The waters off Yemen are becoming a killing field for ships, and while the U.S. Navy is reasonably prepared to confront the escalating danger, America’s allies in the civil-war-torn Middle Eastern country might not be.
On the evening of Oct. 9, forces aligned with Ansar Allah—aka the Houthis, Yemen’s Iran-backed Shia political movement—fired two cruise missiles toward the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mason and the amphibious ship Ponce while the two vessels were sailing in international waters north of the Mandeb Strait.
Ponce functions as a sort of floating base for mine-hunting helicopters and other U.S. forces. Mason’s job is to protect more-vulnerable vessels such as Ponce. U.S and allied ships patrol the waters around Yemen in order to prevent illicit arms from flowing into the troubled country.
The 510-foot-long Mason fired three surface-to-air missiles—including two high-tech, long-range SM-2 missiles—and launched a radar decoy in attempt to first destroy, then distract, the incoming Houthi munitions.
The radar decoy, known as a “Nulka,” is a rocket that hovers in midair while broadcasting a powerful signal mimicking the radar signature of a warship. The idea is that the enemy weapon will go after the decoy instead of homing in on the real target.
The first Houthi missile fell into the sea, either on its own or after being struck or redirected by the American weapons or decoy. “It is unclear whether [SM-2s or decoys] led to the missile striking the water or whether it would have struck the water anyway,” an unnamed military official told the news website of the U.S. Naval Institute.
The second Houthi missile harmlessly struck the water without American missiles or decoys directly intervening.
The Americans—380 aboard Mason and an additional 210 on the 570-foot Ponce—were lucky. But they were also prepared to defend against missile attack. Mason packs a sophisticated radar and scores of surface-to-air missiles plus short-range defensive guns. Ponce is the first Navy vessel to carry a defensive laser cannon that can quickly blast enemy missiles out of the air from miles away.
“This is what they do,” Eric Wertheim, a naval analyst and author of Combat Fleets of the World, told The Daily Beast, referring to the American ships. “Their job is to go into harm’s way.” Moreover, both vessels are made largely of steel, meaning they can withstand even direct hits by missiles.
“Our ships are very capable of defending themselves,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter assured reporters in the wake of the failed attack.
The same does not apply to more weakly armed and lightly built ships. On Oct. 8, rockets apparently fired by Houthi forces slammed into the catamaran transport ship Swift in the same area where Mason and Ponce would come under attack a day later.
Swift burned and suffered heavy damage. Houthi media claimed the ship was “completely destroyed.” It’s unclear whether any of the ship’s crew or passengers were hurt or killed, although the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen admitted staging a rescue operation following the missile attack.
The unarmed catamaran, which hauled U.S. troops under a Navy contract between 2008 and 2013, is now owned by an Emirati dredging company. The Saudi coalition claimed the vessel was hauling humanitarian aid to Yemen when it came under attack.
It’s worth noting that ships belonging to the United Arab Emirates and other members of the Saudi coalition have maintained a steady flow of weaponry and supplies to allied forces in Yemen. Houthi media described Swift as a “warship.”
But as far as warships go, Swift is pretty flimsy. Made of aluminum in order to reduce weight and increase top speed, Swift can’t absorb much battle damage. “I can say from experience that the aluminum hull design is NOT meant for taking damage,” one former Swift sailor wrote on Reddit in 2011.
A fire “would literally melt the ship in half,” the sailor claimed.
The problem for the U.S. Navy is that more and more of its ships are aluminum like Swift is, including the dozen catamaran transports the sailing branch is buying and the 40 planned Littoral Combat Ships.
The transports aren’t meant to sail in harm’s way. “Though well-suited for low-threat environments, craft of this type are unsuited for high-intensity combat,” Wertheim said. “Those are issues we need to be concerned about as we look at the type of ships we’re bringing in.”
The Littoral Combat Ships are meant for combat, although there are reasons to doubt they’d last very long in a shooting war. The LCSs are lightly armed compared to guided-missile destroyers such as Mason.
To be sure, the attack on Swift and the failed assault on Mason and Ponce a day later seem to have rattled the American fleet. The Navy’s response was forceful and, ahem, swift.
“Anybody who takes action, fires against U.S. Navy ships operating in international waters, does so at their own peril,” Capt. Jeff Davis, a Navy spokesman, told Military Times on Oct. 11. “We’re going to find out who did this and we will take action accordingly.”
Who did it isn’t much of a mystery. There are only so many military units in the Houthi order of battle with the ability to strike a ship at sea. As the Yemeni civil war deepened in 2015, as much as two-thirds of the country’s military sided with the Houthi rebels.
The defecting forces included the army’s missile command and the air force’s own missile units. Between them, the two contingents deploy Chinese-made anti-ship missiles, Scud ballistic rockets, and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles that, in a pinch, can also strike targets on land and at sea.
It’s unclear which of these weapons the Houthis apparently launched at Swift, Mason, and Ponce. The munitions’ identity matters. “There are a couple of issues that go into the kind of danger a missile would present,” Wertheim said, including “warhead size” and “the speed of the missile.” Warhead size and missile speed vary widely, depending on the type of weapon.
In any event, Houthi missile crews appear to be honing their tactics. The rebel group claimed its missileers destroyed two Saudi vessels before the apparent successful strike on Swift. And the attack on the American ships, while unsuccessful, has compelled the Pentagon to switch up its tactics.
The military is “adjusting our force posture in that area in reaction to the entirety of things that are going on in Yemen and the waters surrounding Yemen,” Carter said. That could involve pulling even the best-defended U.S. warships farther away from Yemen, out of the emerging missile kill-zone.