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The 2019 USS Kidd Incident

Donate Popular reports claim that a group of US Navy destroyers were buzzed by advanced drones in 2019.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Conspiracy Theories

Skeptoid Podcast #777
April 27, 2021
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The 2019 USS Kidd Incident

On a series of warm summer nights off the coast of southern California, half a dozen ships had a close encounter that raised alarms bells all the way up the chain of command in the United States Navy. It began when sailors aboard the USS Kidd (DDG-100), an Arleigh Burke class destroyer equipped with the Aegis combat system, spotted what appeared to be a consumer drone — like the ones kids might fly over your neighborhood — near their ship. By itself, that's kind of a big deal: it's illegal to fly over or near a Navy ship; the Kidd was located about ten times farther out to sea than such drones can go; and the object stayed around for at least three times as long as drones batteries last. But where a big deal turned into a gigantic deal was that over the course of at least four nights, as many as several of these apparently superpowered drones may have been involved, approaching as many as four US Navy vessels in the area plus a Carnival Cruise Line ship. It's become known as the USS Kidd incident, and it has gripped the undivided attention not only of national security experts, but also of alien visitation and UFO enthusiasts.

The incident took place around the southernmost of the Channel Islands, an extraordinarily busy shipping zone. There is a huge amount of commercial shipping stopping at Los Angeles; countless pleasure yachts from southern California are constantly coming and going from Catalina Island; fishing boats are everywhere, day and night; and it's one of the busiest patches of ocean on the planet for naval operations. Camp Pendleton occupies much of the coast where this took place, where Marines and the Navy practice ship to shore operations; Naval Amphibious Base Coronado is where you'll find Navy SEALs doing their thing; but mostly, Naval Base San Diego is one of the homes of the Pacific Fleet with around 200 ships including aircraft carriers and a lot of nuclear submarines. I grew up sailing these waters and have had personal encounters with submarines including one pretty close shave, so believe me when I tell you these are busy waters containing a lot of firepower. That anyone would choose this area to antagonize the world's most capable destroyer equipped with the world's most sensitive sensors is eyebrow raising, to say the very least. If this is in fact what happened, it was either unspeakably bold, or unspeakably foolish.

The first thing we want to do in a case such as this is verify whether what's reported is actually what happened; because until we've taken that first basic step, we have no idea whether drones were involved at all, or birds, or stars, or nothing. We can start with learning where the story came from. In 2020, UFO YouTuber Dave Beaty was contacted by a Navy veteran who told him that this had happened, and Beaty filed FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and received 462 pages of handwritten deck logs from the USS Kidd. He shared these with other UFO and alien researchers, and they uncovered the basic facts of the story. Two of them wrote up the event more formally for The Drive website, and that became the seminal press report.

On four different nights in July 2019, the Kidd was approached by one to "multiple" objects described in the logs as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). SNOOPIE teams were deployed, which are certain sailors detailed to grab high-end consumer cameras and photograph whatever they could. On one occasion, Mark 87 teams were stationed, probably referring to an electro-optical sighting system used for optical tracking and weapons control. It bears repeating that this happened aboard a destroyer with the Aegis combat system, literally the world's most advanced platform capable of tracking and destroying inbound objects using multiple classified and unclassified sensor systems. If anything was indeed out there, the best bet is that the Navy has every bit of data on it that was detectable, including whatever radio signals it may have been transmitting or receiving. However the sailors' reports were based on nothing more than visual observation of lights, and given how trivial it is to disable lights on a drone, this means that whoever was responsible for the lights wanted to be seen.

The Drive made additional FOIA requests and received deck logs from four more Arleigh Burke class destroyers which made similar reports: the USS Rafael Peralta (DDG-115), USS Russell (DDG-59), USS John Finn (DDG-113), and USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60). Logs included a note referring to a passing Carnival cruise ship:

Carnival Imagination hailed [the Rafael Peralta] on channel 16 to notify the drones did not originate from their ship. Confirmed 5-6 drones within their sight.

Independent researchers went online and traced the movements of all these ships, plus others that were mentioned in the incident, using various vessel tracking websites. Ships use a system called AIS, Automatic Identification System, that uses coastal radio plus satellites to track and identify ships that use it. In a busy place like southern California, tankers and container ships and cruise ships are all using AIS to avoid running into each other. AIS is required on passenger ships and all ships above a certain size, but it's also expensive and the vast majority of vessels that aren't required to use it don't. Navy ships will almost always use it in high traffic areas, but they can turn it off whenever they want to. Regardless, the researchers were able to put together a detailed picture of where and when the drone reports occurred, combining the deck logs with the public AIS data.

