There are differing versions of this event, which reportedly occurred on Sunday, 9 October, shortly after 7 PM local time, just north of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea.
The accounts both have two missiles landing in the area of USS Mason (DDG-87), an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer. Reportedly, Mason deployed countermeasures against the first missile, but did not use them against the second, which was fired within the next hour.
One account indicates that the missiles were definitely launched at USS Mason. It describes the destroyer as being “targeted.” Fox News said in its most recent report on Monday that that assessment was confirmed by a Defense Department official.
The other account – the AP account – says only that missiles were fired and Mason wasn’t hit by them. This second account clearly makes an effort to avoid saying the missiles were fired at the U.S. warship. It quotes a U.S. Navy spokesman as saying it was unclear whether USS Mason was being targeted.
This discrepancy may or may not matter. The ambiguity in interpretation may be partly a result of the type of weapon used – a speculative consideration, but one that points to what should concern us about this incident, especially coming so shortly after the Houthi rebels’ successful attack on UAE-operated HSV-2 Swift. Mason‘s incident was in the same area.
What should concern us is that the Houthis, armed and enabled by Iran and Hezbollah, are waging their civil war in a way that will turn the whole Bab El-Mandeb Strait area into a threat zone, and pose an increasing risk to shipping. We can’t define in advance what that threat will involve, because we’re not sure what weapons the Houthis have access to, or can use effectively.
Two key points here.
1. This is happening because of the withdrawal of U.S. power. There’s no overarching moral narrative that justifies holding anyone more guilty than anyone else, except for this one: Iran is taking advantage of a power vacuum, to back an insurgency against the current order because that would give Iran controlling influence over the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden chokepoint.
What’s happening in Yemen isn’t “about” the Saudis bombing Yemenis. The Houthis are attacking the Saudi border, and have been for several years now, with increasing lethality. None of that is to say the Saudis are good guys. But they are the status quo guys. There is no question that the Houthis started this.
The Houthi insurgency is the core destabilizing factor. There’s no particular reason why it should win out against the erstwhile national government of Yemen (which effectively collapsed in early 2015). The Houthis have been on both sides of the Al Qaeda presence in Yemen; they are neither a staunch ally against Al Qaeda nor an ally of Al Qaeda.
They are, however, an ally and client of Iran. Iran has been emboldened by U.S. weakness to help the Houthis ramp up their guerrilla war in the Arabian Peninsula. The purpose is to gain leverage over the maritime chokepoint, and surround and weaken the Saudi and other Gulf Arabs. Driving an Iranian stake into Yemen and the Red Sea also enables Iran to plow a marplot’s furrow between Saudi Arabia and Jordan, on one side of the Red Sea, and the Egyptian Arabs on the other side.
Moreover, of course, leverage over the Red Sea gives Iran a flanking path to Israel, in addition to the direct land route Qassem Soleimani has been busy cutting through Iraq, and the sniper perch the Iranians are trying to set up in the Golan.
The reason this didn’t happen before is that the U.S. wasn’t weak and feckless, with our grand-strategic guard completely let down, before. Obama is the reason this is happening now. But it’s not because of anybody he’s bombing or thinking of bombing. It’s because he exhibits increasing weakness, and the nations are doing what they inevitably do under such conditions: taking advantage of that.
There is no other human reality. This is what the world does when you take the governor off.
2. That leads to the second key point. What we’re seeing off the coast of Yemen doesn’t fit neatly into any previously seen category of activity.
It hasn’t been certain what weaponry or tactical profile the Houthis are using. In the case of the missiles that didn’t hit USS Mason, it initially wasn’t even certain that Mason was targeted.
For now, we can take it as established that Mason was in fact targeted – although that provisional conclusion opens its own whole can of worms. The big question is what the Houthis would hope to accomplish by targeting U.S. warships. Are they being put up to it by Iran? Etc.
But if we can’t really tell much about the weapon(s) being used by now, that’s information in itself. It may well mean that the Houthis have used some of Iran’s lesser-known, indigenously produced antiship missiles, about which we know comparatively little (e.g., the Zafar, Nasr, Kowsar, and Qader missiles).
Several sources are suggesting that HSV-2 was attacked with the Iranian version of the C802 missile (the “Noor”), and that may be correct. (I initially went with the reporting that the Houthis had used rockets, which was compatible with the video from the Houthis. The C802 has a rocket trajectory after launch, and prior to starting its final run to the target — like most such antiship missiles — so it would also be compatible with video of an initial rocket trajectory. Images of the damage to HSV-2 indicate that the hits on the vessel were by missiles, however.)
But it’s likely that we’d be somewhat more certain if it were the Noor. (We may become so, of course.) I’d also expect the attempt on USS Mason to have gone better – to have required more work from Mason to evade, and generated a greater level of U.S. Navy concern than we’re seeing – if it were the Noor being used. (The Noor is thought to be what was used to attack INS Hanit in 2006.)
In the big picture, the Houthis have reason to wage a maritime fight over time – to make their coast less accessible to the Saudi coalition – as opposed to just trying to launch a trophy attack here and there and yell Allahu akbar. The Iranians have reason to want to battle-test their weapons, and perhaps some of their tactics, as well as expanding the cone of instability to the Bab El-Mandeb Strait.
Neither of those factors means that this enterprise will go uniformly well for them. But the factors combined do mean that we have to think of this as an evolving class of security problem for everyone who puts ships through the Middle Eastern chokepoints. It’s not just about a particular class of missile, or about a pinprick here and there. We can’t bound the problem that way and put it to bed. It’s about the whole slate of options Iran has been developing to menace the Strait of Hormuz, projected to other areas, starting with the belt around the Bab El-Mandeb.
Sailors will notice immediately that old-technology missiles aren’t a very efficient way of ramping up the threat and instability. Quite true. Mines would be the most obvious next step, for an unmistakable ramp-up. Since mines represent a greater guarantee of lethality-from-engagement, and since they drew a robust U.S. response during the Iran-Iraq War 30 years ago, the Iranians are probably still somewhat daunted in that regard.
But at this point, I’d assess that what’s daunting Iran is not so much fear of reprisal as it is simply that the Iranians’ own timeline doesn’t call for taking things to the next level yet.
They know what Obama is. They know he won’t do anything about attempted missile attacks on a U.S. warship. (Which, incidentally, under the standing rules of engagement, the Mason’s commanding officer would have been justified in reacting to by locating and destroying the launch platform. That would actually have been an ideal response: decisive, proportional, and not involving the U.S. more deeply in the Yemeni civil war, which there is no good reason to do.)