April 6, 2021
Dave Beaty has won many awards, including an Emmy, for his documentary videography skills. He is also an expert in drones and perfecting camera gimbal systems for them. Always looking for subject material, he stumbled across an interesting log entry from the USS Kidd, a United States Navy destroyer. The log entry, which Dave Tweeted on June 8, 2019, revealed that the ship had deployed a SNOOPIE Team (Ship Nautical Or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Exploitation). This is a procedure the Navy uses to identify suspicious objects within the vicinity of the ship. Dave’s experience with drones led him to suspect that the log entry indicated that the Navy ship had encountered an unidentified drone.
Dave’s Tweet caught the attention of online news source The Drive. Determined to uncover more information, The Drive submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the US government. The FOIA was introduced in the mid 1960’s as a way for the American public to request information from Federal Government agencies that would encourage a degree of governmental transparency. There are nine exemptions under which federal agencies can withhold requested information. However, the requests submitted by The Drive did not fall within the parameters of any of the exemptions. The Navy was forced to release a huge amount of documents to The Drive which included hundreds of gigabytes of locational information and detailed ship deck logs.
Though the Navy released a bevy of information, there was still only a little information that could be gathered from it. The documents revealed that beginning on July 14, 2019, multiple unidentified drones were spotted over several Navy destroyers. The ships involved were the USS Kidd, the USS Rafael Peralta, the USS Russel, the USS John Finn, and the USS Paul Hamilton. The ships were all located off the coast of California near the Channel Islands. The drone sightings occurred over several nights, the 14th and 15th, then again on the 25th and 30th. The drones were spotted during the night when visibility was low. Other details in the document release revealed that the drones had to have traveled a far distance to reach the ships. The SNOOPIE Team could not spot any vessels in the area from where the drones could have been launched, and the ships were more than 100 miles away from any coast. It is estimated that the drones remained airborne for more than 3 hours based on the fact that they had to get to the ships and the amount of time they remained within the ship’s line of sight. Another detail stated that one of the drones hovered directly over the ship’s helipad and was then able to keep pace with the ship traveling at 16 knots, approximately 18 mph.
As far as definitive information about the purpose and origin of these drones, the Navy seems to have little information. The SNOOPIE team was not able to identify where the drones retreated to. At a Defense Writers Group event held in Washington D.C. in March of 2021, Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), publicly addressed the 2019 drone sightings. When asked if the identity of those responsible for the drones had been identified the CNO admitted that the Navy was currently still in the dark. “I am aware of those sightings, and as it’s been reported, there have been other sightings by aviators in the air and by other ships not only of the United States, but other nations — and of course other elements within the U.S. joint force,” Adm. Gilday said. “Those findings have been collected and they still are being analyzed.”
Besides the data logged during the incidents and released via the FOIA, Adm. Gilday stated that there was no indication that these mystery objects were of alien origin. What can be inferred is that the drones in question are highly technologically advanced. Their ability to reach the locations of the ships and stay airborne for up to 3 hours categorizes them as Long Endurance drones. The drones are also clearly stealthy since the SNOOPIE team was not able to track them beyond visible line of sight. All of these factors have raised several red flags as to whether or not these mystery drones breached security.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has tasked the Defense Department’s Director of National Intelligence to provide a detailed report on unexplained drone sightings that have been documented by the branches of the US military. This report will include the findings from the 2019 Navy incidents and help determine if these mystery drone sightings are part of an enemy mission. Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed a new regulation that requires all drones intended for use in US airspace to be equipped with a remote identification system. While this will help FAA law agencies ensure that drones are safely integrated into shared airspace, unfortunately, it provides little help for the situation the SNOOPIE Team found themselves in last summer. We will have to wait and see if a future FOIA will be granted to divulge the results of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation.