Pentagon hints at reprisal against Houthi rebels for attempted attack on U.S. warships?

Pentagon hints at reprisal against Houthi rebels for attempted attack on U.S. warships?
USS Mason in March 2016, launching an SM-2 missile during an exercise. (Image: USN via USNI blog)

More details have come out on the apparent missile attack attempted on U.S. Navy ships in the Red Sea on Sunday.  The details are interesting for both what they say and what they don’t say.

They seem to say pretty definitively that the weapons used were cruise missiles.  There’s continuing vagueness about the weapons (e.g., the language “presumed cruise missiles”), but USS Mason (DDG-87), the destroyer that mounted the defense against them, clearly reacted as if they were cruise missiles.

Since Monday, we have learned that Mason fired two SM-2 Standard Missiles and one Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) to defend against the first of the incoming missiles.  The second missile apparently didn’t warrant such a response (and it did splash harmlessly without countermeasures being applied).

Mason also activated her Mk-53 Nulka decoy system against the first incoming missile.  Reportedly, the crew of Mason hasn’t been able to conclude at this point whether their systems took the missile out, or whether it splashed on its own like the second missile.

Missing from the most detailed single report (link above, from the U.S. Naval Institute blog) is confirmation that U.S. forces have identified a launch platform or system component to hit in a counterstrike.  If the Houthis launched an antiship cruise missile from the coast, there should be a launcher somewhere.  (It’s possible the Navy’s not talking about that, to keep the Houthis in the dark as to how much we know.)

Another report from Reuters does fill in some relevant holes, however,

The rebels appeared to use small skiffs as spotters to help direct a missile attack on the warship, said U.S. officials, who are not authorized to speak publicly because the investigation is ongoing.

The United States is also investigating the possibility that a radar station under Houthi control in Yemen might have also “painted” the USS Mason, something that would have helped the Iran-aligned fighters pass along coordinates for a strike, said the officials.

The second paragraph’s wording indicates we are not certain that a particular radar event provided targeting for the missile launches.  That in turn indicates that the targeting wasn’t done with an integrated surveillance or acquisition radar, or probably even with a known military-grade radar.

But it does point to a level of sophistication that argues for an emerging, systematic threat.  A couple of other points bear mentioning.

One, it appears to be confirmed that this was a longer-range attack (in maritime, antiship terms).  Reuters reports that the second missile “traveled for over two dozen nautical miles” before splashing into the Red Sea.  That range would indicate one of several potential Iranian-made antiship missiles (including but not limited to the C802-variant Noor), launched from the coast.

The other is the analysis featured at the USNI blog of the damage done to HSV-2 by Houthi-launched missiles on 1 October.  The damage pattern looks like that caused by the explosively formed penetrator (EFP) warhead known to be a component of the C802 missile.

The caution I would add is that Iran has back-engineered several indigenous missile classes that could carry the same feature.

I find it potentially revealing that the missile system – whatever it is – is apparently being used without the most standard guidance component (an integrated targeting radar), which the U.S. Navy knows how to identify, and would detect if it were in operation.

It’s also potentially revealing that the launches at USS Mason and USS Ponce (AFSB-1), the afloat helicopter base nearby, were so ineffective.  The Iranian Noor missile is believed to have an IR seeker (although, notably, most reports have said Hezbollah’s missile attack on INS Hanit in 2006 was accomplished with radar guidance).  If the seeker were functioning, we’d expect the missile to want to hit something, more urgently than the story as we know it so far suggests.  That said, we don’t know enough about the surrounding maritime traffic to make definitive judgments.

The Noor is the Iranians’ most direct copy of a Chinese weapon, and is believed to have a missile hit on a warship (INS Hanit) under its belt.  Its features are important analytical tools for the Houthi incidents, but I don’t think we want to get boresighted on the Noor as the only possibility.

That matters, because Iran, with a handful of missile classes to give to insurgent groups, makes it possible for the tactical features of missile attacks to change from one incident to the next.

With this maritime threat, we’re not talking former-Soviet Osas, Sovremennys, Slavas, and a slate of well-known sequences, tactics, and detectable events.

Nor – and this is what I stress – should we be trying to make such a slate out of “C802” attacks – or even “C802-like” attacks.

That’s why this problem is such a…problem.

News sites are suggesting the Pentagon has hinted at a counterattack on a Houthi target or targets.

The U.S. military even hinted on Tuesday at possible preparations for a retaliatory strike.

“Anybody who takes action, fires against U.S. Navy ships operating in international waters, does so at their own peril,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told a news briefing.

If we were going to do that, it would have been the best option to get it done as a tactical response by Mason (and/or Ponce, which has helicopters with some very effective air-to-surface missiles embarked).  Once we get into the deliberating phase, the decision must be driven by larger, but usually situational geopolitical considerations – such as how close we are to the November 2016 election.

The most important principle to uphold is that you don’t shoot at U.S. warships, full stop.  The next most important is that you don’t lob missiles into international waterways.  The longer we wait to execute a counterattack, the more those principles will be subordinated to other considerations.

*UPDATE*: Sneaking this update in to highlight that Congress is already on the hunt, regarding the salient point that the cash dumps to Iran earlier in 2016 may well have enabled the Houthi missile attacks this month.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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