Harassment Of Navy Destroyers By Mysterious Drone Swarms Off California Went On For Weeks

A new trove of documents shows that the still unsolved incidents continued far longer than previously understood.

byAdam Kehoe and Marc Cecotti| UPDATED Dec 17, 2021 8:53 PM
Harassment Of Navy Destroyers By Mysterious Drone Swarms Off California Went On For Weeks
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Earlier this year The War Zone exclusively reported about a series of 2019 incidents that involved unidentified drones stalking US Navy vessels over several nights in the waters off of Southern California. Our initial report also covered the Navy’s investigation into the incidents, which appeared to struggle to identify either the aircraft or their operators. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday later clarified that the aircraft were never identified, and that there have been similar incidents across the service branches and allied militaries.

Newly released documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that the full scope of these drone incursions was greater than it initially appeared, and they persisted well after the Navy’s investigation was launched. Deck logs indicate that drone sightings continued throughout the month of July 2019 and included events where drone countermeasure teams were called into action. One notable event involved at least three ships observing multiple drones. Uncharacteristically for unclassified deck logs, the details on this event are almost entirely redacted.

Among the new documents is the map seen below that details the interactions between a drone (denoted on what appears to be a briefing slide as an unmanned aerial system, or UAS) and a Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyer, the USS Paul Hamilton.

Map depicts the USS Paul Hamilton's interactions with an unknown UAS, US Navy via FOIA

The map depicts Paul Hamilton making an abrupt right-hand turn while a drone closely follows the ship. The legends and annotations of the map have been redacted under FOIA exemptions that apply to technical data that have military applications. Though the title of the document reads July 17th, the map appears to refer to drone encounters that occurred in the incidents on July 14th and July 15th.

Intriguingly, one of the position points of the drone is marked with a star, while others show a dashed line around a given area. It is unclear exactly what these indicate without the map legends, though the star suggests at least one particularly notable event. Our previous coverage indicated that the incident involved multiple contacts that maneuvered around the ships in a highly dynamic way, and there may have been uncertainty about the exact location of the drones at times.

The deck logs from the period show that Ship Nautical Or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Exploitation (SNOOPIE) teams were deployed frequently during the incidents. SNOOPIE teams consist of sailors specifically trained to enhance situational awareness and to document unknown contacts or other events and objects of interest.

It is highly likely that a number of photographs exist of the drones given the work of the SNOOPIE teams and other onboard sensors. The same document providing the map above also contains a reference to a photograph of the drones, which has been completely redacted under the same technical data exemptions.

A member of a destroyer's SNOOPIE team with a video camera in hand, US Navy

According to deck logs, the proximity of the drones also led the ships to exercise enhanced “emissions control,” or EMCON, protocols designed to minimize their electronic profile. An extensive analysis by War Zone editor Tyler Rogoway explains that drones could play a useful role in provoking reactions from an adversary as a means to capture highly prized electronic intelligence (ELINT) and sensitive operating procedures. Intriguingly, references to EMCON were not universal throughout the encounters, and do not appear to have been as relevant in the newly released documents.

Previously, the majority of available documents suggested that the drone encounters were limited to the evenings of July 15th and July 16th, 2019, with a second, but minor series of events occurring towards the end of the month. New logs show that sightings persisted sporadically throughout the second half of July with another significant event happening in the early hours of July 30th. Indeed, as early as the morning of July 17th, the USS Russell, another Arleigh Burke class destroyer, continued to report drone sightings, as seen in the portion of the log below.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell., US Navy via FOIA

It is very noteworthy that several days later, on the 20th, the USS Russell conducted an initial counter UAS exercise.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy

Later in the same day, the Russell conducted another set of counter UAS exercises, this time firing a 5-inch naval gun. Speaking to USNI News, retired Navy officer Thomas Callender explained that 5-inch deck guns have been tested as a counter UAS weapon in the past with limited success, stating "they found that the 5-inch gun took multiple shots to try and hit it because it’s not designed for something slow and small." Callender's remarks were in the context of another incident in July 2019 that involved Marines onboard the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer disabling an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz using a vehicle-mounted electronic warfare system.  The logs from this period reflect that several shots were fired in the exercise, including at least one misfire.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy
Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy

Three days later, another drone was spotted by a SNOOPIE team at an elevation of about 400 feet. Note that in naval parlance, "calling away" refers to sending sailors to their posts.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy

A little over an hour later, flares were spotted, though the logs do not remark if these were connected to the ongoing drone sighting. Flares are not uncommon in the training areas off Southern California where the ships were operating.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy

The following day, a new term is introduced to the logs: “ghostbusters.” A log entry reflects an apparently brief counter UAS exercise lasting about eight minutes.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy

Though official references are hard to come by, “ghostbuster” is a term sometimes used to refer to lower-end counter UAS devices that look similar to rifles. 

