Houthis launch sea drone to attack ships hours after US, allies issue final warning

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the head of U.S. Navy operations in the Middle East, said it was the first time the Houthis had used an unmanned surface vessel, or USV, since their harassment of commercial ships in the Red Sea began after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

AP
Updated5 Jan 2024
Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea (File Image)
Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea (File Image)(via REUTERS)

An armed unmanned surface vessel launched from Houthi-controlled Yemen got within a “couple of miles” of U.S. Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea before detonating on Thursday, just hours after the White House and a host of partner nations issued a final warning to the Iran-backed militia group to cease the attacks or face potential military action.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the head of U.S. Navy operations in the Middle East, said it was the first time the Houthis had used an unmanned surface vessel, or USV, since their harassment of commercial ships in the Red Sea began after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. They have, however, used them in years past.

Fabian Hinz, a missile expert and research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the USV’s are a key part of the Houthi maritime arsenal and were used during previous battles against the Saudi coalition forces that intervened in Yemen's war. They have regularly been used as suicide drone boats that explode upon impact.

Also Read: The significance of guarding the Red Sea

Most of the Houthis’ USVs are likely assembled in Yemen but often fitted with components made in Iran, such as computerized guidance systems, Hinz said.

At the United Nations, U.S. Deputy Ambassador Christopher Lu said at an emergency Security Council meeting on Wednesday that Iran has supplied the Houthis with money and advanced weapons systems, including drones, land attack cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. He said Iran also has been deeply involved in planning the Houthis' attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

He said the United States isn’t seeking a confrontation with Iran, but Tehran has a choice.

“It can continue its current course,” Lu said, “or it can withhold its support without which the Houthis would struggle to effectively track and strike commercial vessels navigating shipping lanes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

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This raises questions as to whether any action against the Houthis would also address Iran's role in any way, which could risk widening the conflict.

A statement Wednesday signed by the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom gave the Houthis what a senior Biden administration official described as a final warning.

“Let our message now be clear: we call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews,” the countries said in the statement. “The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and the free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder would not say whether any military action would follow Thursday's launch of the sea drone.

Also Read | India’s demand for Russian crude resilient despite Red Sea threats: S&P Global

“I’ll let the statement speak for itself, which, again, represented many nations around the world and highlighted that if these strikes don’t stop, there will be consequences,” Ryder said.

Since late October, the Houthis have launched scores of one-way attack drones and missiles at commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea. U.S. Navy warships have also intercepted ballistic missiles the Pentagon says were headed toward Israel. Cooper said a total of 61 missiles and drones have been shot down by U.S. warships.

In response to the Houthi attacks, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in December announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, with the United States and other countries sending additional ships to the southern Red Sea to provide protection for commercial vessels passing through the critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

Cooper said 1,500 commercial ships have been able to transit safely since the operation was launched on Dec. 18.

However, the Houthis have continued to launch missiles and attack drones, prompting the White House and 12 allies to issue what amounted to a final warning Wednesday to cease their attacks on vessels in the Red Sea or face potential targeted military action.

Cooper said Operation Prosperity Guardian was solely defensive in nature and separate from any military action the U.S. might take if the Houthi attacks continued.

The U.S., United Kingdom, and France are providing most of the warships now, and Greece and Denmark will also be providing vessels, he said.

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