Home » Budget Industry » Iranian Drone Missions on the Rise in the Persian Gulf as Small Boat Harassment Drops

Iranian Drone Missions on the Rise in the Persian Gulf as Small Boat Harassment Drops

An undated picture of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy patrol craft.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Iranian drones have become increasingly active in the Persian Gulf and other critical waterways around the Middle East, regularly conducting surveillance flights close to U.S. warships crossing the Strait of Hormuz and operating around the region, a defense official told USNI News on Friday.

The revelation comes days after the U.S. 5th Fleet said that incidents of small Iranian fast boats harassing American ships in the Gulf have stopped altogether since August, after a 20-month period of increasing tension as they buzzed Navy ships on average of twice a month.

An American defense official confirmed to USNI News that Iranian QOM-1 drones – also known as the Shaheed 129, and capable of carrying weapons – have been conducting “one to two maritime flights per day” over the Strait of Hormuz and the Southern Arabian Gulf in recent months. Those flights “often approach U.S. Navy ships operating in the region,” the official said.

There is no indication that those flights have put U.S. Navy vessels or commercial shipping at risk, but crews are on alert for the drones, which are roughly the size of an MQ-1 Predator and often fly without lights or transponders turned on, alarming U.S. Navy pilots operating in the already crowded airspace.

“We remain concerned with the increased number of Iranian UAVs operating in international airspace at night without navigation lights or an active transponder, as would be expected according to international norms,” U.S. 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban told USNI News on Friday.

Iranian-built Shaheed 129.

To one expert, the shift in Iran’s posture from small boat harassment to drone operations makes sense.

“They’re likely compensating [for the halting of the fast boat operations] by flying more drones,” Afshon Ostovar, who teaches national security the Naval Postgraduate School and studies the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, told USNI News.
“The regime as a whole also likely prefers the quiet ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) campaign to the louder maritime harassment campaign [represented by the fast boats].”

Flying a drone is a more sophisticated display of military power than sending a small boat out to charge an aircraft carrier, and can serve as a reminder of Tehran’s increasingly sophisticated ISR capabilities, something the Iranian government and military are likely to enjoy putting on display while not directly antagonizing the United States Navy, he said.

The most serious interaction between the U.S. Navy and an Iranian drone came last August, when a Shaheed-129 buzzed an American F/A-18E Super Hornet as it prepared to land on USS Nimitz (CVN-68) during a night operation in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Central Command at the time said that, despite repeated radio calls demanding the drone stay clear of American flight operations, it came within 100 feet of the jet, which had to swerve to avoid a collision. Urban confirmed to USNI that the drone in that incident did not have its navigation lights on.

Less than a week later, a second unmanned aircraft came within 1,000 feet of the carrier.

American aircraft have had other hair-raising incidents with the Shaheed in the skies over Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad operates several of the Iranian-made aircraft, which can be equipped with a combination of eight bombs or Sadid-1 air-to-ground missiles.

In June, U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles shot down two of the unmanned aircraft, after one dropped a munition close to American forces in southeast Syria and another approached an American outpost. The Nimitz incident came less than two months later.

The close call with Nimitz put a punctuation mark at the tail end of a dangerous 20 months time in the Persian Gulf, as Iranian fast boats were regularly speeding toward American naval vessels at a rate of 2.5 unsafe or unprofessional interactions per month.

In total, there were 14 unsafe and unprofessional interactions in 2017 and 36 in 2016, U.S. officials confirmed to USNI News following a Thursday report in The Wall Street Journal.

Earlier this month, 5th Fleet denied Iranian claims that its drones chased away destroyer USS Higgins (DDG-76), assigned to the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group operating in the Middle East as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, in the Gulf of Oman.

A spokesman for 5th Fleet told USNI News at the time that the ship performed its operations and left the area on a pre-planned schedule.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    I’m sure the Iranians will put all that money we freed up for them to good use.

