Notes on the drone swarms experienced by U.S. Navy ships in July 2019

Notes on the drone swarms experienced by U.S. Navy ships in July 2019
USS John Finn (DDG-113) launches an SM3 BlkIIA missile in 2020. USN image

From 14 July until 30 July 2019, a handful of U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers operating off San Diego recorded several incidents in which they were overflown, in persistent patterns, by what appeared to be drones.  The drones were said by witnesses later to be “tic-tac shaped,” seemingly referring to a shape resembling small, rounded lozenges.

The ships dispatched crew-manned intelligence teams, which presumably obtained images and video, but those media recordings haven’t been released to the public.  That doesn’t mean no visual evidence was recorded.  It would be very helpful to have something to look at, but the fact that it hasn’t been publicized doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Redacted ships’ logs were recently released in response to a FOIA request from The Drive’s War Zone, and Adam Kehoe and Mark Cecotti have a very interesting analysis there (top link).  Kudos to them, first of all, for all the information they’ve assembled and the amount of work they obviously put into it.

One item of special note is that filmmaker Dan Beaty had published last year on this set of encounters, so the new information from the FOIA disclosures augments what he had already obtained from witnesses.  His interest, in turn, was sparked by the similar drone (or “UFO”) incidents associated with USS Nimitz (CVN-68) back in 2004.

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So this curious matter has a history that seems to go back further than we might intuitively suppose.  We don’t know enough to draw conclusions, and we probably won’t, even after the Pentagon report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) that’s due to Congress this summer.  The public probably won’t be told everything.

Shape of drones to come?

I’ll establish at the outset that I’m not discussing this in terms of “aliens” or extraterrestrial activity.  Those who want to are invited to knock themselves out.  Not my beat, or Liberty Unyielding’s.  (We leave that to John Podesta and Hillary Clinton.)

Rather than rehashing the whole baseline story, I’m going to proceed here as if everyone has read it.  So, to the notes.  They won’t be comprehensive, but should be value-added, I think.  There will be a whole lot more considerin’ and contemplatin’ before all is said and done on this.

Lack of outside assistance?

The first thing I noticed, on perusing The Drive’s treatment, is that there’s no record of any timely, tactical reaction from the rest of the United States government during the incidents, or in response to them as the month wore on and they kept recurring.  The reaction was only to “investigate.”

The reader comments at The Drive are full of questions about why the destroyers didn’t launch surveillance drones or their helicopters to interact with the swarms of “tic-tacs.”  That isn’t a stupid question.  If we didn’t know what they were, who was flying them, and why they were coming so close to – even hovering and flying over – U.S. Navy warships, there was no reason not to disable one or even shoot it down, and try to recover it for exploitation.

That might or might not require tactical aircraft.  Several Drive readers point out that ship’s systems could “fry” a drone’s electronics and cause it to crash if they emitted enough power at it, so the need for aircraft involvement isn’t necessarily established.  A helicopter’s gun is an excellent way to shoot down a drone (as the Israelis demonstrated on an encroaching Iranian drone flying from Syria in 2018), but it would leave a mess behind, not as easily bagged up for exploitation if shot down into the Pacific Ocean as it would be over land.

It appears that some of the activity occurred in the U.S. maritime contiguous zone, lying outside our territorial waters, which extend to 12 nautical miles, or about 14 statute miles, seaward from the U.S. coastline.  The contiguous zone extends the same distance beyond that, for a total of 24 NM, or 28 statute miles, from our coast.  [Note: text of the last sentence has been corrected for a calculation error.  Some text altered in the next two paragraphs to reflect the change: basically, that more of the drone encounters occurred in international waters. – J.E.]  Relevant measurement, given the locations of the destroyers during their operations, begins at the seaward coast of the Channel Islands.  U.S. air space has the same definition as U.S. territorial seas.  (See map.)

Inside our territorial seas, we have the inherent right to swat down any unmanned aircraft we choose in our air space, and defend our flagged ships from them.  We have the right to enforce rules for general safety and national security in the contiguous zone, which in certain circumstances could include shooting down drones.  Some of the drone encounters occurred outside our contiguous zone in international waters.  This does not mean we have no self-defense right to disable or shoot down a drone (which inherently entails no loss of human life), but it is not clear that rules of engagement have been instituted that would lead us to do that in this kind of situation.  That said, the right of self-defense is equally an obligation, so at the crucial decision point, a decision to use lethal force could be taken.

Locations of USN destroyer interactions with drone swarms, 14-15 July 2019. The relation to territorial seas and U.S. contiguous zone is depicted. (Not to scale.) See text for description. H/t The Drive for destroyer operating locations. Google map; author annotation

But it appears that we didn’t disable drones or shoot any down.  The FOIA disclosures, which included emails sent among reacting commands afterward, make no reference to such a response.