Most reporting of this story has stated that the flight time exhibited by these objects — around 90 minutes on station, plus whatever time it took to come and go from their point of origin — greatly exceeds the capabilities of commercially available drones. This is only true of the majority of consumer grade electric drones. But the market also includes industrial high endurance drones (such as this, this, this, this, and others), used for such purposes as inspections, search and rescue, security, aerial surveying and mapping, and agriculture. Flight times of over 5 hours and ranges over 200 kilometers have been available for some time — at a price, of course. Some use gas-electric hybrid power, some use rotary gas engines. High payload capacities allow all such craft to carry auxiliary fuel tanks to extend their endurance even farther. So by no means is it necessary to introduce military involvement, either foreign or domestic, to fully explain the USS Kidd incident. Everything that was reported in the incident was within the capabilities of any party with at least six figures to spend on a fleet of high endurance drones.

If you do want to introduce military involvement, look no further than the US Navy's own MQ-8 Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter about the size of an average 2-seat helicopter. Its turboshaft motor gives it a combat radius of 110 nautical miles with over 4 hours on station, and being a helicopter, it's quite capable of mimicking the exact behavior that sailors may have interpreted as a drone. In April 2021, the Navy held an exercise called Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21 in this same patch of ocean, involving many of these same ships. It included unmanned surface ships, unmanned undersea vehicles, and both the MQ-8 and MQ-9 Sea Guardian, a high speed fixed wing unmanned turboprop. These are systems that Navy personnel are familiar with, and that they work with. However, the Navy has stated that no such vehicles were deployed during the USS Kidd incident, and internal communications provided in FOIA requests confirm that.

But what's just as interesting is what did not come back in response to the FOIA requests. There were no photographs, and of course nothing like any radar data or confirmation, hardly surprising since Aegis system capabilities are classified. Any hard data the ships may have recorded about any drone incursions on those nights is almost certainly classified. However, we would be intellectually dishonest — as well as scientifically unreasonable — if we did not allow for another possibility: that no such data was recorded.

Let's riff on this. Let's say the ships' sensors found nothing was out there. First, not much can be concluded from that. Radar systems record only the types of targets they are designed to record. Many types of commercial radar would not key off of something on the scale of a multi-rotor drone, and others would. Modern systems that log their targets digitally only log the types of targets they are programmed to log. What the Aegis systems would do with a drone nearby is known only to those with clearance. We don't know, so we can't use that as an indicator either way. The same goes for radio signals that might be used to control remotely piloted drones or to return their video signals. Encrypted or not, the Aegis system would know the signal was there. But we don't, so we can't draw any conclusions from the fact that nothing came back from the FOIA requests.

The only thing we know for sure is that humans saw lights in the sky that they interpreted as drones. However, we're not given enough information to know why they thought this. The drones were only reported off to the side, never above the ships — with one exception, a single report in the logs of a single white light above the ship's flight deck, from the perspective of the observer. Was this immediately above the flight deck, or ten miles away along the same line of sight? We don't know that either. Once, a red flashing light was reported, consistent with the lights on consumer drones and on all aircraft. That's the total extent of details provided.

It always bears repeating that an observer on the ground cannot reliably judge the distance of a light in the sky. This is a universal limitation imposed by geometry. Without a triangulated reference, there is no way to visually judge how far away a point of light is. This is not an ability that training can develop or improve in an observer. There is no such thing as a "trained observer" with the ability to circumvent geometry. We need more data, and we got none in this case.

A "light in the sky" is by far the most common type of UFO report. They almost always remain unidentified. Because of the reasons just given, even the best documented such report is, unfortunately, uselessly vague. Was something there, or was it a misidentification of a mundane aircraft, star, planet, helicopter, drone, or who knows what else?

I wasn't there and I have no access to whatever data may have been recorded about these sightings (beyond the public deck logs), so take the following with a grain of salt. Here are my possible explanations for the USS Kidd incident:

  1. High-end industrial or military multirotor or fixed wing UAVs, operated by some unknown deep-pocketed party from shore or from any of the great majority of anonymous boats in the area not using AIS. Motives include enormous stupidity coupled with a death wish, a prank, actual foreign intelligence to probe Arleigh Burke reactions, the Navy trying to gauge how its own people would react to an MQ-8, and other motives I haven't guessed.

