November 27, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

US: Houthis’ maritime attacks put international shipping at risk

It is unclear if the Houthis intended to send a message while purposely missing their target or if the missiles were inaccurate.
November 27, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

US: Houthis’ maritime attacks put international shipping at risk

It is unclear if the Houthis intended to send a message while purposely missing their target or if the missiles were inaccurate.

The Iran-backed Houthi movement continues to escalate attacks at sea off the coast of Yemen, firing two ballistic missiles at the USS Mason, a US destroyer that was operating with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group.

This came after the Mason had helped free a cargo ship that had been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen.

Maritime domain security is essential to regional stability,” US Central Command head Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, said. “We will continue to work with allies and partners to ensure the safety and security of international shipping lanes.” 

The Israel-US CENTCOM’s relationship in the Gulf

This shows the importance of the relationship between Israel and US Central Command. It also illustrates how the Houthis are increasing their threats to shipping and to US forces. This is a systematic escalation by the Yemen-based terrorist group, which began after the brutal October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. The group had threatened Israel with numerous attacks using drones and missiles in October and early November. Then, it escalated to attacks on commercial ships and now has targeted US ships.

This matters because the Houthis are backed by Iran. The US had taken them off a list of foreign terrorist organizations; now there are calls for them to be re-labelled as a terrorist group.

Their escalatory attacks are also in contrast to some other Iranian-backed groups that appeared to reduce their threats after the ceasefire deal last week between Israel and Hamas. The Houthis have escalated instead, illustrating the increasing threat they pose. 

US Central Command said that this series of incidents began when the Mason “with allied ships from our coalition counter-piracy task force (TF 151), and associated aircraft responded to a distress call from the M/V CENTRAL PARK, a commercial vessel, that they were under attack by an unknown entity.” Yesterday, reports indicated that the CENTRAL PARK had been seized, apparently by the Iran-backed Houthis who have increased their threats to ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

For instance, another ship, named the CMA CGM Symi had been attacked on Friday by a drone, alleged to be an Iranian Shahed 136-style one. That ship was in the Indian Ocean. On November 19, the Houthis used a helicopter to seize the Galaxy Leader, a large ship that was transiting the Red Sea.  

The report from US Central Command says that the Mason arrived after a distress call from the Central Park. Distress calls can be made in a variety of ways by the crew of a ship, such as through their radio or Digital Selective Calling device, which transmits messages via VHF. They would likely have alerted other ships and stations to an attack and act of piracy.

Central Command says that “upon arrival, coalition elements demanded the release of the vessel. Subsequently, five armed individuals debarked the ship and attempted to flee via their small boat. The MASON pursued the attackers resulting in their eventual surrender. The crew of the M/V CENTRAL PARK is currently safe.” 

The Houthis then escalated their attacks on the US by launching two ballistic missiles at 1:41 a.m. toward the coalition warships. US Central Command says that “two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen toward the general location of the USS MASON (DDG 87) and M/V CENTRAL PARK. The missiles landed in the Gulf of Aden approximately ten nautical miles from the ships.” There was no damage to the US ship during the incident.

Are the Houthis purposely missing their launches?

Ten miles is a decent distance for the Houthis to “miss” while firing their missiles. It is unclear if the Houthis intended to send a message while purposely missing or if the missiles were inaccurate. Ships should have anti-missile and air defense capabilities to deal with threats like this.

The Houthi escalation is a major event. The group has already carried out numerous drone and missile attacks against Israel, including using cruise missiles. For instance, on October 31 the Arrow air defense system in Israel intercepted a missile aimed at Eilat. Other threats occurred on November 2, 9, 15 and 22.

There were also incidents on November 25 when a drone threat was detected in the Red Sea and on November 24 when a false alarm was set off in Eilat. On November 22, the IDF said that, “following the report regarding an infiltration of a hostile aircraft in the area of the city of Eilat, an IAF fighter jet successfully intercepted a cruise missile that was launched toward Israel.” 

Furthermore, on November 15, CNN reported that “the USS Thomas Hudner, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, engaged a drone that originated from Yemen on Wednesday and was heading towards the ship, a defense official confirmed to CNN. The Hudner was not believed to be the intended target, the officials said.” The USS Carney, in the Red Sea, also intercepted drones and missiles fired from Yemen on October 19, an incident that lasted nine hours.

The Carney and Hudner are deployed as part of the Gerald Ford carrier strike group which is part of the sixth fleet and is supposed to defend US and allied interests. The Ford strike group saw its role extended in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Hamas attack on Israel. The maritime group includes the USS Normandy, USS Ramage and USS Roosevelt. The USS Eisenhower had been ordered to join the group as well.

The Eisenhower transited the Suez Canal on November 4 and then moved through the Bab el-Mandeb straits into the Arabian Sea. The Mason, which is part of the Eisenhower strike group, had left for the deployment on October 13 from Mayport, Florida.

“I am extremely proud of the incredible work this crew has put in over the past year and a half,” Commander Justin B. Smith, Mason’s commanding officer said at the time. “I am excited to see us excel in our assignments as we head east with the strike group. Mason is more than ready to answer the call for any tasking we may receive,” a report at US 2nd Fleet noted.

The Mason and Eisenhower are accompanied by a the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Military and Political Power