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For the First Time, US Navy Shoots Down Iranian Drones Over Gulf of Aden

USS Carney
File image: USS Carney launches an air-defense missile against a Houthi drone, December 2023 (USN)

Published Jan 31, 2024 9:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

[Breaking] On Wednesday night, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Carney shot down one Houthi ballistic missile and "three Iranian UAVs" at a position off Yemen, according to U.S. Central Command. It is the first time that the U.S. military has announced an action against an explicitly Iranian asset since the beginning of the Houthis' campaign in November. 

At about 2030 hours, Houthi militants launched an anti-ship ballistic missile towards the Gulf of Aden, the latest in a long string of Houthi attacks on the sea lanes to and from the Suez Canal. Carney shot down the ballistic missile. 

At about 2110, Carney's crew took the additional step of engaging and shooting down three Iranian UAVs. Central Command did not provide further information.

Yemen's Houthi rebels control the northwestern corner of the country, and for years they have received support from Iran for their fight against Yemen's internationally-recognized government and its Saudi and Emirati backers. The nation's civil war is currently at an ebb, but Iranian arms have fueled the Houthis' new mandate to attack Western shipping and naval assets.

Western analysts and government officials have concluded that Iranian forces are deeply involved in supporting the Houthi strikes, providing intelligence, guidance and technology (and possibly making decisions on the ground). Up-to-date intelligence is required to operate an anti-ship ballistic missile with sufficient accuracy to reach its ever-moving target. Iran maintains a covert surveillance vessel off Yemen, and it is a prolific builder and operator of unmanned aerial vehicles, both for attack and for surveillance roles.

The USS Carney's decision to engage Iranian drones marks a rare kinetic action against Iranian forces themselves, rather than their foreign proxies. Carney's action may be the most substantial published encounter between American and Iranian military units since 2020, when the U.S. assassinated Iranian covert operations commander Qassem Suleimani.

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. military have been building since November. The U.S. Navy has bombarded Houthi positions multiple times in an attempt to suppress attacks on shipping; two U.S. Navy SEALs were killed in a boarding accident while attempting to intercept a covert shipment of Iranian weapons earlier this month; and Iranian-backed proxies killed three U.S. Army servicemembers in Jordan in a drone attack on Sunday

U.S. retaliation for Sunday's fatal attack is expected, a U.S. government official told AP late Wednesday, and will likely take the form of a rolling multiday campaign of airstrikes. It is unclear whether those strikes will include Iranian targets, or will hit Iran's foreign proxy groups only.