ABOARD THE USS MAHAN, ARABIAN GULF — Iranian forces in a fast-attack boat had their guns pointed right at a U.S. destroyer as it sped directly towards the ship, in a dangerous encounter in January, a U.S. Navy captain said.
Fearing collision, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Marc Davis was eventually forced to fire three warning shots from the ship’s .50 caliber guns, he said in a recent one-on-one interview with Breitbart News, where he shared new details about the incident.
The contact began early Sunday morning on January 8 when one of four Iranian boats harassing the Mahan began speeding straight towards the destroyer and its 330 sailors onboard, forcing a series of attempts to get it to stop.
“On that day, we were transiting into the Arabian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz,” Davis recalled, referring to the narrow waterway, which is in international waters, but which Iran considers its territory.
The interaction with the Iranian vessels started very late the night before on Saturday, and occurred all evening and early morning. There were six interactions — all what he would deem in Navy terms “safe and professional.”
He said, “it was finally sunrise, so it was early in the morning the following day” when the last interaction occurred.
“The Iranians approached at high speeds and we had hailed them as is appropriate, when you have high-speed vessels that are coming so close it’s a risk of collision,” he said.
The Iranians did not respond to “any of the hails, or any of the queries.” One of the four craft was headed directly at the Mahan, going about 25 to 30 knots, he said. “They can go much faster, but it is very high closure rate,” he said.
“We then proceeded to warn with our sound system, and our audible sirens,” he said. “We sounded our five short blasts, which is our international danger signal for professional maritime [forces] — but not just military but civilian as well,” he said.
A helicopter was then sent out to intercept the boat.
“They overflew them, then the helicopter dropped a smoke flare in front of them, and they proceeded, continued inbound,” he said.
At that point, Davis said the boat issued warnings over bridge-to-bridge [radio]. The Iranians finally responded. But they were still speeding straight towards the Mahan, with weapons manned.
“My watch asked them to stop closing us because the risk of collision existed and they were — their guns were uncovered,” he said, referring to the sailor steering the ship. “They had personnel manning their guns and because they were a bow-on aspect to us, those guns were pointed to our direction.”
“After a couple of warnings and they kept changing the subject, then I got on the radio and warned them to cease, and told them my intention was to fire warning shots if they didn’t,” he said.
Davis said the ship fired three warning shots from .50 caliber guns near the boat. Most important was the sound, he said, which is “very distinctive.”
“Immediately they stopped at a range of just under 900 yards,” he said.
Davis said his sailors stayed calm throughout the incident: “They were just doing what they’re normally trained to do.”
But later, one junior officer later told Breitbart News that the crew had been “on edge,” and “freaked out” the next day when they neared the United Arab Emirates and saw more Iranian fast attack craft. They quickly calmed down and nothing else happened, the officer said.
Davis described the event as an aberration, adding that “mistakes may happen.”
As to whether he believed the Iranians were making a ‘mistake,’ he responded, “I’m not sure. To me, it was unclear what the Iranians’ intentions were. They never truly stated what their intentions were.”
Despite the unusual nature of the interaction, it follows a growing number of incidents over the past two years.
In 2015, there were 327 total interactions, with 23 of them deemed “unsafe and/or unprofessional.” In 2016, there were 527, with 35 of them “unsafe and/or unprofessional.”
Whether they would continue in 2017 had been a major question, with President Donald Trump vowing on the campaign trail to take a tougher line with Iran. The incident with the Mahan occurred the week before he was due to take office.
After Iran conducted a ballistic missile test on January 29, in defiance of international law, U.S. tensions with Iran have skyrocketed.
On Friday, the Trump administration slapped a new round of sanctions on Iran’s missile program. However, the next day, Iran launched military exercises that included its missile and radar systems, in defiance of the sanctions.
On Tuesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei addressed Trump directly, saying that he “helped Iran reveal the true face of America,” and encouraged Iranians to protest against him.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer fired back: “I think the president – or the Ayatollah is going to realize that there is a new president in office… I think Iran is kidding itself if they don’t realize that there is a new president in town.”
The back and forth with Iran has some experts worried about a military flare up in the Arabian Gulf the next time U.S. ships are harassed, especially since Trump said at a September rally that he would blow Iranian boats “out of the water” if they continued to harass U.S. ships.
So far in 2017, Davis said there had been eight total interactions the last he checked, and his was the first unsafe and/or unprofessional interaction.
U.S. naval expert Chris Harmer, a retired Navy commander at the Institute for the Study of War, said actual war was unlikely.
“While current political tension between the US and Iran is high, neither the US nor the Iranian military sees any benefit in an inadvertent escalation into direct military action, so it is highly unlikely this will happen,” he said.
However, he acknowledged that tensions had led to military conflicts in the past between the two nations several times during the 1980s.
“Most of the time, those military conflicts occurred vicariously, as in Lebanon, where surrogates for Iran bombed the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks, but occasionally it was direct state on state violence, as was the case in 1988 during Operation Praying Mantis, when U.S. Navy forces attacked and sank multiple Iranian Navy vessels,” he said.
“That conflict culminated with the U.S. Navy shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner, causing significant loss of life,” he said. But since that time, he said “the US military and the Iranian military have gone to great lengths to prevent inadvertent direct conflict, although both sides continue to inflict damage on the other via proxies.”
While Davis played down the overall significance of his ship’s interaction with the Iranians, he added, “We certainly got further than I would have liked.
“I would hope that in the future that they would attempt to be safe and professional in all their interactions.”