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Navy docs reveal some answers about mysterious drones that swarmed warships

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)
June 13, 2022

Newly released U.S. Navy documents provide new answers about what was behind the mysterious drones that swarmed around several of its ships off the coast of California in 2019.

Documents first obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by The Drive and published Friday revealed the likely causes of various different encounters between U.S. warships and drones in 2019, such as local fishermen operating personal quadcopter-style drones, and intelligence “collection operations” by still-unidentified drone operators.

Multiple drones flew over the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Bunker Hill (DDG USS Kidd (DDG-100), USS Rafael Peralta (DDG-115), USS John Finn (DDG-113), USS Russell (DDG-59) and USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60) on multiple separate nights in July of 2019. The Drive learned of additional encounters in July of 2019 involving the USS Ralph Johnson (DDG-114) and USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10) littoral combat ship.

Many questions about these July 2019 encounters have persisted for nearly three years. A photo taken during one of the encounters showed a triangular flying object. During a congressional hearing on unidentified flying objects (UFOs) last month, Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray said the government had determined the object was a human-made unmanned aerial system and its triangular appearance “is a result of light passing through the night vision goggles, and then being recorded by an SLR camera.” While government investigations have determined these mysterious drones are not unexplainable UFOs, questions persist about their human operators.

Through the documents released, The Drive learned of previously unreported encounters between mysterious drones and U.S. warships in the spring of 2019. One encounter saw the mysterious drones swarming around the amphibious landing ship dock USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49) on March 30, 2019 and another saw the drones swarming around the advanced Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) on April 24, 2019.

According to the newly released Navy documents, the drones that swarmed around the USS Paul Hamilton on July 21, 2019 were likely operated by a “local fisherman operating personal quadcopters.” The USS Gabrielle Giffords encountered drones in a similar area of operations on July 25 and identified three likely vessels the drones launched from, including one identified as a fishing vessel.

A draft public affairs statement provided to The Drive states that the drones that swarmed around the USS Harpers Ferry on March 30, 2019 were thought to be “conducting collection operations” on the U.S. ship. The draft document did not name any potential culprits behind the suspected intelligence collection against the U.S. ship. The Navy had even fewer details about the USS Zumwalt’s encounter with drones a month later.

In their analysis of the July 14 and 15 encounters between as many as 11 drones and the USS Bunker Hill, the Navy noted videos that showed drones swarming around the Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship MV Bass Strait, but noted the drone encounters continued even after the Bass Strait left the area. Still, the Navy assessed the commercial cargo ship was likely behind the drone swarms and was probably conducting surveillance on Navy warships. The Hong Kong-based company that owns Bass Strait, Pacific Basin, did not reply to multiple requests for comment from The Drive.

A series of encounters between several U.S. warships and drones between July 17 and July 30, 2019 remains a mystery.

While the new documents indicate the Navy has an idea of where some of the drones its ships encountered came from, their specific operators remain unknown.