U.S. Helicopter ‘Sets Off Flares’ as Iran Points Laser in ‘Unsafe’ Test

Super Stallion
A CH-53E Super Stallion, used by the Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463,prepares to carry off a U.S. Army Huey Helicopter during a sling load operation aboard Barber's Point Naval Air Station, Marine Corps Base Hawaii on September 23, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Aaron S. Patterson/Handout/Reuters

An Iranian Navy vessel has prompted ire from the U.S. military after an “unsafe and unprofessional” test of its capabilities on a U.S. helicopter.

According to a U.S. military statement, the vessel used an on-board laser against a U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E helicopter, moving above a trio of U.S. naval ships, transiting the international waters of the Strait of Hormuz.

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The group was crossing the strait when an Iranian military vessel approached one of the three—the amphibious assault ship U.S.S. Bataan. The two came within 800 yards of each other, with the guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. Cole and dry cargo ship U.S.N.S. Washington Chambers not far away, Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US Navy's Fifth Fleet said.

The Iranian vessel then shone its spotlight on both the Cole and Bataan vessels, scanning the Bataan from bow to stern. The encounter did not escalate into either side opening fire, not even warning shots, but tensions rose when the Iranian vessel spotted a U.S. helicopter flying alongside the deployment.

The aircraft's presence prompted the Iranian boat—a missile boat according to one defense official speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity—to point its targeting laser toward it. The same official said that not only does this fly in the face of safety protocols, but it also set off the CH-53E’s automatic defense system, firing flare signals.

"Illuminating helicopters with lasers at night is dangerous as it creates a navigational hazard that can impair vision and can be disorienting to pilots using night vision goggles," Urban said.

U.S. armed forces navigating near Iranian waters have gotten used to such tense encounters. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis previously said that 2016 yielded 35 incidents of unsafe or unprofessional behavior by Iran’s navy in 2016 alone—although the "vast majority" took place in the first half of the year.