The Navy spokesman does confirm the Iranian drone literally overflew the carrier. (See here as well.) We should have shot it down. More on that in a moment.
Iran flew a surveillance drone over a U.S. aircraft carrier and took photographs of it as part of a naval drill, Iranian state TV reported Friday.
The report, which did not name the vessel, said the incident happened on the third day of Iranian naval exercises. The channel’s website and the semi-official Fars news agency published footage said to be of the drone’s flight. …
Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, said an unarmed Iranian drone flew near the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and directly over the USS Harry S. Truman on Jan. 12 in international waters in the Persian Gulf. He couldn’t confirm whether it was the same incident.
He said the aircraft “posed no danger to the ship,” but was “abnormal and unprofessional.”
Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, the commander of Iran’s navy, told state TV the drone’s flight was “a sign of bravery” which “allowed our men to go so close to the warship and shoot such a beautiful and accurate footage of the combat units of the foreign forces.”
The Iranians have overflown a U.S. carrier at least one previous time, and footage has been aired suggesting two previous overflights. The first reportedly occurred in 2006, when the Iranians claimed to have overflown USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). Reagan did deploy to the Persian Gulf that year, and the Iranian claim of overflight was made in the media on 30 May, sometime after Reagan would have left the Gulf to proceed to home port on the West coast (where the ship arrived on 6 July). U.S. sources never confirmed the overflight. Video posted by the Iranians was inconclusive as to which carrier was under surveillance, but from what we can see in the low-quality footage, it could have been Reagan. Nothing about the video verifies it as coming from a drone, but it is likely that it did, given that the camera angle at several points does indicate direct overflight.
(Note: the Iranians claimed that the carrier scrambled fighters “and helicopters” in response to the drone, but the carrier wouldn’t have done that. The carrier’s Aegis escort, as well as the carrier, would have held the drone at risk using ships’ anti-air systems throughout its surveillance flight near the carrier. It looks like the drone was simply monitoring the carrier during flight ops.)
For some reason, an Iranian media site posted the video again in 2014, recounting the same story.
The other event occurred in 2012, when an Iranian P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft overflew USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72). This was more worrisome, because (a) the overflight was by a manned military aircraft with an anti-ship weapons capability, and (b) that means, unquestionably, that we shouldn’t sit still for it. No weapons-capable military aircraft should ever overfly one of our carriers. No exceptions. If one approaches and won’t depart when warned off, it should be shot down.
As indicated at the last link, the Iranians in 2014 took the surveillance video obtained in that event and interwove it with footage of USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) — clearly from a Western source — to create video of a notional attack scenario against a U.S. carrier.
Now for the defense philosophy discussion. Drones introduce a new concern for a carrier’s (or any warship’s) air space security. The key factor with a drone is that the ship it’s flying near can’t contact the controller by voice. This might not be what occurs to most people thinking about the problem, but it’s the reason why we can’t let overflight by drones become commonplace.
With an Iranian P-3, the aircraft can be hailed on a VHF voice channel that both the ship and the aircraft will be monitoring. The same is true of the helicopters and smaller aircraft, both military and civil, that fly around in the Persian Gulf all the time. These aircraft can all be contacted and warned off if they come too close. Prior to the Obama years, there would have been no question of allowing an Iranian P-3 to overfly one of our carriers; the P-3 would have been warned off, and in all likelihood would have made no attempt to approach too closely anyway.
But there’s no way to talk a drone out of your air space. The options are to tolerate them or prohibit them. Tolerating them over our warships is not a viable option; there is no way to keep that policy from spiraling out of control. Letting drones approach will inevitably obscure where the threshold of threat lies. You may think it would be simple to interpret what’s going on, and if there’s only one, clearly unarmed drone in your vicinity, it might be. But if Iran sends four or six drones out to buzz one of our carriers at the same time, is that still a non-threat situation? Believe me, you don’t know — and in all probability, the sailors on-station can’t tell either, until it’s too late.
