After the U.S. Navy stopped an Iranian naval support ship from capturing one of 5th Fleet's unmanned surface vessels in the Arabian Gulf, the Pentagon said the incident is indicative of Tehran's ongoing disruptive activity in the region.
Late Monday night, the coastal patrol ship Thunderbolt (PC-12) observed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy’s support ship Shahid Baziar towing a Saildrone Explorer USV, “essentially stealing” the vessel, according to Defense Department Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.
Thunderbolt “immediately responded” and 5th Fleet launched an MH-60S from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26, based in Bahrain, according to 5th Fleet.
When the U.S. Navy asked the IRGCN to release the USV, Ryder said that it did.
The Iranian vessel disconnected the towing line and departed the area approximately four hours later, according to 5th Fleet.
“It just showcases the challenge that Iran presents in terms of the threat to the region -- another reason why we'll continue to work very closely with our partners and our allies in the region to help provide the stability that's important to keep not only the sea lanes open, but the health and safety of those that are operating in that area,” Ryder said during a press briefing today.
Ryder said he wouldn’t speculate on how often an incident like this could happen to unmanned vessels, but added that the U.S. Navy has the region under control.
“Clearly, 5th Fleet has it well in hand in terms of patrolling the waterways there and maintaining situational awareness in terms of their capabilities and assets in the region and again, as was evidenced by the USS Thunderbolt, the ability to respond quickly, should something like that happen again in the future, which hopefully it will not,” Ryder said.
The Pentagon spokesperson said he could not say for sure if the Iranian Navy knew this vessel belonged to the U.S. Navy.
Commander of 5th Fleet Vice Adm. Brad Cooper said in a statement that “IRGCN’s actions were flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force.”
“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,” Cooper said.
The Saildrone Explorer is equipped with sensors, cameras and radars to perform above- and below-surface detection.
The vessel is part of Naval Forces Central Command’s Task Force 59, which was launched last year to integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into the fleet and enhance maritime domain awareness.
Saildrone told Inside Defense that the company can’t officially comment on the incident.