Houthi rebels have been firing missiles at commercial ships off the coast of Yemen.
At the same time, US Navy ships have been shooting down missile and drones launched by the Iran-backed rebels.
Experts say the Navy ships are not at risk, but the Houthis do pose a threat to international shipping.
US Navy ships and commercial vessels moving through key Middle Eastern waterways are running into a problem: Houthi rebels keep throwing deadly weapons their way.
The Iran-backed militants have carried out a number of drone and missile attacks off the coast of Yemen over the past two months — the biggest of which occurred within the past week.
While the drones have so far proven to be a manageable threat for the well-defended American warships on patrol around the Red Sea, US officials are sounding the alarm that the Houthi acts of aggression still pose a great risk to international shipping in the region.
Houthi aggression in waters near Yemen are not a new phenomenon, although there has been a notable uptick since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. Attacks in recent weeks include hijacking a cargo ship in the Red Sea and firing missiles at a commercial ship in the Gulf of Aden. On Sunday, Houthi missiles struck three commercial ships during what became an hours-long attack that drew involvement from a US Navy destroyer.
"These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security," US Central Command, or CENTCOM, said in a statement. "They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world."
The rebels have claimed that they targeted the ships because of their connections to Israel and vow to continue doing so, citing their disapproval of the country's war against Hamas, another Iran-backed group. The Houthis are part of Iran's so-called "axis of resistance," which includes a band of proxy groups across the Middle East that oppose Israel and the US, its main ally.
During Sunday's attack, the US Navy destroyer USS Carney downed three rebel drones as it responded to the distress calls. CENTCOM later noted that while all three drones were headed toward the warship, it's unclear if it was the actual target in each of the cases.
The most recent incident occurred on Wednesday, when USS Mason, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that came under fire from the Houthis a number of years ago, shot down a drone that originated from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen. As with all the other cases, there was no damage to the American ship.
Who is most at risk right now?
The Houthis boast a formidable arsenal that includes ballistic and cruise missiles with decent reach, attack drones, anti-ship capabilities, and sea mines. The rebels have been accused of being armed, trained, and funded by Iran, and Western militaries have intercepted attempts to smuggle weapons and materials between Iran and Yemen on numerous occasions.
The US asserts that because of this relationship, Tehran bears culpability for the ongoing attacks on commercial shipping.
The Houthis are "the ones with their finger on the trigger," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said during a Monday press briefing. "But that gun — the weapons here are being supplied by Iran. And Iran, we believe, is the ultimate party responsible for this."
But even with an impressive weapons cache, do the Houthis pose a significant threat to US Navy ships off the coast of Yemen? Naval warfare experts suggest that's not the case because American warships are well-defended with advanced radars, surface-to-air missiles, close-in weapons systems, and other armaments.
"If the opponent cannot jam or neutralize our information networks — which the Houthis cannot do — the threat is manageable whether they use missiles or drones," Sam Tangredi, a retired US Navy captain and surface warfare officer, told Business Insider.
"Of course, if it is an attack on an unalerted unit, there is always a chance of a lucky hit," Tangredi, now the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies at the US Naval War College, said in emailed remarks. "But if you are operating a ship off the coast of Yemen — whether warship or commercial — it is wise to expect an attack and be prepared."
Bradley Martin, a retired US Navy surface warfare captain, agreed that it's possible for the Houthis to score a lucky shot. "But fundamentally, they don't pose a significant threat to an alerted Navy combatant, and an alerted Navy combatant would be able to deal very effectively with whatever the Houthis might throw," the senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation think tank told Business Insider.
While the risk may not be high for American warships in the region at this moment, Martin said the Houthis are still a "significant threat" in the sense that they've shown a willingness to fire weapons at international shipping. This is a concern that US officials have increasingly become more vocal about in recent days, especially in the wake of the expansive attack on Sunday.
"The Houthi strikes against commercial vessels in international waters underscore the fact that this is an international problem," Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters on Tuesday. He said that to deal with this growing issue, the US is in talks with partner countries to create an international maritime task force to ensure safe passage for ships in the Red Sea.
The framework for this already exists through the Combined Maritime Forces, a naval partnership made up of 39 nations and consisting of five different task forces. One of the task forces — known as CTF 153 — was established last year and is focused on security in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden.
A US defense official told Business Insider that the task force was a "clear recognition" that this particular area needed more attention, and has since received it, but the recent incidents have demonstrated that there needs to be a more focused effort there to allow ships to move freely through the critical waterway.
"The most serious threat posed in the maritime by the Houthis is to commercial traffic and the free flow of global commerce," the official said, adding that the vessels under fire are carrying goods that the world's economy relies on. "It puts those in jeopardy."
Farzin Nadimi, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Houthis do, for now, appear to be acting with caution and below the threshold of what they're capable of doing. Even with the explosive drones, small cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles that the rebels have been using, they haven't found much success. But this could all change in the coming weeks and months if they fine-tune some of their capabilities.
"They can be particularly dangerous well beyond the drones and the anti-ship missiles that they have," Nadimi, an analyst who specializes in Iran's security and defense affairs, told Business Insider.
The ongoing missile and drone attacks have raised questions about whether the US will take any kinetic action against the Houthis. This would not be unprecedented. The US military in 2016 launched several retaliatory strikes on coastal radar sites in Yemen after the rebels fired several missiles at the US Navy destroyer USS Mason and another American vessel. The US has also carried out strikes on other Iran-backed militias.
Martin said that while the US shouldn't dismiss the Houthi threat entirely, it is something that the Navy is capable of dealing with without having to attack inside Yemen. This could get expensive, deadly, and drag the military into a prolonged conflict that it doesn't really need right now.
There's a good argument, he said, to just "defend the shipping as it goes through, make it clear that this is something we won't tolerate, set a point where if it does continue, they're clearly going to end up facing consequences, but don't be in a big hurry to do that because it's something we'll probably have to do again and again and again."
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