Drone Boat Was Used in Saudi Frigate Attack

Published Feb 21, 2017 11:42 AM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has determined that the bomb boat that struck the Saudi frigate Al-Madinah last month was a remotely controlled device and not a suicide attack craft. The technological sophistication of the unmanned vessel raises questions about its source, and the Navy suspects that Iran was involved. 

Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander of the Fifth Fleet and head of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, told Defense News that the attack on the Al-Madinah is the first confirmed use of a remote-controlled attack boat by an insurgent force like Yemen’s Houthi rebels. He suggested that it is not a technology that the Houthis could have easily developed on their own, and was probably supplied by a third party. Donegan pointed to Iran, which has provided the Houthis with military equipment and technical assistance since the beginning of the Yemeni Civil War. "I don’t know that it’s Iranian-built, but I believe that it’s production in some way was supported by Iran,” he said. 

Other sources within the Navy confirmed Donegan's views in interviews with USNI News, and added that the boat was likely supplied by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The hardline Iranian military division is known to have at least one class of unmanned high speed boat in its arsenal, the Ya Madhi.

The attack on the Al-Madinah followed a string of missile strikes (and attempted strikes) on Arab coalition and U.S. vessels near the Strait of Bab al Mandeb – a pattern that raises serious concerns for maritime security experts. Donegan suggested that from a strategic perspective, it is imperative for the U.S. and its allies to keep the Yemeni conflict away from the Red Sea. “With about 64 vessels a day traveling through there, the Bab al Mandeb, almost all with energy cargoes, any issue of misidentification or misapplication of one of these weapon systems could become an issue with commerce," he said. "In the end what we’d like to see is that conflict back into the land mass and not out into where we have commercial traffic.”