We also don’t seem to have made any off-ship surveillance assets available on stand-by for recurring instances of the drone swarms.  That’s what interests me.  If I had the task of figuring this out, I’d love to have a helo or drone that did not have to launch from one of the ships to get an altitude advantage over the drones, and observe their patterns from a bird’s eye view.  I’d love even more to have a good old P-3C, or a P-8 maritime surveillance plane.

Southern California affords these asset types – and not just from the Navy, although the Navy has them all.  The Air Force would be a resource for surveillance drones.  The Coast Guard could send a helicopter.  It would be possible to stage either kind of asset to island facilities close to the destroyers’ operating area.

Maybe an activity window of 16 days’ duration was inside our OODA loop, and just got by us without a more organized reaction.  That’s not unthinkable.

But in the proper context of Navy warships being touchy about ever being overflown by anyone (other than a jetliner at 35,000 feet), it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It needs to be pointed out that there is a very great deal to know that we don’t know, having only the ships’ logs to go on.  It’s quite possible there was Navy chatter with FAA authorities in the area (i.e., San Diego/SOCAL; I would assume there was, in fact), and that that wasn’t recorded in the ships’ logs we see because the bridge isn’t where such information – to the extent the ships were privy to it – would be recorded.  (My assumption is that the chatter outside the Navy would have occurred at the level of the Third Fleet commander’s 24-hour watch.)

We clearly got only the logs from the Officers of the Deck on the ships’ bridges.  But, again, the emails exchanged afterward, which mostly involved Third Fleet staff, don’t contain anything that seems to point to a unified tactical effort among federal entities to qualify and document the drone situations as they were happening.  If there was such an effort, the FOIA request didn’t dislodge a record of it.  Nor does it seem that Congress addressed that particular question in public.

‘No reaction’ could have a specific meaning

That reminds me of the situation mentioned at The Drive, which we published on here at LU a couple of times, with drones flying in formation over Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas in late 2019 and early 2020.

Very honestly, my default take at the time was that “we” – someone in the U.S. government – knew whose drones those were and what they were there for.  Although they never seemed to represent a menace to military installations or other critical infrastructure, their behavior was such that U.S. authorities really would not be complacent about them, if we had no idea who was behind them.  The feds – the FBI, the military – were oddly uninterested.

Overview map shows the counties where drones have been sighted.

So I don’t by any means discount the possibility that someone in the U.S. government knew what was going on with the drones swarming the Navy destroyers some six months earlier.  What it could have been about, of course, is not obvious from what we know.

Informative sequence in the first encounter (14 July)?

That said, there may be a narrow slice of insight from one brief sequence captured in a ship’s log from 14 July 2019, the night of the first drone encounter.  The ship was USS Rafael Peralta (DDG-115), one of our newest Arleigh Burkes.  At the time, USS Kidd (DDG-100), USS John Finn (DDG-113), and USS Russell (DDG-59), operating near each other in the San Diego “opareas,” were all reporting the presence of drones, as was Rafael Peralta.

The snatches of log presented by The Drive have little in them, other than references to dispatching the “Snoopie (or Snoopy) teams” to collect visual intelligence on the drones.  (Slice of Navy life: on many ships, calling up the Snoopie team has been done by playing the Snoopy theme from the Charlie Brown TV specials over the ship’s speaker system.)

A few log entries contain information about the drones’ movements, but we actually see very little of that.

However, in a pair of entries from Rafael Peralta on 14 July, we see these events (local time in Southern California, or the Tango time zone):

2258: WHISKEY AUTHORIZED BURN THROUGH

2307: COMBAT SYSTEMS CASUALTY LOSS OF TIS

Previously, at 2210, Rafael Peralta had first recorded calling out her own Snoopie team, although it’s not clear drones were actually operating in her immediate vicinity at that point.  Her log refers to Kidd and John Finn, who were nearby, reporting drones around them.

Decoded, the 2258 entry means that “Whiskey,” the designated air warfare coordinator for the destroyer task group (in a strike group this is called AW, or Alfa Whiskey, in abbreviated organizational chatter), authorized the other ships to increase the power on their air search radars to overcome jamming, if they deemed it necessary.  “Burn through” is the threshold at which jamming is overcome from the radar user’s perspective, and radar power is one of the components involved.

We don’t know from the log if this was a precautionary authorization only, or if it was given because one or more of the ships was reporting an attempt at jamming.