  2. Misidentification of surface targets, as no evidence was logged indicating that anyone saw anything above the horizon — keeping in mind the horizon is not discernible at night, and keeping in mind the ships the witnesses were on were moving, meaning no lights in the sky could be determined to be moving or stationary.

  3. Misidentification of unremarkable lights in the sky. Someone saw one, reported it, then everyone became jumpy about every light they noticed in the busy southern California sky. After all, our news has been full of overblown reports about UFOs from the Navy for years, so this possibility should be given more weight than most are inclined to.

We do, in fact, know for certain that misidentification of ordinary lights in the sky explains at least part of this incident. One of the most frenzied drone reports came from the USS Russell on July 15. At least 8 drones were reported WSW of their position between 9pm and 10pm. Writing on the Metabunk website, researcher Mick West found the ship's reported location was directly under the Pacific approach to southern California airports, and inputting that time and location into the Flight Aware website, he found a line of incoming airliners heading directly toward and overflying the ship. From Russell's perspective, they would have appeared as stationary, hovering lights. West even referenced a similar case of misidentification from Colorado in 2020, when a sheriff mistook an oncoming 737 at 23,000 feet for a drone hovering at 500 feet. Again, recall that no amount of observation training can circumvent geometry. No observer, trained or otherwise, can reliably determine the distance of a single point of light in the sky.

And that, unsatisfyingly, is where we have to leave our investigation of this event. The only part of it that we can identify with the data in hand has been identified as commercial air traffic, and all the rest of the data lacks sufficient details to rule out any more of the same. We cannot make any claim that all the sailors saw were aircraft and other normal lights, and we also can't make any claim that such lights are inconsistent with the rest of the recorded sightings. And so, with apologies to those who insist that the USS Kidd incident must be either proof of our military's failure to defend itself, or proof of alien visitation, I'm going to set this one down in the column of UFO reports that offer insufficient evidence to warrant further investigation. If the Navy surprises us with more data, nobody will be more pleased than myself to re-open the case.

Correction: An earlier version of this understated the number of rotating mass elements in the propulsion unit of the MQ-9. —BD


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The 2019 USS Kidd Incident." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 27 Apr 2021. Web. 4 Aug 2021. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4777>

 

References & Further Reading

Cecotti, M. "Multiple UAVs around the ship - Investigating the USS Kidd UAV incident." The Parallax. Marc Cecotti, 28 Jan. 2021. Web. 20 Apr. 2021. <http://parallaxuap.blogspot.com/2021/01/multiple-uavs-around-ship-investigating.html>

De Luce, D. "Drones that swarmed U.S. warships are still unidentified, Navy chief says." NBC News. NBC Universal, 5 Apr. 2021. Web. 20 Apr. 2021. <https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/drones-swarmed-u-s-warships-are-still-unidentified-navy-chief-n1263115>

Hambling, D. "Mystery Drones Kept Buzzing U.S. Destroyers During Exercises Off California." Forbes. Forbes Media LLC, 24 Mar. 2021. Web. 22 Apr. 2021. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2021/03/24/mystery-drones-kept-buzzing-us-destroyers-during-exercises-off-california>

Kehoe, A., Cecotti, M. "Multiple Destroyers Were Swarmed By Mysterious Drones Off California Over Numerous Nights." The Drive. Brookline Media Inc., 23 Mar. 2021. Web. 20 Apr. 2021. <https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/39913/multiple-destroyers-were-swarmed-by-mysterious-drones-off-california-over-numerous-nights>

West, M., et. al. "USS Kidd (and other Ships) Drones Encounter, 2019." Metabunk. Mick West, 24 Mar. 2021. Web. 22 Apr. 2021. <https://www.metabunk.org/threads/uss-kidd-and-other-ships-drones-encounter-2019.11681>

Ziezulewicz, G. "Navy’s first-ever unmanned fleet exercise launches off West Coast." Navy Times. Sightline Media Group, 21 Apr. 2021. Web. 22 Apr. 2021. <https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2021/04/21/navys-first-ever-unmanned-fleet-exercise-launches-off-west-coast/>

 

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