The incident occurred in the Strait of Hormuz, a heavily trafficked waterway off Iran's southern coast that connects the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole and the dry cargo ship USNS Washington Chambers were maneuvering through the strait when an Iranian vessel pulled alongside the U.S. ships, shining a spotlight on the Cole and then training a laser on a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter flown by Marines from the Bataan, said Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a U.S. military spokesman.
"The Iranian vessel then proceeded to turn its spotlight on Bataan, scanning the ship from bow to stern and stern to bow before heading outbound from the formation," Urban said in a statement. "During the interaction, the Iranian vessel came within 800 yards of Bataan."
Navy Forces Central Command, which oversees U.S. naval operations in the region, said the shining of the laser at the helicopter is what made them consider the incident unsafe and unprofessional.
"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.
The incident was first reported by CBS News, which said two other incidents considered unsafe by U.S. military officials have occurred since March. In one, the USNS Invincible, a ship equipped with sonar and radar, was forced to change course to avoid Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast boats that cut in front of the ship.
Two days earlier in March, an Iranian frigate came within 150 yards of the Invincible in the Gulf of Oman.
In the most serious incident this year, Navy officials reported in January that the destroyer USS Mahan opened fire with warning shots from a .50-caliber machine gun in the Strait of Hormuz after four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol boats performed "harassing" maneuvers.
One of the patrol boats traveled within 900 yards of the Mahan with a sailor manning its main gun, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said at the time. The Mahan was traveling in formation at the time with two other U.S. vessels, the amphibious craft USS Makin Island and the oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl, Davis said.
The January incident marked a return to volatile interactions after relative calm in the second half of 2016. Davis said the Navy counted 23 interactions in 2015 and 35 in 2016 that were considered "unsafe and unprofessional." The 2016 events all occurred in the first half of the year.
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