Iran Seizes and Later Releases Two U.S. Navy Unmanned Surface Vessels 

Iran seizes two US Navy drones
U.S.S. Nitze was one of two U.S. vessels responding to the seizure of the drones (US Navy file photo)

Published Sep 3, 2022 8:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

For the second time in a matter of days, Iranian forces have sized drones operated by the U.S. Navy but unlike the first incident this time they were able to haul two U.S. unmanned drones aboard a warship. The drones were released after several hours while both sides argue over what transpired.

There is agreement that an Iranian frigate, the 311-foot long Jamaran, operating in the Red Sea seized two U.S. Navy Saildrone Explorers operating in tandem in the Red Sea. The Iranian naval vessel pulled the drones from the water mid-day on September 1, at around 2 p.m. according to the U.S. Navy, and released them the following morning, at around 8 am on September 2, according to the U.S. Navy.

The Iranians reported that they came upon the two unmanned surface vessels during their normal patrols of the Red Sea designed to maintain navigation safety and protect from piracy and maritime terrorism. The Iranian are saying that their warship contacted the Americans to tell them to change the vessels’ directions to prevent naval accidents. They claim the Americans ignored repeated warnings so the Iranian ship acted.

U.S. 5th Fleet reports it detected the Iranian ship approaching both unmanned vessels and removing them from the water and immediately responded. U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers USS Nitze and USS Delbert D. Black were operating nearby and contacted the Iranians demanding the return of the saildrones. Both the Nitze and Delbert D. Black each also launched an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter.

The Associated Press is quoting an unnamed U.S. naval official who said the helicopters observed the Iranian sailors attempting to cover the drones with a tarp after getting on their deck. They believe the Iranians were attempting to conceal the seizure of the crafts.

The unmanned surface vessels were unarmed the U.S. Navy noted saying they were taking unclassified photos of the surrounding environment while loitering in an assigned patrol area at least four nautical miles from the nearest maritime traffic lane. The U.S. contends the vessels posed no risk to naval traffic and had been operating in the general vicinity of the Southern Red Sea for more than 200 consecutive days without incident.

Iranian State TV showed pictures on Friday of the sailors aboard the Jamaran examining the saildrones. There were later shown tossing the two crafts overboard. According to the Iranians, the crafts were released in a “safe area,” removing them from the sea lanes in the Red Sea. 

On Monday night, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in a separate incident was observed towing another U.S. saildrone in the Arabian Gulf. In that incident, the Iranians said they “took timely action, captured the naval drone, whose navigational system had failed.” They refute U.S. accounts of an unprovoked attempt by the IRGC to capture the military vessel. The U.S. noted the drones were commercially available technology and did not contain classified systems or information.

A report on Nour Media, a news outlet linked to the Iranian government, said, “In recent weeks, a large number of American unmanned boats have been dispatched from Bahrain and outside the protocols related to the use of unmanned and remotely piloted vessels, to international waters and international shipping lanes, which has caused problems in shipping lines.” They said that fishing vessels, commercial vessels, and oil tankers, have reported several accidents that have occurred with these boats, which has caused concern for the crew and owners of commercial vessels.

U.S. officials were privately calling this an escalation by the Iranians noting that unlike Monday’s incident by the independent Revolutionary Gard, this seizure was conducted by an Iranian navy vessel. It comes as U.S. and international negotiators have been pressuring Iran in the ongoing nuclear talks.