In July 2019, approximately 50 nautical miles to the west and southwest of San Clemente Island off California, three U.S. Navy ships encountered several Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in four separate incidents. Originally, the sightings of the mystery drones were reported by documentary filmmaker Dave Beaty on his Twitter account.

A friend of one of the crew members of the USS Kidd said that the UAVs resembled the TicTac shape of a famous UFO encounter by FA-18s of the USS Nimitz in the same area back in November of 2004.

As you might expect, this tie-in to a previously documented UFO sighting sent the press into a speculative frenzy. A story by Adam Kehoe and Mike Cecotti for The Drive stoked the mystery angle even further. The writers used the ships’ log entries and publically sourced ship tracking data to make the case that the “brazen” intrusions of these drones represented a serious breach of security. Other media outlets like Yahoo News, Forbes, Fox News, Daily Mail, and the New York Post all filed stories as well about the “Mysterious Drones” and the supposed panic in the U.S. Navy over the four incidents. Officially, the Navy said it had no idea what they were, but the reported details about how it reacted to these mystery drones suggest that it probably knows a great deal more than it is letting on.

The AV500W, a Chinese autonomous aircraft. (China’s AVIC Helicopter Research and Development Institute)

The basic outline of the incidents is simple. Over the course of four evenings, as many as six remotely piloted vehicles approached a training exercise consisting of six U.S. warships in the waters off San Clemente Island. The UAVs flew at various altitudes from sea level to over 1,000 feet. They hovered over the ships and their helicopter flight decks at the stern and kept station off their port and starboard sides. They were not blacked out but had red and white lights visible. Other than approaching the warships they did not endanger the safe operation of any of the ships according to Navy log entries.

The Navy vessels immediately set for Emissions Control or “EMCON.” Under EMCON anything emitting any electromagnetic signals aboard the ship, like radios and radar, is turned off and the ship goes dark. The question then becomes, why did the ships shut off all their emitters? The answer is two-fold.

First, this reduces the emissions signature of the vessels which can otherwise be detected many miles away by their radios and radars’ transmissions. It’s obvious the Navy ships were depriving these mystery drones of any ability to detect and record their frequencies for later analysis by whoever launched them.

(Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ian D. Zagrocki/U.S. Navy)

Second, going quiet makes the ships’ Electronic Surveillance systems work better. Those drones were directed by remote control signals and the ships would be “hoovering” up those radio signals in order to analyze them in great detail. Our destroyers are covered in Electronic Surveillance reception antennae that are scooping up everything that passes their way on the electromagnetic spectrum of signals.

There are 12 different radio bands that go from Extremely Low Frequency to Extremely High Frequency in spectrum spanning from three Hertz to 3,000 Gigahertz. Within these frequency bands, communications signals are sent to car radios, submarines below the surface, and even satellites in space. By listening to the frequencies these drones were using we would be able to tell a lot about where they might be controlled from and by whom.