WASHINGTON — Several drones repeatedly swarmed Navy destroyers off the California coast in July 2019, and it remains unclear who was behind the brazen nighttime flights, according to a report on the website The Drive, quoting ship logs.
As many as six drones flew around the warships at a time in often low-visibility conditions near Southern California‘s Channel Islands over a number of days, with the drones flashing lights and prompting security precautions onboard, according to the report.
The report was based mainly on Navy ship logs The Drive obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, as well as publicly available ship tracking data. A documentary filmmaker, Dave Beaty, first uncovered some details about drone flights around the USS Kidd, a Navy destroyer, the report said.
The Navy did not respond to a request for comment.
The episode raised the possibility of a serious security breach.
The drone flights took place near San Clemente Island, which is home to sensitive military facilities, including a Navy SEAL training site, the Navy’s only ship-to-shore live firing range and an airfield.
The mysterious drone flights prompted immediate inquiries from investigators and intelligence officers in the Navy and the FBI, including a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the FBI field office in Los Angeles and the director of the Maritime Intelligence Operations Center within the Navy’s 3rd Fleet, according to emails obtained by The Drive. The emails made it clear that the issue was getting high-level attention, all the way to the office of the chief of naval operations.
Military authorities explored whether the Navy could have launched the drones without the knowledge of the destroyers’ crews. It was unclear whether that was the case, according to the emails cited by the report.
The drones were able to stay aloft for 90 minutes or more, surpassing the capability of commercially available drones, and covered at least 100 nautical miles in one case, the report said, citing the locations of ships that reported spotting the aircraft.
According to ship logs, the drones were also able to fly at the same speed as a destroyer traveling at 16 knots in low-visibility conditions, which is defined as less than 1 nautical mile of visibility.
The first sighting of the unidentified drones came on the evening of July 14, 2019, with sailors on the Kidd reporting two UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, in the ship’s log.
According to the handwritten deck log, the ship deployed an onboard intelligence unit, known as a “SNOOPIE” team, or Ship Nautical Or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Exploitation team, to document the robotic aircraft.
After the two drones were spotted, the Kidd took security precautions, restricting communications in a mode referred to in the ship’s log as “River City 1,” according to the report.
Two other Arleigh Burke-class destroyers then reported drones overheard. The crew of the USS Rafael Peralta observed a “white light identified hovering over” the ship’s flight deck, according to the ship’s log.
The next night, July 15, drones showed up again late in the evening. The USS Russell documented a flurry of drone activity, with unmanned aircraft dropping in elevation and moving forward and backward and left and right.
A passing cruise ship, the Carnival Imagination, made a radio call to the Rafael Peralta to tell the crew that the drones did not belong to the cruise ship. The crew told the Navy vessel that they had seen as many as five or six drones operating nearby, according to the Peralta’s log.
Even as military officers tried to gather information about the July 14-15 incidents, more drones were spotted flying near warships in the early morning on July 25 and July 30, the report said.
Andrew Blankstein contributed.