The U.S. Navy downed a flying object in the Hormuz Strait Thursday, an object that today Iranian officials insist was not in fact Iranian, despite President Donald Trump’s allegations at an afternoon ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Here’s the U.S. president bringing the episode to everyone’s attention: “I want to apprise everyone of an incident in the Strait of Hormuz today involving USS Boxer, a Navy amphibious assault ship. The Boxer took defensive action against an Iranian drone, which had closed into a very, very near distance, approximately 1,000 yards, ignoring multiple calls to stand down and was threatening the safety of the ship and the ship’s crew. The drone was immediately destroyed. This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters. The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, our facilities, and interests, and calls upon all nations to condemn Iran’s attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce. I also call on other nations to protect their ships as they go through the Strait, and to work with us in the future. Thank you very much. I thought you should you know that.” Find video of his remarks, via NBC News, here.
About 30 minutes later, the Pentagon released its own short statement about what happened: “At approximately 10 a.m. local time, the amphibious ship USS Boxer was in international waters conducting a planned inbound transit of the Strait of Hormuz. A fixed-wing unmanned aerial system (UAS) approached Boxer and closed within a threatening range. The ship took defensive action against the UAS to ensure the safety of the ship and its crew.”
For what it’s worth, that Pentagon statement made no mention of Iran, even though a Pentagon spokeswoman, Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, told CNN’s Starr, “We assess the UAS to be Iranian.” The Wall Street Journal’s Rory Jones was actually aboard the USS Boxer when all this went down, and his reporting, too, alleges the drone that was downed belonged to Iran. (Given the region and the recent history of tensions, the list of plausible candidates to whom the drone might belong includes Iran and really no one else. Move west toward the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and you could add the Houthis and maybe al-Qaeda and ISIS.)
“Electronic jamming” brought down the drone after it “came within 1,000 yards of the Navy ship,” CNN’s Barbara Starr reported. The system in question appears to be the Marine Corps, Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System, or LMADIS, an experimental vehicle-mounted air defense system that’s making its first Gulf deployment, Military.com posits. Read more about LMADIS in this September article from Marine Corps Times.
About those “calls to stand down”: Defense One’s Patrick Tucker, who writes about technology and drones, wondered how one tells a drone to "stand down." Tucker has posed the question to U.S. Central Command officials, who have yet to respond.
There was a lot of other activity involving U.S. and Iranian elements in the Hormuz Strait that day, as Jones reports. Six U.S. Navy ships were in the area, as was “An unarmed Iranian navy Bell 212 helicopter [that] flew alongside the Boxer, yards away from the deck, before it was chased away by a U.S. helicopter,” he writes.
The U.S. vessels were part of an Amphibious Ready Group, which included the “USS Bainbridge, a destroyer, and the USS Lewis B. Puller, a carrier for helicopters,” according to Jones. The flotilla embarked “about 4,500 personnel, roughly half of them combat-ready Marines.”
“Several Iranian speed boats were in the vicinity as well,” CNN’s Starr reported after Jones’s dispatch, “and maintained a safe distance, but a larger Iranian vessel came as close as 500 yards to the Boxer, a distance that typically merits a warning from US naval vessels.” Note: 500 yards is very close at sea, Defense One's Brad Peniston writes; captains start worrying about collisions when ships get within a few miles of each other.
“U.S. helicopters flew between the Iranian ship and the Boxer to warn it away,” Jones writes, “then followed a white Iranian aircraft that U.S. naval officials identified as a Y-12 surveillance plane.” It was shortly after the appearance of the manned Y-12 that the drone was brought down by the crew of the USS Boxer.
Bigger picture: All of this comes “amid growing international concern that both sides could blunder into a war in the Gulf,” Reuters writes this morning.
Further Iranian response: Here’s Brig. Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, a senior military spox, as quoted in Iran’s Tasnim news agency: "Contrary to Trump's delusional and groundless claim, all drones belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, including the one mentioned by the US President, have returned to their bases safe and sound after carrying out their scheduled surveillance and control operations." His remarks were noted by Reuters and CNN.
And Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say they’ll be releasing imagery of what they allege happened in order to bolster their case. “Soon, images captured by the Guards drones from the U.S. warship Boxer will be published to expose to world public opinion as lies and groundless the claim,” according to a statement carried by Reuters.
Added Iran’s deputy foreign minister overnight on Twitter: “We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else. I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own UAS by mistake!”
Where to go from here? Trump’s statement Thursday “call[ed] on other nations to protect their ships as they go through the Strait, and to work with us in the future.” But Reuters reports separately this morning “The United States is struggling to win its allies’ support for an initiative to heighten surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes because of fears it will increase tension with Iran, six sources familiar with the matter said.”
What the U.S. can expect: Involvement from its allies to “be limited to naval personnel and equipment already in place — near the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf and the Bab al-Mandab strait in the Red Sea.”
Said one Western diplomat to Reuters: “The Americans want to create an ‘alliance of the willing’ who confront future attacks. Nobody wants to be on that confrontational course and part of a U.S. push against Iran.”
Not a coalition against Iran, but a ‘flashlight’ on shipping. Instead of picking sides in this gray zone conflict in the Hormuz Strait, Pentagon official told Reuters “the United States’ aim was not to set up a military coalition but to shine a ‘flashlight’ in the region to deter attacks on commercial shipping.”
Another thing regarding these tensions in the Strait of Hormuz: All the drama Thursday worked to bury an important update from Iranian officials on a UAE oil tanker that’s been missing from ship tracking radar (CNN) since July 7, the Associated Press reports. On Thursday, "Iran said the Guard seized a foreign oil tanker and its crew of 12 for smuggling fuel out of the country, and hours later released video showing the vessel to be a United Arab Emirates-based ship that had vanished in Iranian waters over the weekend," AP writes. And that means "The announcement cleared up the fate of the missing ship but raised a host of other questions and heightened worries about the free flow of traffic in one of the world’s most critical petroleum shipping routes."
