US sails first drone boat through Strait of Hormuz

Navy's autonomous craft is being tested in the Gulf region where the US often faces fraught encounters with Iranian forces

A US Navy L3 Harris Arabian Fox Mast-13 drone boat and the US Coast Guard cutter John Scheuerman in the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday. USCG via AP
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The US Navy sailed its first drone boat through the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday, a crucial waterway for global energy supplies where American sailors often face tense encounters with Iranian forces.

The trip by the L3 Harris Arabian Fox Mast-13, a 13m speedboat carrying sensors and cameras, drew the attention of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, but took place without incident, said Navy spokesman Cmdr Timothy Hawkins. Two US Coast Guard cutters, the Charles Moulthrope and the John Scheuerman, accompanied the drone.

The drone and accompanying ships passed safely through the strait, a busy waterway between Iran and Oman which at its narrowest is just 33km wide. A fifth of all oil traded passes through the strait, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman.

“The Iranians observed the unmanned surface vessel transiting the strait in accordance with international law,” Cmdr Hawkins told the Associated Press. He said an Iranian drone and at least one Houdong-class fast-attack vessel operated by Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard observed the Mast-13 drone.

The US Navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet patrols Middle East waters, particularly the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, to keep open the waterways for international trade, as well as protect American interests and allies. Iran, however, views the navy's presence as an affront, comparing the strategy as the equivalent of Iranian forces running patrols in the Gulf of Mexico.

Iranian state media did not acknowledge the drone voyage and Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Fifth Fleet launched a special drone task force last year, aiming to have a fleet of about 100 unmanned drones, sailing and submersible, operating in the region with America’s allies.

Iran briefly seized several of the American drones being tested in the region in late August and early September, although there have been no similar incidents since.

The Mast-13 now is operating in the Gulf of Oman, where a maritime shadow war has played out as oil tankers have been seized by Iranian forces and suspicious explosions struck vessels in the region, including those linked to Israeli and western companies. Iran has denied involvement in the explosions, despite evidence from the West to the contrary.

The Mast-13's video feeds can transmit images back to shore and to ships at sea, helping sailors to see ships before approaching them, Cmdr Hawkins said. That can come in handy, particularly because the US Navy and western allies have increasingly seized weapons it believes were from Iran bound for Yemen.

“It puts more eyes out on the water, enabling us to better monitor what is happening,” Cmdr Hawkins said.

Updated: April 19, 2023, 3:01 PM