U.S. Weighs Military Options After Massive Houthi Drone Attack

The destroyer USS Carney downed a total of 14 drones Saturday morning

USS Carney launches a surface-to-air missile at a drone threat (file image courtesy USN)

Published Dec 17, 2023 10:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

The White House is weighing options for striking back at Yemen's Houthi rebels after a month of attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, officials have told Politico.

Military options have been presented to the White House, according to Politico; however, the Biden administration has so far been reluctant to move beyond shooting down incoming drones and missiles. American officials (and their counterparts in allied nations) are said to be concerned about the risk of sparking a broader conflict with Iran, the state sponsor of the Houthi movement. Iran also has military proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and has the ability to interdict shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. 

The U.S. Navy has positioned the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Gulf of Aden, and three extra destroyers - USS  Laboon, Delbert D. Black and The Sullivans - have entered the Mediterranean. The carrier USS Gerald R. Ford has had her deployment extended a third time to ensure continued coverage off Israel. 

Houthi forces have been interfering with shipping since November 20, when they hijacked the car carrier Galaxy Leader in protest of Israeli operations in Gaza. The boarding and subsequent drone attacks did not sway the administration, nor the shipping industry, which continued to use the Suez Canal and Red Sea almost without change (according to the Suez authorities).

But the math has changed over the past few days. Four shipping lines have announced that they will skip the Red Sea and take the long voyage around Africa instead, adding about 1,900 nautical miles to a typical Asia-Northern Europe voyage. The military situation has also changed. U.S. CENTCOM reported on Saturday that the destroyer USS Carney had downed a total of 14 drones that morning. The command wrote in a social media message that “the UAS were assessed to be one-way attack drones and were shot down with no damage to ships in the area.” Previously the confirmed shootdowns were limited to single drones or a handful at a time, aimed at specific ships.

In addition to the U.S., France reported one of its vessels had shot down drones earlier in the week. On Saturday, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps reported overnight the HMS Diamond had also taken down a suspected attack drone that was targeting merchant shipping in the Red Sea. HMS Diamond was just redeployed to the region and reached the Red Sea in recent days after being ordered to make a fast turnaround and depart the UK.

The U.S. Department of Defense is also reporting that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be visiting U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, where he will discuss multilateral coalitions to counter the Houthi threat. "We will talk with them in a multinational framework about the work we're doing, particularly in light of increasing Houthi aggression in the Red Sea," the official said. 

The U.S. already leads a multilateral coalition to ensure maritime security in the Middle East, the Combined Maritime Forces. However, many of its regional members have been slow to engage with this particular mission, even after multiple attacks.