The 2307 entry appears to mean that during the overall event, Rafael Peralta lost function on her Thermal Imaging Sensor.  For reasons I’ll be happy to elaborate on in the comments (and others probably know much more about), I suspect the TIS in question is the one associated with the Phalanx close-in weapons system, or CIWS.

USS Rafael Peralta conducts CIWS firing in March 2021. The circle shows where the thermal imaging sensor is mounted. The gun is firing to starboard. USN image, by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aron Montano

For one thing, the Phalanx 1B’s TIS is properly a thermal imager, while the infrared sensor incorporated in the Electro-Optical Sensor System associated with the 5-inch gun is not.  There are other reasons, but no need to get sidetracked on them here.

One, however, potentially relates to Rafael Peralta’s pair of events.  There’s no information as to whether Peralta increased the power on her AN/SPY-1 air search radar.  But if she did – or if drones were making an effort to jam her systems – the thermal climate in which the TIS was trying to function might have become prohibitive.

An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer conducts CIWS firing to port. Note location of weapon systems as indicated. YouTube video; author annotation

Maybe the TIS conked out for some other reason.  But I’d want to know a whole lot more about what’s missing from those two lines in the Rafael Peralta log.

That’s where a greater understanding would start of what this could have been about.  How many other similar entries are there, in logs released or unreleased?

Motive

A major part of answering the “what is this about” question is big-picture context, however.  There’s no way to be comprehensive in a drive-by like the one in progress here.  But we can note some interesting features of the political and military landscape from the time.

One is that President Trump had just met Kim Jong-Un of North Korea at the DMZ between North and South two weeks before the drone swarms began off Southern California.  (If you’re wondering if two weeks is long enough for a Chinese attack submarine to transit from one of the Chinese sub bases to SoCal, the answer is yes.)

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Kim was dealing with his chagrin about the U.S. persisting in our major exercise schedule with South Korea in spite of his objections, and he continued to deal with it effectively.  A large-scale U.S.-South Korea exercise that had been put off several times went ahead in August 2019, unattended by unseemly eruptions from Kim.

On the other hand, China did not appreciate the gesture at the DMZ, and was equally sour about what U.S. Pacific forces were doing in July 2019: holding the largest bilateral exercise ever with Australia, Talisman Sabre 2019, with some 34,000 troops gathered from five nations (the U.S., Australia, Japan, Canada, and New Zealand), along with observers from India and South Korea.

Talisman Sabre was held off the coast of Queensland, between Brisbane and Townsville.  The exercise focused, in other words, on the approaches to the Torres Strait, a flanking access from the east to the Indian Ocean beyond China’s reach or ability to cut off by conventional means.  The strategic-level message of the exercise was that China can’t decisively dominate the Pacific door to the entire Eastern hemisphere by dominating the South China Sea.

Big flick in the Pacific surrounding July 2019 drone interactions with USN destroyers off SOCAL. Google map; author annotation

Especially after the Trump-Kim meeting at the DMZ, with the implication their rapprochement had then (though no longer) for a potential Korean Peninsula settlement not controlled by China, it sent a pretty pointed message to have Japan, South Korea, the U.S., Australia, and India all gathered at the approaches to the Torres Strait in July 2019.

On 23 July 2019, during the window of the drone visitations off SoCal, Russia and China executed joint flights with strategic nuclear-capable aircraft in East Asia, punctuating their very incendiary signal with a joint penetration of the South Korean ADIZ (air defense identification zone).  This unprecedented event got a lot of play at the time, and for good reason.  It read as a high-handed warning to Seoul, and an attempt to one-up – at a minimum – the U.S. and Japan.

Could China have been motivated in July 2019 to try to send additional signals by running drones at U.S. Navy destroyers during that month, in our own house?  Sure.

Another, less straightforward take on motive will round this out.  The drones over Colorado, starting between five and six months later, remain a conundrum.  It seems inconceivable that they would be of foreign origin.  If they were linked to the drone swarms off SoCal in July 2019, we’d probably be talking a whole other kind of motive.

Suspecting U.S. authorities of trying to excite our own systems for civil or national alertment and defense, as demonstrations, proofs of concept, cold-start tests, etc., doesn’t seem far-fetched.  But seen – potentially – only through the prism of themeless one-offs, it would look mighty weird.  The common-sense brain wants to demand more of a thematic structure and ulterior purpose to it.  Why test whether ranchers and farmers in Colorado notice drones, and what Navy warships do when drones show up and make pests of themselves?

It would make more sense to be testing a capability with the drones than to be checking for the reaction to them.  The sets of incidents seem to have in common mainly that they occurred at night and the drones seemed to fly in formation or at least in patterns.

That, and the equally common feature of these events that the national authorities obligingly got involved in probing them afterward, but we never seem to get any credible explanations.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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