I previously reported how swarms of small drones harassed U.S. Navy destroyers on multiple occasions during a 2019 exercise off Los Angeles. The Navy never discovered where the drones came from, who was operating them, or why they were buzzing Navy vessels. New documents released to The War Zone in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show the drone incursions continued for weeks, and the Navy deployed a variety of weapons to counter them.
Some key details were redacted in the released documents, so the outcome of the encounters is not known. But they do reveal that efforts to counter the drones included special ‘Ghostbuster’ units, machine-guns and even the destroyer’s 5-inch guns.
The drones were observed by Ship Nautical Or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Exploitation (SNOOPIE) teams. One document mentions a photograph of the drones, almost certainly taken by a SNOOPIE unit, which has been redacted. This confusion about what the drones looked like has caused many to conflate them with the mysterious ‘Tic Tacs’ or other UFOs in previous Navy incidents, but the logs only refer to them as UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) or drones and their flight seems to have been low, slow and unmarked by extraordinary maneuvers.
Soon after the initial encounters, the USS Russell, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, started carrying out a series of ‘Counter UAS Exercises.’ These included firing the ship’s 5-inch guns. These weapons have been used for anti-aircraft fire since WWII when the development of the proximity fuse meant gunners did not need to score a direct hit: the shell automatically detonates when it senses the target nearby, destroying it with the blast and shrapnel.
We do not know if the big guns were used in actual drone encounters. On July 30, the U.S.S. Russell and the neighboring USS Bunker Hill both deployed their Small Craft Action Teams (SCATs). These are sailors tasked with defending the ship against close-up threats with .50 caliber M2 heavy and 7.62mm M240B medium machineguns, apparently in response to drone sightings.
In addition, the logs for the USS Russell also refers to ‘Ghostbusters,’ starting immediately after the first counter-drone exercises. This is not an official term, but one likely suggestion it that it refers to portable backpack radio-frequency jammers. There are dozens of such systems currently in the market, which work by interfering with communication between drone and operator, and which resemble the fictional Ghostbusters proton pack. The U.S. military is known to have acquired various such jammers, and they may have been sent out to the destroyers after the first drone encounters. USS Boxer used a larger version to take down an Iranian drone in 2019. It is notable that the state-of-the-art electronic warfare equipment on a billion-dollar warships still need help from a portable device to defend against drones.
It is also possible that the Ghostbusters were a special unit specifically tasked with tackling the elusive and mysterious drones, and the name refers to their mission rather than a specific piece of kit.
As for what happened next…we do not know. The redactions on the released documents are generally slight, with only odd words or lines removed, but around what appears to have been a final encounter between 2 and 3 a.m. on July 30, almost a whole page is blanked out.
Were the Ghostbusters successful in jamming the drones? (Jammers are of no use against newer autonomous drones which do not need a human operator). Were the drones brought down by SCAT teams’ machine-guns — or blasted out of the sky by radar-guided 70-pound shells? If they were brought down by jamming, did the Navy retrieve the drones and discover anything about their origin ? Or did the drones simply disappear into the night?
We do not know (yet) if there were further drone encounters after July 30. This might mean that drones were brought down, or the drone operators were deterred by the Navy’s aggressive response, and the incursions ceased. Or it may be that drones continued to appear – they are, after all, highly expendable – with the operators gathering intelligence on defensive measures and how to beat them.