Red lights light up the bridge of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) at night in the Mediterranean Sea, Feb. 14, 2021.U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Damon Grosvenor, courtesy DVIDS.
Over the course of at least four separate nights in July 2019, the Navy reported that ships operating just off the coast of Los Angeles encountered multiple “swarms” of unidentified aerial vehicles — colloquially known in civilian parlance as UFOs.
The incidents, occurring near San Clemente Island and the adjacent “FLETA HOT” training area, triggered an investigation by the Navy, Coast Guard, FBI, and ultimately the chief of naval operations. This patch of Pacific Ocean is the same place where The New York Times published three videos in 2017 purporting to show encounters with UFOs by jets from the USS Nimitz and USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carriers.
During the July 2019 incidents, Freedom of Information Act requests obtained by The Drive show as many as six UAVs at a time traveling as many as 100 nautical miles in the pursuit of the naval vessels at speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour. Additionally, the UAVs were described as flying for prolonged periods of time in low-visibility conditions, which is abnormal activity for typical commercially available drones.
According to naval deck logs obtained by The Drive, the first incident began around 10 p.m. on the night of July 14, 2019, when the USS Kidd, a Fletcher-class destroyer, reported two UAVs. In an effort to minimize their electronic signature, the USS Kidd entered into “River City,” a naval code for restricted communications. Within 10 minutes the USS Kidd contacted the USS John Finn, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, stating that two drones were hovering overhead. Observers on the Finn confirmed the unusual activity.
The Finn then deactivated its AIS transponder system — an automatic identification transmitter for vessels at sea — and reported possible UAV activity, as well as a “red flashing light.”
At 11:23 p.m. the USS Rafael Peralta, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, also noticed a “white light” hovering over its flight deck despite a forward speed of some 16 knots. By this point, the collective encounter had lasted for more than 90 minutes, which according to The Drive significantly exceeds the endurance limits of commercial drones. Not long after the Peralta’s encounter, the UAVs disappeared into the night.
On the second night — July 15, 2019 — another round of UAV activity lasted for nearly three hours. At 8:39 p.m. the Peralta first spotted the mysterious objects. Logs from the Kidd state that at 9 p.m. multiple UAVs arrived in the ship’s vicinity. By 9:20 p.m. the log states that the UAVs, which had at first hovered above ship, began to move “around” the ship, prompting an order for the crew to man the “Mark 87 stations” — likely a reference to an advanced optical sighting system, according to The Drive’s reporting.
At approximately the same time records from the USS Russell, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, show another flurry of UAV activity. The Russell’s logs report UAVs darting above and around the ship — the objects changed elevation and direction while moving around the vessel.
Meanwhile, at 9:20 p.m. the Carnival Imagination cruise ship contacted the Peralta, notifying the destroyer’s crew of multiple drones flying in the area. The cruise ship’s crew added that the drones were not part of their own activities.
For the next three hours the Peralta and Russell destroyers reported a steady stream of UAV sightings. To date, there has been no public explanation for what exactly happened. However, the unexplained encounters triggered a largely classified investigation into the incidents, garnering attention from the upper echelons of the Pentagon.
Open source information indicates the Navy was not operating drones in the area, nor was there any training scheduled that would explain the mysterious incidents. Further, the operators of two cargo ships that were nearby at the time of the aerial encounters denied possessing any drones capable of such unusual activity.
The details of any potential Pentagon meetings on the matter remain classified.
While mystery continues to shroud the 2019 encounters, it’s likely that the Navy knows more than has been publicly released. The suite of sophisticated sensors and surveillance equipment on board the US destroyers likely hold clues as to what actually happened on those summer nights in 2019. And, for their part, naval aviators have encountered unusual flying objects over that same stretch of water since at least 2004.
James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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