And by the way: The UAE Ambassador, Youssef Al Otaiba was in the Oval Office Thursday, according to the White House.
Meantime, if you’re watching the markets, AP writes “The U.S. benchmark for crude oil rose 77 cents on Friday, or 1.4%, to $56.07 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange following the drone claims. Brent, the international oil standard, picked up $1.03, or 1.7%, to $62.96 per barrel.” Read on, here. Or head over to the Wall Street Journal, which is watching the same figures, here.
Also in the region: A U.S. sailor is missing. The U.S. Navy is still looking for a sailor who fell into the Arabian Sea from the carrier Abraham Lincoln on Wednesday, ABC News reports. The search party includes the U.S. cruiser Leyte Gulf, a Spanish frigate, and a Pakistani Navy ship. A bit more, here.
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Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1799, a large, black slab dated to 196 BCE was found in Rashid, Egypt. Rashid is sometimes referred to as Rosetta, which gives us the name of the object found that day: the Rosetta Stone. The stone’s two languages and three texts opened “up almost all ancient Egyptian language and literature to Egyptologists and historians,” National Geographic writes of the discovery. See and read just a little bit more about it here.
A bomb detonated outside of Kabul University, killing at least eight people and wounding 33 others, AP reports from the Afghan capital. “The early morning blast also set two vehicles ablaze although it wasn’t clear if the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber or a remotely detonated bomb.” So far neither the Taliban nor ISIS have claimed responsibility for the attack.
One curious aside from that report: “A U.S. Department of Defense intelligence official told The Associated Press that the IS affiliate has stepped up efforts to recruit students from Kabul’s universities, particularly those who are tech savvy, to expand the group’s strength and reach.” More here.
An alleged ISIS fighter has been sent back to the U.S. from Syria, CNN reported Thursday. “He had been previously held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a group of Kurdish-led anti-ISIS fighters that are currently holding over 2,000 foreign ISIS fighters from over 50 countries.”
Now the alleged fighter is under the watch of the Justice Department, to whom the Pentagon and State Department referred reporters for further information.
Underlying dynamic: "The US government has long sought to encourage countries to repatriate their citizens and the Department of Justice has been able to charge several American citizens for their alleged involvement with ISIS," CNN writes. "However, the effort has had limited success to date with only seven countries -- the US, Italy, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan and Morocco -- having publicly repatriated their fighters."
Why the hesitation? At least in part because of “the difficulty of prosecuting suspected ISIS members based on evidence collected on the battlefield.” More here.
Gilday for CNO. President Trump formally nominated Vice Adm. Michael Gilday to be the next Chief of Naval Operations, the Pentagon announced in a short message Thursday.
What’s the current CNO look like when his photo is put through the suspect Russian-made FaceApp? The kids at Task & Purpose ran images of the Pentagon’s top leadership through the program to find out, here.
U.S. special forces are practicing “resistance operations” with Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian allies, U.S. Special Operations Command Europe public affairs wrote this week from the U.S. Air Force Europe’s Warrior Preparation Center at Einsiedlerhof Air Station, Germany. (h/t @barbarastarrcnn)
What’s that mean? “Resistance is clearly defined as the national effort to regain sovereignty after illegal incursion, invasion or occupation by an aggressor state,” SOCEUR commander, U.S. Air Force Major General Kirk W. Smith, explained in the release.
A bit more on the idea: “The Resistance Operating Concept is an academic and practitioner framework developed by SOCEUR in cooperation with Baltic Allies and the Swedish National Defense University,” SOCEUR writes. “The concept promotes whole-of-society resistance as a legal means of national defense in Europe, and is planned for publication within the year.”
There is a precedent for this, since “two [similar] tabletop exercises were held in March 2017 and March 2018 in Stuttgart and Oberammergau, Germany, respectively.” Read on, here.
Protip for Pentagon contractors: Don’t threaten to kill a lawmaker. The quick read: Darryl Albert Varnum of Westminster, Md., and a contractor with the Defense Information Systems Agency “has been charged with threatening to kill a member of Congress over the introduction of a bill that would require public schools to vaccinate children,” The Daily Beast reported Thursday, citing a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Maryland.
Varnum called Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., on June 28 “and left a voicemail threatening to kill the member if the bill was introduced.” His voicemail is… wildly inappropriate, and if you want to verify that claim yourself, TBD has the transcript, here.
Protip for veterans: Don’t lie about being a Navy SEAL. A man from Crofton, Md., had been doing that for years, according to friends, neighbors and even his wife, the Annapolis Capital-Gazette reported Thursday.
Said Don Shipley, of Cambridge, Md., "who has dedicated his time to exposing people who falsely claim to be SEALs," he told the Gazette, “No one is more targeted for fakes than Navy SEALs are, no branch of service or profession in this country. There are fewer than 10,000 living Navy SEALs in the country. There’s a thousand impostors for every living Navy SEAL. Your chances of bumping into a Navy SEAL are about as good as sitting in coach on an airplane next to Obama.”
And finally this week: On the off-chance you missed it on Thursday, we now have a trailer for the next “Top Gun” movie, which seemed to be generating much more enthusiasm than criticism on social media.
“You should be at least a two-star admiral by now,” says Ed Harris to our protagonist. “Yet here you are: captain. Why is that?” Harris asks. “It’s one of life’s mysteries, sir,” Maverick responds. Watch the rest, here.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!