A woman test-fires the anti-drone gun known as the DroneDefender. , Battelle

These anti-drone countermeasures are increasingly being used by security forces around the world. They operate by using highly-directional radiofrequency jammers designed to disrupt communications between drones and their operators. One key limitation of these devices is that they can only disable drones that are directly controlled by a human operator. Autonomous systems are far more resilient against such countermeasures. Beyond that, their overall effectiveness varies heavily by type and circumstance. Aside from these limitations, they are relatively portable and easily fielded. 

It is not perfectly clear if the Russell had this equipment onboard previously, or if “ghostbuster” devices were brought onboard in reaction to the earlier drone incidents. If so, they would have been among the simplest counter-drone devices to field given their independent man-portable deployability. Our previous reporting did not show any indication of the use of these devices in the earlier incidents, and references to them appear shortly after the counter-UAS exercise, heavily suggesting they may have been introduced in response to the incursions. We are not aware of these systems being widely fielded on surface ships at the time, especially those operating in home waters. Also, only the USS Russell reported the use of "ghostbusters" in its logs. 

After a relatively quiet period, another incident occurred in the very early hours of July 30th. A SNOOPIE team was activated and “ghostbusters” were called for shortly afterwards. 

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy

What follows are uncharacteristically redacted logs. As with the map of the drone movements earlier in this story, the exemptions pertain to technical military data. In the hundreds of pages of ship logs reviewed by us about this matter, these are the first to contain significant redactions and the only ones to reference this particular exemption.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy

By 3:00 AM on July 30, the pattern of redaction ends. In the same timeframe, at least two other ships nearby noted drone or UAV activity. As previously reported, the USS Kidd, another Arleigh Burke class destroyer involved in these incidents, deployed its own SNOOPIE team for UAVs at 2:16 AM that day. The log later notes that the SNOOPIE team was recalled by 3:27 AM.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Kidd, US Navy

Logs from the USS Paul Hamilton also reflect multiple drones spotted off the ship, and their own SNOOPIE team activated around 3:30 AM on July 30.

Excerpt from the log of the USS Paul Hamilton, US Navy

Later in the morning on the same day, the Russell again engaged its SNOOPIE team and the “ghostbusters.” 

Excerpt from the log of the USS Russell, US Navy

This log entry also has a reference to "SCAT," which likely stands for Small Craft Action Team. Speaking to Business Insider last year, Navy Lt. J. G. Frank Smeeks, an anti-terrorism officer, explained that "SCAT is a team consisting of crew-served weapons machine gun operators that provide 360-degree coverage of the ship, an anti-terrorism tactical watch officer and a gunnery liaison officer. They are called away as a pre-planned response to threats the ship may face like a small boat attack or low, slow flyer." Logs from another nearby ship, the USS Bunker Hill, also indicate that they manned their own SNOOPIE team and SCAT in the same timeframe. The Bunker Hill logs are unclear if the SNOOPIE team was deployed in response to a drone sighting. The simultaneous use of three teams designed for quick reactions to potential threats suggests a high level of alarm well into the morning.

USS America conducts small craft attack team drills, US Navy

In this same general time period, it appears that the USS Russell was visited by an unnamed admiral. Deck logs record an admiral arriving on July 22, just prior to the implementation of counter UAS training exercises and the start of references to "ghostbusters" on the morning of July 24. Logs also remark about an admiral casting off on July 31, but there are few other indicators what the purpose of the visit may have been or if it had any connection to the UAS incidents.

Cumulatively, these records show a sustained, but an intermittent pattern of drone sightings throughout the month of July by Navy ships operating off Southern California. These events seemed to have spurred additional training and the rapid deployment of unique capabilities like the “ghostbuster” counter-UAS equipment. It remains unknown what impact, if any, this training and equipment had on deterring drone operations. At least three ships reported sighting drones in the very early hours of July 30th, with unusual and extensive redactions in the logs of the USS Russell, but we do not know what happened the next day, or in the weeks that followed.

