Last Sunday's naval encounter between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz has taken another strange turn. Reports in The New York Times, Navy Times and other publications suggest that a heckler may have been responsible for a threatening radio call, heard by American vessels as Iranian fast boats approached.
Pentagon officials tell Navy Times that the comments may have come from the "Filipino Monkey" a name given to mysterious--and profane--hecklers who often broadcast on VHF Channel 16, used for bridge-to-bridge communications in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.
In recent years, American ships operating in the Middle East have had to contend with a mysterious but profane voice known by the ethnically insulting handle of “Filipino Monkey,” likely more than one person, who listens in on ship-to-ship radio traffic and then jumps on the net shouting insults and jabbering vile epithets.
Navy women — a helicopter pilot hailing a tanker, for example — who are overheard on the radio are said to suffer particularly degrading treatment.
Several Navy ship drivers interviewed by Navy Times are raising the possibility that the Monkey, or an imitator, was indeed featured in that video.
Rick Hoffman, a retired captain who commanded the cruiser Hue City and spent many of his 17 years at sea in the Gulf was subject to the renegade radio talker repeatedly, often without pause during the so-called “Tanker Wars” of the late 1980s.
“For 25 years there’s been this mythical guy out there who, hour after hour, shouts obscenities and threats,” he said. “He could be tied up pierside somewhere or he could be on the bridge of a merchant ship.”
And the Monkey has stamina.
“He used to go all night long. The guy is crazy,” he said. “But who knows how many Filipino Monkeys there are? Could it have been a spurious transmission? Absolutely.”
Captain Hoffman also noted that an atmospheric phenomenon in the region--known as ducting--allows signals to skip over great distances. In some instances, VHF radio calls from Bahrain could be heard in the southern gulf, hundreds of miles away.
However, the heckler theory only goes so far. If was an intruder that made those calls, he apparently had detailed knowledge of the tactical situation. The heckler's transmission--"I am coming to you. You will explode in a few minutes”--came at a critical moment in the encounter, as Iranian speedboats maneuvered dangerously close to U.S. warships.
The timing of that call suggests someone who was doing more than simply monitoring radio traffic on Channel 16. Under existing rules of engagement (ROE), American warships initiate radio contact well before approaching ships enter their inner defensive perimeter. Based solely on bridge-to-bridge communications, the intruder would have only a general idea of the vessels' location. His threatening call, at the height of the incident, seems hardly coincidental, and appears to have been based on more than VHF radio traffic.
By comparison, an IRGC command element, located on a nearby, Iranain-controlled island (or another naval vessel) would have detailed knowledge of the operational plan, and--with access to other communications channels, ELINT data and radar plots--an excellent idea of how the encounter was unfolding. With that information, it would be easy to make the radio call, at exactly the right moment.
It would also be relatively simple for Iranian linguists to mimic the well-known "monkey," creating plausible denial for their involvement. Tehran has used deceptive radio broadcasts in the past, to great effect. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian SIGINT units operated dummy radio networks, which passed bogus information that was intercepted by the Iraqis, causing them to deploy troops in the wrong areas. Given Iran's past proficiency in electronic deception, finding someone to imitate the heckler would be a piece of cake.
We may never know where that radio transmission came from. But put yourself in the shoes of those three U.S. warship commanders, transiting the Strait of Hormuz last Sunday. Iranian fast boats are closing fast and suddenly, you receive a radio call, threatening the destruction of your vessel. In the heat of that moment, you don't have time to debate the origin of a particular radio transmission--particularly in other Iranian radio nets are also active. You make the appropriate decision for your command, based on your training, experience, and assessment of the situation.
And by all accounts, the captains of those three vessels did just that.