US Central Command has come out with a statement and multi-page investigatory report on the attack on the Mercer Street, the ship that was attacked off the coast of Yemen and has raised tensions between Israel and Iran, as well as the US, UK and Iran. The deadly drone attack was carried out by Iran and involved three drones. The report says "US experts concluded based on the evidence that this UAV was produced in Iran." Iran has rejected these claims but the US and G-7 countries have said Iran was responsible.
This is not small detail. The report is significant and important and lays out in detail the attacks, and it has new information as well.
The report is titled: "Iranian UAV Attack Against MOTOR TANKER MERCER STREET" and details from it are from US Navy Capt. Bill Urban, the CENTCOM spokesman.
Here is what the team has found. The deadly attack took place on July 30 and involved an explosive unmanned aerial vehicle attack on the tanker. The investigators came from the USS Ronald Reagan, which sent a team to embark on the M/T to examine the evidence and interview the surviving crew members.
The team learned that two drones actually attacked the ship on July 29. "The crew reported the attacks via distress calls on the evening of July 29. Based on crew interviews, the investigative team found credible the reports of the attacks, which impacted the sea near the M/T Mercer Street. Investigators found small remnants of at least one of the UAVs on Mercer Street that the crew had retrieved from the water, corroborating the reports," reads the report, meaning that the first attack appears to have been a failure.
Iran decided to continue the attacks, although how they guided the drones and where they flew from is not clear. But a moving vessel is difficult to find and strike with drones. Iran has increased its drone attacks throughout the region in recent months. "The investigative team determined that the extensive damage to the Mercer Street...was the result of a third UAV attack on July 30. This UAV was loaded with a military-grade explosive, and caused the death of two crewmembers; the master of the ship, a Romanian citizen, and a United Kingdom national who was part of the security detail."
A 6-foot diameter hole in the topside of the pilot house was made by the drones which badly damaged the interior. "Explosive chemical tests were indicative of a Nitrate-based explosive and identified as RDX, indicating the UAV had been rigged to cause injury and destruction." The experts recovered some parts of the UAV, including part of the wing which was "nearly identical to previously-collected examples from Iranian one-way attack UAVs. The distance from the Iranian coast to the locations of the attacks was within the range of documented Iranian one-way attack UAVs. Following an on-scene analysis, some of the material was transferred to US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain and subsequently to a US national laboratory for further testing and verification."
UK explosive experts also came to examine the evidence. "Evidence was shared virtually with Israeli explosive experts." There is agreement now with the US assessment that the "UAV was produced in Iran."
A PDF that Central Command put out has more details, and notes that the drone components have "very specific and matching identities to previously exploited (and known) Iranian one-way attack UAVs. The use of Iranian designed and produced one way attack "kamikaze" UAVs is a growing trend in the region. They are actively used by Iran and their proxies against coalition forces in the region, to include targets in Saudi Arabia and Iraq." This means this is part of the Iranian drone war across the region using this new technology.
We now know that after the first attack on July 29 the US navy sent the USS Ronald Reagan with the USS Mitscher to establish communications with the Mercer Street and assist. "A US drone was also directed to the area to assist. A helicopter from USS Ronald Reagan located the Mercer Street in a remote area of the Arabian Sea. Working through UKMTO and Zodiac, communications were established with Mercer Street; surviving crew confirmed a Ship Master and a Security Officer had been killed." By July 31 a team had come to the ship and extracted evidence, and another team followed on August 2.
The report says that a delta-wing style UAV was involved in the attack. It shows old images of these drones from 2014 in Iran and notes that a similar type of drone was found in Saudi Arabia, the result of an attack that year. In September 2020 another delta-wing style UAV was seen in Yemen. In January and May Iran showed video of attacks with these UAVs. Photos from the 16-page report show the extent of damage the drone caused on July 30.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.