It isn’t always possible to be sure a drone is unarmed, for that matter. Given a drone type, you have to have visual contact with it to be certain, and in many cases, it would be more cost-effective to just shoot a drone down preemptively than to scramble a response aircraft to take a look at it. A drone may or may not be armed, but by definition, it is unmanned. No humans are harmed when one is shot down.
There are growing complexities in the military drones situation, and for the foreseeable future, they will become a bigger and bigger factor in everyone’s operations. We can’t have a policy of just shooting down all non-friendly drones. But it is intolerable to have them overflying our carriers. There is no need to negotiate formal drone-incident agreements before making it clear, in international advisory forums, that we will not let drones overfly our warships.
The method of enforcement would have to be a little different from enforcing that rule against manned aircraft. We can be in voice contact with manned aircraft, so the enforcement process can be more of a negotiation. We don’t have to state a perimeter in advance. We can enforce one, and clarify by where we respond what the perimeter is. Doing things this way is always preferable: we don’t want to give the impression that we’re making doctrinal statements about standoff ranges for adversaries to count on.
But you can’t negotiate a perimeter with a drone. That’s why we will probably have to shoot one down at some point — or take a hit ourselves. Drones are not something we want non-friendly nations — or non-national actors like ISIS — probing our margins with.
I already recognize that flat prohibitions on drones, within parameters that we set unilaterally, will be an unsustainable position in the long run. But the operational environment of drones is in its infancy, and it’s too early to adopt a quiescent posture, as if everyone can be trusted to have good intentions with them. Everyone can’t. For the near term, the best policy is to simply scare non-allied drone operators off from the battle spaces we want to keep drone-free. It’s better to step down eventually from an absolute posture than try to ramp up to one incrementally.
Credible defenses work best through deterrence. We are going to need that deterrence, and soon. In their media disclosure today, the Iranians said they had a submarine lurking near the carrier, conducting surveillance of it at the same time the drone was flying overhead. The Iranians implied that the concurrent surveillance event took place this week.
But the Navy spokesman who addressed their claims afterward (see the Navy Times report linked in the first paragraph) said he could confirm an overflight of the carrier by an Iranian drone only on 12 January, over two weeks ago. That was the day our riverine boats were seized near Farsi Island. That’s not a coincidence.
We’re seeing the Iranians practice pieces of the scenario I outlined almost a year ago by which they could bring a multi-pronged, multi-distraction threat together to get in close to one of our carriers, and disable it by attacking its propulsion screws. That’s why the rocket-launching event in the Strait of Hormuz in late December was more than just a one-off provocation. Launching rockets, at the same time as flying a drone or drones over the carrier, while Iranian submarines are underway keeping our ships under “surveillance,” and anti-ship missiles are being launched from the coast (as reportedly happened in the Iranian exercise this week) — doing all this at the same time, and adding a small-boat swarm against the most vulnerable U.S. Navy assets that may pass by, is a way of giving the entire Fifth Fleet more than it can handle at once. Knocking the fleet off its balance opens a vulnerability window to the carrier.
The Iranians have concocted silly stories about everything they’ve managed to bring off so far, editing videos deceptively and making heroic but usually ridiculous claims about their prowess. But that doesn’t mean they pose no threat. It makes us, here in our homes stateside, too likely to dismiss the threat they do pose. They can, in fact, use a bunch of cheap little tools to bring off a big attack on one of our carriers — if we drop our guard in the current overstretched, underresourced operating environment.
Letting the carrier be overflown is doing exactly that. It needs to stop. The next drone that overflies our carrier needs to be shot down. Ideally, there would be a statement beforehand reiterating longstanding policy: that we don’t allow the air space around our warships to be breached. Therefore, any aircraft that is unable to respond on-station to tactical direction from our forces will be shot down as a precaution.
No, I don’t think Obama will make that statement. But it’s what should be done, to prevent tactical uncertainty, confusion, and unnecessary incidents.