USS Boxer Used Electronic Jamming To Take Down Iranian Drone, Pentagon Sources Say

Jul 19, 2019
Originally published on July 19, 2019 9:08 pm

Updated at 3:25 p.m. ET

The USS Boxer used electronic measures to take down a drone that the U.S. says was operated by Iran's military, according to Pentagon sources familiar with the situation. The Navy says the drone was destroyed in the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday after it came close to the vessel and repeated warnings went unheeded.

Iran has disputed the U.S. claims, saying that all of its drones are accounted for — and suggesting the U.S. ship might have accidentally taken down one of its own military drones.

The U.S. Defense Department officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly, say the drone was one of several threats to the Boxer as it passed through the narrow waterway near Iran's coast. They say at least one Iranian helicopter and several fast boats also were moving toward the ship on Thursday morning. The actions prompted the Boxer to send up a helicopter, which then flew side-by-side with the Iranian aircraft to ward it off.

The boats eventually followed radio warnings to break off contact, but the drone headed toward the Boxer instead of veering off, the sources say. Its presence was deemed a potential threat to flight operations aboard the amphibious assault ship, which carries a number of helicopters along with Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and a handful of fighter jets.

There was also concern that the drone might have posed a direct threat: In recent months, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been using drones to drop explosives on targets in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But a Pentagon source says the drone in Thursday's encounter was found to be unarmed.

Initial U.S. statements about the incident with the Boxer did not detail how the drone was brought down. On Friday, a Pentagon official clarified that the Boxer used electronic jamming measures to take out the drone. The official did not provide specifics so as not to reveal information about the ship's capabilities.

The news site Military.com says a new anti-drone system used by the Marine Corps was responsible for bringing down the Iranian drone, though the military has not confirmed that report. USNI News notes that the Navy has previously disclosed that the Marines have operated the jamming system on the deck of a U.S. ship. USNI News described the weapon as one of a new range of "non-kinetic systems" that can bring down a drone.

President Trump first announced the downing Thursday afternoon, saying, "The drone was immediately destroyed" after it closed to within about 1,000 yards of the Boxer and ignored the calls to stand down.

Shortly after Trump's statement, chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman provided more details, saying a drone had approached the Navy vessel at around 10 a.m. local time, when the ship was in international waters and was sailing in "an inbound transit of the Strait of Hormuz."

On Friday, however, Trump said the U.S. ship shot down the drone, conflicting with Pentagon officials' account that the Boxer used jamming capabilities. "No doubt about it no," Trump said in the Oval Office, according to a White House pool report. He added, "We shot it down."

Asked whether he is concerned about the possibility of a broader clash with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, the pool report quoted Trump as saying, "No not at all. ... We hope for their sake they don't do anything foolish. If they do, they will pay a price like nobody has ever paid a price."

Also Friday, a senior Trump administration official said the U.S. government has evidence proving the Boxer destroyed the drone and indicated that more information about the takedown would be forthcoming from the Pentagon.

"We have very clear evidence, the Defense Department put out their statement about the actions of the Boxer," the official told reporters Friday. "The Iranians don't have great history with the truth. We're very confident in the president's announcement."

Asked whether the Trump administration would take further measures against Iran, the official said that the U.S. is prepared to defend itself.

"It was their drone that came to close to our ship," the official said, adding, "If they continue to do this. If you fly too close to our ships, you're going to get shot down."

U.S. military officials say Iran's helicopters and drones have often flown close to U.S. ships as they transit the Strait of Hormuz, moving between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

In one incident from August 2017, according to those officials, a U.S. ship was harassed by an Iranian drone that flew near the ship during night operations. No shots were fired, but the encounter was deemed to be "clearly unsafe."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Iran announced today it has seized a British-flagged ship in the Strait of Hormuz - this after the White House announced that a U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian drone yesterday. President Trump had these tough words for Iran today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We hope for their sake they don't do anything foolish. If they do, they will pay a price like nobody's ever paid a price.

CHANG: Iran, for its part, denies that any of its drones were destroyed. For more on all of this, we're joined now by NPR's Tom Bowman at the Pentagon.

Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: OK, so let's just start with this Iranian drone destroyed, not destroyed. What is going on? What do we know so far?

BOWMAN: Well, U.S. officials are saying what was assessed to be an Iranian drone was destroyed by this electronic jamming device, this air defense system aboard the USS Boxer while it was in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz. And we're hearing from Pentagon officials that the drone, which I'm told was unarmed, was on an aggressive course toward the Boxer, coming within a thousand yards. The U.S. sent several warnings, and it kept coming.

Now, in the past, the U.S. says Iran has deployed drones that interfere with flight operations, sometimes at night. Also, some drones used by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels had been filled with explosives. So this was a safety concern, and the U.S. crew destroyed the drone.

Now, beyond that, the U.S. is now saying there was at least one Iranian helicopter heading toward the American ship, and the Boxer actually sent up one of its own helicopters to intercept it and essentially shoo it away. Also beyond that, some small Iranian fast boats were closing with the American ship. They were warned off.

CHANG: And it's correct that Iran is still denying that it has lost a drone.

BOWMAN: Right. Iran has said it did not lose a drone, said all were accounted for and suggested maybe the U.S. shot down one of its own drones. And everything is moving pretty quickly. Britain said Iran seized a British-flagged vessel in the Strait of Hormuz.

CHANG: Right.

BOWMAN: Now, the official Iranian news agency says as far as the British-flagged tanker, the ship had turned off its tracker, ignored several warnings by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards before being captured.

CHANG: There's a lot of moving parts here. How does the seizure of the ship play into all of this about the drone?

BOWMAN: Well, it makes everything more tense not only with the U.S. and Iran but, of course, now Britain.

CHANG: Yeah.

BOWMAN: And the latest Iranian move may be retaliation because the British seized an Iranian ship in the Mediterranean two weeks ago. There were indications it was smuggling oil to Syria. Now, the crew of that ship is still being held in Gibraltar. Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying to set up a maritime security force that would protect ships in the Persian Gulf and nearby waterways. The U.S. would provide, I'm told, overall command and control. Other nations would provide either patrol or maybe escort ships in the area. Pentagon and State officials are actually working on this today. And right now we have no sense yet of what countries will take part.

CHANG: Can you just take a moment here to just step back and explain what set off this latest round of tensions between the U.S. and Iran?

BOWMAN: Well, it really all started well over a year ago, when the Trump administration pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposed stiff sanctions on Iran. Some Pentagon officials had spoken in favor of the deal, including then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He and others believed it kind of kept a lid on Iran. And since then, there's been a real concern at the Pentagon that the more hawkish voices in the White House - national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - they could lead to serious military action with Iran, which they say would be disastrous. So now we have some military action, but Secretary Pompeo said just today the president is willing to sit down and talk with Iran with no preconditions.

CHANG: That's NPR's Tom Bowman from the Pentagon.

Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.