    • PolicyWonk

      “All that money” is chump change when compared to their annual budget.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Maybe when compared to their annual budget it is, but $32 billion (which is the figure presented by the Washington Post for the full amount of money that Iran received as part of the nuclear deal, in the assets of theirs that were ‘unfrozen’) is not chump change. How much would $32 billion buy for our own military? That would be a lot of planes, a lot of subs, a lot of ships (that aren’t carriers), a lot of DRONES!

        • D. Jones

          $32 Billion could buy a couple rounds of ammo for the DD(X) or an LCS that performs as promised.

          • Chesapeakeguy

            Or they could buy 20 plus Burkes. Or a few dozen B-2s. Etc., etc…

          • D. Jones

            Affirm. (Seawolves or F22’s would have been my preference, but alas…)

    • Ctrot

      Not “we”, Obama.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        True that. But I’ll wager the Iranian mullahs don’t look at it that way. To them, it’s no doubt “look what we MADE the AMERICANS do!”

  • kye154

    Well, its a logical development, which the navy should have anticipated. The U.S. has been doing this for years now. If anyone remembers, the Iranians were able to capture an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned drone back in 2011. I am sure the Iranians have a good unmanned aerial vehicle program going on ever since. The problem is, a swarm of speed boats might be easier to handle than a swarm of drones.

    • DaSaint

      You hit the nail on the head. We’ve programmed for the swarm boats, but now the Iranians have demonstrated they need not follow expectations. Adapt or die. And they’ve adapted to the potential for LCS with Longbow Hellfire.

      11 RAM may not be enough to handle a swarm of drones. 2 SeaRAM or 1 SeaRAM and 1 Phalanx now makes more sense. And of course an ESSM probably costs more than one of these drones.

      • IssacBabel

        Drones, bring back the quad 40mm. Note to USN, guns are good, more guns
        are better. Iranian drone ??, looks like a gunnery practice target to me.
        Mount a pair of quad 40s on a LCS, go drone plinking, much more fun
        than handling engineering casualties for the poor LCS crews.

        • D. Jones

          Good heavens YES!

          The draw for the chance to serve on a modern day, faster, super-sized PT boat would be an enormous recruitment draw. Imagine the minimal cost but maximal psychological impact of an LCS bristling with weapons. Quad-40’s and GAU-17’s all ’round! All camera equipped. It would immediately hit the gaming world by storm, which is what recruits so many of our young men and women. Go out and engage pirates a few times a year and release footage for the highlight reels. Put sharks teeth on the bow, dazzle camo or charcoal gray. Capture the imagination of future sailors. Might make a silk purse of a sow’s ear!

          • John Locke

            No, it wouldn’t and it’s 2018, not 1948.

            Recruits today don’t swallow government xenophobic trash so easily and are much more informed than the John Wayne kill ’em all kidbots of the post WWII era.

            Regardless, a drone could easily stand off outside a 40mm’s effective range and watch you all day.

          • Donald Carey

            There’s nothing xenophobic about RESPONDING to the mullahs’ declaration of war!

          • John Locke

            LOL………. ‘murica!
            Unfortunately there is a segment of America that is easily triggered by hollow inflammatory rhetoric from mullahs and other boogeymen.

          • Donald Carey

            Iran has been definitively linked to many terrorist atrocities across the globe, many killing U.S. citizens. That is NOT hollow rhetoric.

          • D. Jones

            “The John Wayne kill em all kidbots of the post-wwII era”

            You openly trash Korean & Vietnam vets?

            Way to show your stripes.

          • John Locke

            Obviously you missed the larger inferred point that most kids who grew up in the late 40’s and 50’s teethed on movies that perpetuated prejudice and dehumanized anyone the U.S. had a conflict with. It stuck because children of that era couldn’t Google “Japanese” and see that they all really didn’t all wear glasses, have buck teeth and hate Americans……… but nice spin on your part.

    • Frank Blangeard

      Did the drones operated by the US over Iran have activated navigation lights and transponders?

