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Drones swarmed 5 US warships off CA coast in 2019 and no one knows who’s behind it

Sailors during night time operations on board the USS John Finn (DDG 113). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Waite)
March 24, 2021

Five different U.S. Navy warships operating near San Clemente Island, Calif., were swarmed by drones over the course of four separate nights in July 2019. The source of the drones remains unknown, but a new investigative report by The Drive published Tuesday details how the drones swarmed the U.S. ships and the efforts investigators took to find the perpetrator.

On the nights of July 14 and July 15, up to six aircraft swarmed around U.S. warships at once and were described by observers as having flown for prolonged periods and performing brazen maneuvers near the ships in low-visibility nighttime conditions. The incident prompted an investigation, with the support of the Navy, Coast Guard, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Drawing from details uncovered by documentary filmmaker Dave Beaty and from their own freedom of information act (FOIA) request, The Drive reported that USS Kidd (DDG-100) was the first to encounter the mystery drone swarm at around 10:00 p.m. on the night of July 14th, 2019.

According to ship’s logs, the appearance of two drones around USS Kidd, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, prompted the warship to dispatch its onboard Ship Nautical Or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Exploitation (SNOOPIE) team. SNOOPIE teams serve as an onboard photographic intelligence team for U.S. warships, tasked with documenting unknown contacts and objects of interest and other interesting events.

USS Kidd advised another nearby Navy ship, USS Rafael Peralta (DDG-115), of the drones and it activated its own SNOOPIE team. USS Rafael Peralta’s documented further drone sightings around a third Navy ship, USS John Finn (DDG-113). USS Rafael Peralta then reported seeing another drone hovering over its own deck, matching the ship’s speed.

In all the drone encounter lasted more than 90 minutes, longer than the flight time of most commercially available drones.

On the second night, July 15, the drones returned at 8:39 p.m. USS Rafael Peralta was the first ship to spot the drones and deploy its SNOOPIE team this time. About 20 minutes later, USS Kidd also spotted multiple drones. At 9:20 p.m., USS Kid’s logs state “Multiple UAVs around ship” – with the word  “above” crossed out.

At around 9:37 p.m., USS Kidd recorded the order to “man Mark 87 stations.” The Drive reported the meaning of the order is not exactly clear, but could refer to a couple of possible shipboard systems. The command could refer to a Mark 87 Electro-Optical Director a component of the Mk20 Electro-Optical Sighting System (EOSS), used to direct the ship’s 5-inch gun and perform long-distance surveillance and tracking. A less likely scenario is that the command refers to the ship’s 25mm/87 Mk38 chain guns that can be equipped with FLIR thermal camera systems for targeting in low-light conditions. Lastly, the command could less-likely refer to an Mk 87 line throwing rifle adapter used to fire lines to other ships, which makes little sense in the context of dealing with drones.

Also at around 9:37 p.m., USS Russell (DDG-59) also reported drones dropping in elevation and moving back and forth and left and right.

A passing cruise ship, the Carnival Imaginationalso notified USS Rafael Peralta that the drones were not theirs, and that they observed as many as five or six drones maneuvering nearby.

USS Russell reported the last of the drone activity at around midnight, more than three hours after the activity began.

Drone incidents reportedly began again in the early morning hours of July 25th and July 30th. USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60) was also among the U.S. warships that observed the mysterious drone flights.

According to investigative records provided to The Drive, officials investigated a civilian bulk carrier Bass Strait, which was situated towards the northern edge of the encounter area; a Liberian-flagged oil tanker, Sigma Triumph, just south of the encounter area, and the ORV Alguitaa 50-foot catamaran located off the northern tip of San Clemente Island.

Early investigative efforts by the FBI found the ORV Alguita did have drones on board, but those drones had limited capabilities. The drones on the private catamaran were identified as DJI Phantom IV drones, which have a maximum flight time of 28 minutes, according to DJI. The owner of the ORV Alguita also denied operating any drones during the time period in question.

The capabilities of the drones that swarmed the US warships remain an open question. According to ship location information compiled by The Drive, the drones would have had to have flown at least 100 nautical miles on the night of July 14th. The drones also operated in conditions with less than a mile of visibility and at least five to six drones appear to have been coordinated to fly simultaneously.

The Drive reported the drones could belong to a still unclassified U.S. program that errantly approached the U.S. warships without a prior heads up, adding, “If the drones were not operated by the American military, these incidents represent a highly significant security breach.”

The Drive reported it is continuing to investigate the 2019 incident.