Forensic investigators from a US Navy laboratory in Manama, Bahrain, have concluded that an Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicle penetrated the commercial oil tanker Pacific Zircon’s outer hull during an attack on Nov. 15, 2022. The one-way UAV tore a 30-inch-wide hole in the outer hull on the starboard side of the ship’s stern, just below the main deck. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
US Navy forensic investigators in Bahrain have concluded that last week’s aerial drone attack on the commercial oil tanker Pacific Zircon was orchestrated by Iran, officials told Coffee or Die Magazine.
It was a Shahed-136 drone that Iranian manufacturers have supplied to Russia for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, US 5th Fleet spokesperson Cmdr. Timothy A. Hawkins said Tuesday, Nov. 22.
Packed with explosives, the drone slammed into the Liberian-flagged vessel while it was sailing the Northern Arabian Sea about two hours after dusk on Nov. 15, ripping a hole 30 inches wide in the outer hull on the starboard side of the ship's stern, just below the main deck.
The blast damaged internal compartments, a boiler, a potable water tank, and a life raft, but the vessel's crew escaped injury, according to US 5th Fleet.
“The Iranian attack on a commercial tanker transiting international waters was deliberate, flagrant and dangerous, endangering the lives of the ship’s crew and destabilizing maritime security in the Middle East,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command and the 5th Fleet, in a prepared statement emailed to Coffee or Die.
Images captured Nov. 16, 2022, by a US Navy explosive ordnance disposal team on board the commercial oil tanker Pacific Zircon, reveal shipboard damage from a one-way unmanned aerial vehicle attack on the prior day. An attached explosive detonated during the attack, causing a blast pattern that sprayed UAV fragments into internal compartments and damaged a boiler and potable water tank. US forensic investigators determined that Iran was tied to the attack. US Navy photos.
Iran has denied involvement in the attack. Tehran has also provided the drones to Houthi rebels battling an invasion of Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Shortly after the explosion, the British guided-missile frigate Lancaster sped to protect the Pacific Zircon. It was soon joined by the US Navy’s guided-missile destroyer The Sullivans, the patrol coastal ship Chinook, and a P-8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance plane.
Navy officials said they began to solve the explosive whodunit on Nov. 16, a day after the attack. A pair of US Navy explosive ordnance technicians boarded the Pacific Zircon to chart the strike damage and spent two hours collecting evidence, including debris damage that appeared to come from an unmanned aerial vehicle and blast residue samples.
The material was brought to a lab at 5th Fleet’s headquarters in Manama, where forensic investigators concluded it was one of Iran’s drones, according to the Navy.
An image taken Nov. 20, 2022, in Manama, Bahrain, shows debris fragments collected from what US Navy forensic investigators say is an Iranian-made Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicle that struck the commercial oil tanker Pacific Zircon five days earlier. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Mark Thomas Mahmod.
On Tuesday, Rear Adm. Shahram Irani, commander of Iran’s naval forces, announced that his fleet would soon unveil new helicopters and long-range UAVs capable of attacking shipping more than 1,000 nautical miles away.
“In the next few months, we plan to conduct joint exercises in the northern tip of the Indian Ocean with the participation of countries with which we have signed bilateral or multilateral agreements,” Irani told reporters at a Tehran press conference, according to state media.
Irani said a special unit that transports and operates drones has been attached to his southern fleet since July and is capable of conducting surveillance and carrying out attacks at sea.
Editor's Note: This article was updated to clarify that this wasn't the first use of the drone against commercial targets in the Middle East.
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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