It is also noteworthy that these events occurred well after Navy investigators sought to “correlate or rule out operations” with Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility (FACSFAC) based in San Diego. Indeed, an investigation began immediately after the initial events on July 16th, with information on the incidents being routed to the Chief of Naval Operations as early as July 18th. Given the progress of the investigation, more prosaic causes like errant US aircraft or civilian activity had already been examined. Whatever the outcome of the July 30th event, it was likely closely scrutinized by Navy leadership.

The lack of concrete identification of the aircraft involved also led to widespread public speculation earlier this year. Leaked photos and videos said to pertain to the July 15th and 16th incident were released this summer by filmmaker Jeremy Corbell. The materials consisted of footage of radar screens showing multiple unknown contacts, video of an object apparently falling into the ocean, and a brief video of a triangular-shaped light flying over the deck of a ship. The apparent triangular shape of the object has been strongly debated, as many have posited it was the result of a common optical artifact. 

A briefing slide depicts several pictures of a "seemingly triangular" shape recorded by the Russell , Jeremy Corbell

The Department of Defense was quick to partially authenticate the material, acknowledging that the videos were taken by Navy personnel. However, to date, the Pentagon has not provided any details that corroborate the location or timeframe of the footage or any clarification on what the objects were. Corbell maintains that the videos depict extraordinarily complex vehicles capable of “transmedium” travel, or the ability to traverse both water and the atmosphere with ease. Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday explained in a press briefing earlier this year that while the Navy had not positively identified the aircraft, there were no indications they were extraterrestrial in nature.

There has been significant overlap in the discussion of the mounting threat from lower-end drones and resurgent interest in UFOs in recent years. That overlap is conspicuous in the recent National Defense Authorization Act language, which authorizes an expansive approach to the Pentagon’s study of UFOs. The language, introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, creates a requirement for conducting “field investigations,” as well as new mandates to scientifically examine UFO reports. An amended version of Gillibrand's proposal was ultimately adopted in the NDAA and awaits President Biden's signature. While many have focused on otherworldly explanations for UFO sightings, Senator Gillibrand told Politico that the rationale for her interest encompassed conventional and emerging technology and not only the “unknown.” She explained, “you're talking about drone technology, you're talking about balloon technology, you're talking about other aerial phenomena, and then you're talking about the unknown.”

The urgency surrounding the drone issue has been a growing focus among defense policymakers as encounters with both civilian and military aircraft have become widespread. In the last five years the Federal Aviation Administration has gathered approximately ten thousand drone incident reports. We have made many of these reports available in an interactive tool that maps the location and descriptions of the incident. 

Far from being only a domestic issue, drones have also become a matter of grave concern for military leaders. Earlier this year Marine General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said in a speech to the Middle East Institute that “the growing threat posed by these systems coupled with our lack of dependable, networked capabilities to counter them is the most concerning tactical development since the rise of the improvised explosive device in Iraq.” McKenzie also explained that drones “provide adversaries the operational ability to surveil and target U.S. and partner facilities while affording plausible deniability and a disproportionate return on the investment, all in our adversaries’ favor.” 

In the case of the 2019 Southern California incidents, several of these factors appear to be at work. The newly released map clarifies just how closely drones were shadowing Navy ships, likely affording opportunities to gather a variety of valuable intelligence. The lack of positive attribution of the aircraft even today speaks to McKenzie’s comments about plausible deniability and disproportionate return.

Questions also linger surrounding “dependable, networked capabilities” and countermeasures. For now, it remains unknown if the “ghostbuster” devices and additional counter-UAS training were sufficient to halt the incursions. A highly pertinent question now is when exactly did they end, and how widespread similar incidents have been elsewhere?

The timing of training and potential deployment of counter-UAS capabilities in the weeks after the events of July 15th and 16th also points to the Navy believing these were unidentified drones, not fantastic craft with out-of-this-world abilities. This appears consistent with our previous reporting, which found that the Navy had investigated its own drone flights and questioned civilians known to operate drones in that area. Additionally, countless deck log entries refer to the aircraft not only as UAS or UAV, but also plainly as drones. Finally, asked about our reporting, the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday himself stated there was no indication that the aircraft were extraterrestrial.

Still, since they remain unidentified, we can’t say for certain exactly what they were or who they belonged to. We are still far from a full answer. These new documents suggest several avenues for further inquiry, and we expect new information to develop. As we and our expert sources continue to analyze the documents some inferences are bound to change. References to the colorful term "ghostbuster" appear to be new to this story, and we are currently pursuing additional records to clarify exactly what this entailed and what happened in subsequent days and weeks.

Contact the authors: Adam@thewarzone.com and Marc@thewarzone.com

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