The Iranian navy seized two more uncrewed Surface Vessels(USVs) in the Red Sea before being compelled to release them by two US Navy destroyers from the 5th Fleet. According to a statement issued by US Naval Forces Central Command, 5th Fleet;
“The U.S. Navy intercepted an Iranian warship that seized and detained two U.S. unmanned surface vessels operated by U.S. 5th Fleet in the Red Sea, Sept. 1, two days after Iran was unsuccessful in seizing a similar vessel in the Arabian Gulf. Jamaran (FFLG 76), an Islamic Republic of Iran Navy ship, seized two Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessels operating near one another in international waters before returning the vessels to the U.S. Navy the next day.
The unmanned surface vessels were unarmed and taking unclassified photos of the surrounding environment while loitering in an assigned patrol area at least four nautical miles from the nearest maritime traffic lane. The vessels posed no risk to naval traffic and had been operating in the general vicinity of the Southern Red Sea for more than 200 consecutive days without incident.
At around 2 p.m. (local time) on Sept. 1, U.S. 5th Fleet detected the Iranian ship approaching both unmanned vessels and removing them from the water. U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers USS Nitze (DDG 94) and USS Delbert D. Black (DDG 119) were operating nearby and immediately responded. Nitze and Delbert D. Black also each launched an MH-60R Sea Hawk from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 48.
Nitze and Delbert D. Black remained on scene communicating with the Iranian warship to de-escalate the situation and recover the seized Saildrones. The Iranian warship released the Saildrones at 8 a.m. on Sept. 2″
The Iranian version of events was that the drones were operating in the shipping lanes and posed a danger to the safe navigation of other shipping traffic. Iranian navy destroyer Jamaran took them to a safe area and released them.
The 5th Fleet established a contingent of Sail Drones to monitor ocean weather, temperatures, and other conditions last year, The Saildrone Explorer is not a secret spy vessel and employs commercially available technology to complete a variety of research and exploration missions at sea. It is solar-powered and remotely operated by satellite uplink and has a full set of maritime navigation systems on board, including radar, navigation lights, and radar reflectors to make it visible to other ships at sea. As equipped it is legally able to operate in shipping lanes and any other part of international waters. These two Saildrones were said to be operating in the Red Sea for some 200 days.
Iran claims its destroyer was conducting a counter-terrorism mission in the Red Sea when it encountered the two drones.
The US Navy claims that initially, the Iranian destroyer claimed it did not have the drones. When a US navy helicopter approached, the Iranian crew was observed attempting to cover the drones with a tarp.
This latest incident occurred at about 2 pm local time on September 2nd and the Iranians retained the drones until 8 am the next morning before throwing them over the side. This occurred while the US Navy Destroyers remained close to the Iranian destroyer demanding that they release the drones.
This follows an incident early this week when a ship of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp navy seized another Saildrone in international waters and took it under tow, until forced to release it by the coastal patrol ship USS Thunderbolt and an SH-60 Knighthawk helicopter.
The navy operates these USVs as a cost-expedient way to gather information about the ocean waters and weather for naval operations in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman, but under lease to the US navy, they are legally considered the property of the US government.
This latest incident highlights the problem of using USVs at sea without the US clearly stating to aggressor nations like Iran that these platforms, though uncrewed are still considered US vessels and may not be seized or interfered with while operating in international waters without consequences. While these USVs may seem to represent a cost saving over using guided missile destroyers or frigates for these same missions, the cost savings are likely to evaporate if the US navy has to constantly scramble its ships to intercept Iranian vessels seizing these drones. For Iran, which considers these USVs as spy ships, seizing them until confronted and forced to release them is a way to harass and interrupt US navy operations in the region at a low cost to them. Most likely, both Saildrones were likely damaged by the rough handling of the Iranian navy and will need repairs before they can return to operations.