How an Iranian-backed militia ties down US naval forces in the Red Sea

Video grab from the Houthi Media Center shows what it said was the November takeover of a commercial ship by Yemen’s Houthi fighters.
Video grab from the Houthi Media Center shows what it said was the November takeover of a commercial ship by Yemen’s Houthi fighters.

Summary

Yemen’s Houthis have launched hundreds of attacks, and American military officials see no end in sight.

ABOARD THE USS LABOON—It was just after 9 p.m. when radar operators aboard this U.S. Navy destroyer in the Red Sea spotted a tiny arrow on their screens: a missile hurtling toward them at five times the speed of sound.

The crew of the warship with 300 sailors aboard had just seconds to shoot it down. As the projectile closed in, the Laboon launched an interceptor from silos beneath its deck, destroying the incoming missile in flight.

The Jan. 9 attack was one of the largest maritime battles the U.S. has faced since World War II. Houthi rebels in Yemen that day launched 18 drones and cruise missiles along with the ballistic missile at the Laboon and three other American destroyers, a U.S. aircraft carrier and a British warship in an attack that unfolded over a dozen hours.

Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have lobbed missiles, drones and other weapons at commercial vessels and warships nearly every day. Although most of the weapons have been shot down, at least 77 cargo ships have been hit, and one British-owned ship carrying 20,000 tons of fertilizer aboard was sunk.

Though largely ineffective, the Houthi attacks have been able to disrupt shipping and keep the U.S. and its allies tied down, frustrating the Navy’s decades-old mission of keeping open the region’s critical sea lanes.

The attacks are the direct result of fateful geography. To travel through the Red Sea and reach the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most heavily traveled shipping routes, cargo ships must pass through the Bab al-Mandab strait skirting the coast of Yemen, within range of the Houthis’ arsenal of missiles and drones.

No warships are known to have been hit in the more than 80 attempted attacks, but there have been some close calls, underscoring the perils for the U.S. and allies that have sent ships to the area the longer the conflict continues.

The Biden administration has limited its military response to the Houthi attacks, hoping to avoid being drawn into a wider Middle East conflict. But that has meant the flotilla of U.S. and allied warships has spent weeks and even months patrolling the Red Sea on alert—and the attacks have kept coming.

“We haven’t taken a hit, but strategically, we haven’t restored the flow of goods," said Gene Moran, a retired Navy captain who commanded the Laboon more than 20 years ago.

More than 20,000 commercial ships pass through the Red Sea in a typical year, including 150 huge tankers and containerships, but the ship traffic through the strait has dropped steeply since the attacks began.

Since the attacks began in November, in a Houthi show of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, containership traffic through the strait fell by 67% and tanker traffic has dropped by about 50%, according to Windward, a maritime-intelligence company.

The Houthis have focused attention on Israeli-owned vessels or those headed for the port of Eilat in southern Israel, which has seen its ship traffic drop steeply. Many shipping companies have rerouted ships around the southern tip of Africa.

On Wednesday, a Greek ship was hit by an unmanned waterborne drone and began taking on water.

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said in congressional testimony last month that the U.S.-led effort has been insufficient to deter the militant group’s targeting of ships and that the threat will “remain active for some time."

Earlier this year, the Laboon was patrolling in calm waters under a clear sky north of the Bab al-Mandab. On the bridge, radar monitors showed cargo ships making their way north, none of them under attack. That morning, four one-way attack drones targeted a different U.S. warship, the first such attack after a three-day lull.

During the Jan. 9 attack, the Laboon crew first saw two cruise missiles heading toward the ship and shot them down. The cruise missiles lumbered along at subsonic speeds, allowing relatively ample time to respond. Then came the ballistic missile.

“These things are telephone pole-sized, you get three minutes of flight time, you detect it for 45 seconds, you get like 10 seconds to determine whether you’re going to shoot at it or not," said Capt. David Wroe of U.S. carrier strike group in the Red Sea.

The Laboon uses several weapons systems to defend against the Houthi attacks, including its “vertical launching system," which fires interceptor missiles from silos beneath the bow and stern called the “checkerboard." When fired, the missiles burst from beneath the deck with a loud swoosh, heading for the target.

“We did our damndest to make sure we were ready for a ballistic missile, but we weren’t really expecting it," said Cmdr. Eric Blomberg, the Laboon’s commanding officer.

In addition to shooting down incoming missiles and drones, the U.S. and other countries have carried out several waves of airstrikes against launchers, radar installations and other facilities used by the Houthis in its attacks.

The longer the Houthi attacks continue, the more likely it is that a U.S. warship could be hit, said Frank McKenzie, a retired Marine general. “There’s always a chance that something happens and one of our ships could be struck, and that chance only increases the longer we allow the situation to continue," he added.

The Navy says it has spent about $1 billion on munitions used in defending the Red Sea, conducting more than 450 strikes and intercepting more than 200 drones and missiles since November when the attacks began.

U.S. officials worry that the conflict is simply not sustainable for the U.S. defense industrial base, already strained by the demands for weaponry from Ukraine and Israel.

“Their supply of weapons from Iran is cheap and highly sustainable, but ours is expensive, our supply chains are crunched, and our logistics tails are long," said Emily Harding of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We are playing whack a mole and they are playing a long game."

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