      • kye154

        No. The Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel does not have navigational lights or transponders, like you find on other aircraft. It has no need for lights in a clandestine operation, nor can it put out a squawk code from a transponder to identify itself. You certainly wouldn’t want to do that, if you are trying to be secretive about your surveillance. It is guided totally by remote control from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, via real time satellite links. The drone that was sent to fly over Iran was launched from Kandahar.

        The drones the Iranians captured is still a bit of a mystery, after all these years. We still don’t know if it had other problems that caused it to land by itself, or if the Iranians were successful at jamming the SATCOMS, and spoofing the GPS, and taking over its controls. The Iranians had mention they were able to “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications” from the US control center. The Iranians have successfully recovered two more UAVs since 2011, so it appears there is some merit in what the Iranians say., and they have the technology to high jack drones.

        Needless to say, it makes you wonder if they have the ability to high jack other aircraft, say, like a B-2 bomber or an AWACS? Yes, most of our military planes are manned, but are still heavily dependent on electronics to operate, and they do have their vulnerabilities. And, most of our military planes use the same SATCOM links and GPS the drones do. The only difference is, its controlled from the cockpit by a live person rather than remotely controlled from Creech. But, if the Iranians are able to wrestle the electronics away from the pilot, there is not much the pilot can do except either put everything on manual control, or enjoy the ride down until he lands in Iran.

  • D. Jones

    “despite repeated radio calls demanding the drone stay clear of American flight operations, it came within 100 feet of the jet, which had to swerve to avoid a collision”

    Put those peeps making radio demands in the planes trying to land on carrier decks.

    Why on earth are we putzing around with these Iranian drones? Get close? Get drilled. Do we need a skeet option for CIWS?

    If we lose a pilot or plane because somebody is begging Iran to please please make your drones back off, then we’ve got a much bigger, systemic problem. Is this Vincennes hangover?

    ROE needs revised & clarified. Unauthorized approach is unacceptable.

    • Refguy

      Whom did the radio callers think would reply? BB8?

  • Frank Blangeard

    Do military drones operated by the United States always operate with navigation lights and an active transponder? Do military drones operated by the United States even have navigation lights and transponders to activate?

  • Ed L

    Shame the Navy doesn’t have a shotgun round for the 127MM. Or the MK 110 57mm gun as a secondary armament. Or the Iranian drones fly through the jet wash

    • john Fedup

      I think AHEAD ammo used in the 35 mm millenium gun is available in 57 and 76 mm.

  • chrismalllory

    Oh No! The Iranians are flying drones in the waters off their own borders! How about we bring our navy home and use it to guard our borders and mind our own business for a change. Nothing in the Middle East is worth one drop of American blood or one ounce of American gold.

  • chrismalllory

    Until the Iranians are flying drones in the Gulf of Mexico it is not a problem. Bring our ships home.

    • El Kabong


      By then, it’s too late….

    • Ed L

      The Chinese communists are already drilling for oil in the Straits of Florida with Cuban help. I rather not wait for the Iranians

  • RobM1981

    It’s interesting that there are two articles, on the same day, highlighting the new threat: small, low observable craft. Under the sea, on the sea, and above the sea. Unmanned and manned.

    The Navy has *plenty* of time to figure this out, if they focus on it. Better radars, better signals processing, better weapons (like beam weapons). They need it all. Lethal and non-lethal.

    It can be done.

    • Refguy

      Mostly we need a policy and ROE.

  • Ctrot

    Shoot. Them. Down.

  • SFC Steven M Barry USA RET

    It’s a really good thing the US flies it’s own drones with “…navigation lights or an active transponder, as would be expected according to international norms.”

    Let’s hope the aircraft carriers have “safe zones” with hot chocolate, coloring books, and petting puppies for the “alarmed” USN pilots.

    • John Locke

      Settle down, there’s always WARM ………. for the less informed that is Wartime Reserve Mode [of operation]

  • John B. Morgen

    Enough! Shoot down the drones, after one warning has been issued.