imagery from last week shows one of the IRGC-N’s curious catamaran naval vessels, likely the lightly-armed Shahid Nazeri based on its largely open rear end and centrally located helipad, along with multiple small boats, also being used to monitor American vessels.

One of the IRGC-N’s unusual catamaran vessels, likely the Shahid Nazeri, taking part in the response to the US warships in the Strait of Hormuz on August 17, 2023. IRGC capture via Tasnim News Agency
A stock picture of the Shahid Nazeri. Iranian State Media

In addition, some of the Iranian video clips look to have been captured by drones orbiting above the Strait, something that Iran does regularly during U.S. Navy transits of the Strait of Hormuz. Whether U.S. forces used LMADISs or any other electronic warfare systems to try to prevent those drones from recording what was happening or otherwise hamper their activities is unknown.

Beyond the immediate shadowing force, the IRGC also directly controls various shore-based anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles that it could bring to bear. Swarms of small boats, like the ones that were present near the Bataan and other U.S. Navy vessels last week, and that the Shahid Nazeri looks designed in part to support, as well as aerial drones, explosive-laden drone boats, and naval mines could present additional threats.

A grainy screen capture showing an Iranian boat zipping around near the USS Bataan in the Strait of Hormuz on August 17, 2023. IRGC capture via Tasnim News Agency

The Iranians have previously shown a willingness to engage American drones in the region, mostly pointedly with the shootdown of a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS-D) uncrewed aircraft in 2019. The risks associated with destroying uncrewed aircraft are, of course, very different from engaging crewed aircraft, including helicopters, since the former do not carry any personnel who could be killed or injured as a result.

Iranian vessels also have a long history of harassing U.S. Navy warships, as well as commercial vessels. Those incidents sometimes lead to more dangerous altercations. Just last month, Iranian personnel in small boats opened fire on a commercial tanker off the coast of Oman. American naval forces intervened to prevent its capture and thankfully the tanker’s crew was unharmed.

The reason Bataan, Carter Hall, Thomas Hudner, and the 26th MEU are even in the region at the moment is to respond to an uptick in Iranian aggression that includes the seizure or attempted seizure of multiple commercial ships in recent months. There were reports earlier this month that the U.S. government was considering making Marines contingents available to embark on commercial ships to help protect them from Iran’s forces.

U.S. Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighters and F-16 Vipers have also been deployed to the region for the same reason and have been helping to patrol areas around the Strait of Hormuz. Pictures the Navy previously released show a pair of F-35As flying over the Bataan and the Thomas Hudner in the Gulf of Oman on August 17, 2023. However, it is unclear where those jets were during the actual transit through the Strait of Hormuz that day and whether any other aircraft were scrambled in response to the appearance of IRGC forces.

Sailors onboard the USS Thomas Hudner watch a pair of US Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighters fly overhead in the Gul of Oman on August 17, 2023. The USS Bataan is seen to the left. USN

As already noted, Iranian maritime forces very closely shadowing U.S. naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz is routine. In one particularly notable example, in 2019, satellite imagery showed as many as 18 small Iranian boats alongside the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other ships from its strike group as it headed toward the Gulf of Oman. At the time, U.S. Navy officials said this reflected “normal behavior patterns” for Iran.

A filtered and enhanced version of the Planet Labs satellite image showing the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other ships in its strike group, as well as a commercial tanker at top right, sailing through the Strait of Hormuz while being closely shadowed by a large group of small Iranian boats in 2019. PHOTO © 2019 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

That being said, the IRGC-N’s deployment of the Shahid Mahdavi in this recent instance already reflects a more robust Iranian response. In the past, Iran has typically used smaller vessels for shadowing and harassment activities.

The Shahid Mahdavi reflects a broader trend in Iranian naval capacity. Iran has already converted two other commercial vessels into sea base-like naval platforms, with a heavy emphasis on drone and missile capabilities. It is in the process of creating another ship in this general vein, which looks to have an angled aircraft carrier-like flight deck, possibly with a ski jump toward the bow. It remains to be seen what kind of aircraft will be able to operate from it.

All of this is part of broader efforts on the part of the IRGC-N, as well as the Iranian Navy, to expand their abilities to project naval power on at least a more regional basis. The Iranians certainly have ambitions to demonstrate that capacity well beyond the Middle East, but so far they have only demonstrated a limited ability to do so.

For the moment, however, it seems more likely that we will see more of the Shahid Mahdavi, as well as Iran’s other sea base-like ships, supporting more typical Iranian maritime activities in the Strait of Hormuz — including the confrontational operations that often dominate them.

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