A US Navy destroyer shot down a Houthi rebel missile in the Red Sea this week, marking a serious escalation in attacks targeting international shipping lanes. The incident comes amidst growing warnings from the Iran-backed Houthis that they are prepared for prolonged confrontation with the US and allies.
Background of Conflict
The Red Sea has become an intense battleground in recent years as the war in Yemen spills over. The Houthis have been fighting the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi since 2014 when they seized the capital Sanaa. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened on behalf of Hadi’s government in 2015 with air strikes and an air and sea blockade.
While the coalition has been able to prevent the Houthis from taking key territory, the rebels still control much of northern Yemen. The war has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises with widespread hunger.
Missile Attack on Destroyer USS Carney
On January 31st, the USS Carney destroyer detected and shot down an anti-ship missile fired by the Houthis in international waters in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. The missile was intercepted by SM-2 missiles from the Carney.
No damage or injuries were reported on the warship. US officials called it a “deliberate and direct attack” and vowed to defend themselves. However, Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yehia Saree disputed that characterization, saying it was not an attack but rather a warning strike.
|Key Details| |:–|
|US warship targeted|USS Carney destroyer|
|Location of incident |Red Sea off Yemen coast|
|Date |January 31, 2024|
|Missile intercepted |Yes, by SM-2 missiles from Carney|
|Houthi claim | Warning strike, not attack|
This is just the latest of over a dozen attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since late December by the Houthis targeting international shipping and US and allies’ warships. Experts warn the situation risks spiraling out of control.
“The Houthis are throttling international trade, but UK and US attacks may only make matters worse,” notes one analysis.
Escalating Houthi Capabilities
The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have rapidly expanded their arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles along with weaponized drones in recent years. They are now demonstrating an ability to strike farther with more accuracy, reaching vessels hundreds of miles from Yemen’s shore.
In addition to targeting commercial tankers carrying oil and gas shipments, the Houthis have fired on US and allied warships multiple times. However, this week was reportedly the closest a Houthi missile has come to actually hitting a US warship.
Defense officials revealed that the missile shot down by the USS Carney was just 8 miles away when intercepted. Its proximity raised alarm, showing the Houthis could soon score a direct strike unless countermeasures are bolstered.
The growing threat also increases pressure on the US and allies to deter Iran, who is suspected of smuggling advanced missile technology and components to the Houthis. American officials are warning Iran would likely face retaliation for any attack by the rebels that causes US casualties.
Meanwhile, the Houthis are indicating that clashes with the US Navy are likely to increase, not decrease in coming weeks.
Houthi Commander Warns of “Long-Term Confrontation”
A senior Houthi military commander directly threatened future action against US warships following this week’s tense missile incident.
“We are ready for a long-term confrontation with the US-Saudi aggression,” Brig. Gen. Yehia Saree told reporters.
He described Yemen’s missile and drone program as the rebels’ “strategic choice” to respond to foreign aggression, making clear they do not intend to back down.
Saree also warned commercial ships in Red Sea lanes to steer clear or they could be impacted by Houthi strikes against military vessels. The statement raises the risk of miscalculation.
One retired Navy officer called the spiking tensions a “dangerous situation” requiring “creative diplomacy” to reverse the escalation spiral. Otherwise the region may “stumble into a war that nobody wants,” he said.
One potential off-ramp could be negotiations to renew an expired UN-brokered truce deal in Yemen. There were hopes that the agreement, which brought a temporary halt to Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and coalition airstrikes, could be extended and expanded. However, talks hit obstacles this month. With missile strikes continuing from the Houthis, prospects for defusing military confrontations through a ceasefire now appear remote.
Outlook Going Forward
In the near term, it seems likely Houthi missile and drone attacks will persist as the rebels push to gain leverage both militarily and politically. Their capabilities probably cannot be eliminated in the short run. The US and its partners will have little choice but to beef up defenses around Red Sea shipping lanes to mitigate risks. Tensions are primed to remain heated with the potential for rapid escalation if the Houthis manage to strike an American warship or kill US soldiers or sailors.
Unfortunately there is no end in sight for the brutal civil war that has given rise to the current crisis. United Nations led efforts to halt the overall conflict through peace talks have amounted to little so far. Even if a ceasefire can somehow be renewed soon, past breaches show it may just temporarily scale back, not resolve clashes in the Red Sea arena.
With both sides gearing up for sustained confrontation, the dangerous standoff looks poised to intensify further and drag on for the long haul. That raises the stakes for avoiding direct combat engagements between US and Houthi forces which could quickly spiral into a larger regional war.
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