Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Navy attempting to steal an uncrewed US Navy drone vessel were foiled by an American patrol ship in the Arabian Gulf late Monday night.
In a video released by the Navy on Tuesday, the Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Thunderbolt can be seen closing with the drone as it was towed away by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) support ship Shahid Baziar.
Although it’s not visible in the video, an MH-60S Sea Hawk from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26, based in Bahrain, also participated in the recovery of the Navy drone.
According to Navy officials, the drone vessel was in international waters when it was captured by the Iranian vessel. The Shahid Baziar began towing the drone out of the area, but the USS Thunderbolt was operating nearby, allowing it to quickly close with the IRGCN support ship and its ill-gotten bounty.
“While transiting international waters around 11 p.m. (local time), Aug. 29, U.S. 5th Fleet observed IRGCN support ship Shahid Baziar towing a Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel (USV) in an attempt to detain it. U.S. Navy patrol coastal ship USS Thunderbolt (PC 12) was operating nearby and immediately responded,” the Navy said in a press release.
Shortly after the Thunderbolt and Mh-60S arrived, the Iranian vessel released the tow line pulling the Navy drone. They departed the area approximately four hours after the interaction, according to the Navy release.
“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, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces.
“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.”
These drone vessels carry no classified or sensitive information onboard and leverage only commercially available cameras, sensors, and radar systems. As such, there would be very little intelligence benefit for the IRGCN in stealing the drone ship.
The Saildrone Explorer USV is operated by the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet. It carries a suite of onboard sensors for data gathering and can operate at sea for up to 365 days, according to the manufacturer, Saildrone’s website. The drone ship measures 23 feet long, with a 15-foot sail for propulsion that also houses solar panels to power the vessel’s onboard cameras and sensors.
The vessel uses wind for propulsion but is monitored in real-time by a pilot who can provide navigational commands as necessary via satellite link. It also includes an automatic identification system (AIS) transceiver and radar reflectors to mitigate any chances of collision with other vessels, as well as four onboard video cameras for the pilot to monitor the vessel’s situation remotely.
The sensor suite onboard the Saildrone Explorer USV is primarily oriented toward the collection of climate data, from temperature and barometric pressure to water salinity. It can also carry audio and video recording devices. The Saildrone Explorer USV is a fairly new addition to the 5th Fleet. It began operating in the waters of the Arabian Gulf in January of this year.
The U.S. Navy intends to invest $4.3 billion in drone ships of varying sorts over the next five years, with long-term goals to purchase up to 150 unmanned and lightly manned vessels.