US warships are shooting down weapons no one's ever faced in combat before, and a Navy commander says it's a 'great opportunity'

  • The US Navy has been battling anti-ship ballistic missiles first used in combat only recently.

  • Business Insider recently visited a destroyer that has shot down some of the Houthis' missiles.

  • Navy commanders say that American forces are gaining valuable intelligence from these engagements.

US Navy warships off the coast of Yemen have been battling Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles, a dangerous weapon that no military has ever faced in combat until recently.

These weapons could be significant threats in future conflicts, especially with China in the Western Pacific. But Navy commanders have said that American forces are learning from their recent battles in the Middle East and gaining valuable intelligence from these engagements.

"First time a ballistic missile has been shot, either at a warship or at maritime traffic that's next to a warship," a carrier strike group commander told Business Insider during a visit to the Red Sea this week. "And that has yielded us a lot of information."

The Houthis began to employ anti-ship ballistic missiles — alongside anti-ship cruise missiles and one-way attack drones — toward the end of last year, marking the first time "in history" that these weapons have been used, as US President Joe Biden said. The use of these missiles complicates the threat environment.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have fired dozens of anti-ship ballistic missiles from Yemen toward international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, sometimes even striking commercial vessels.

The Marshall Islands-flagged, Bermuda-owned M/V Marlin Luanda after it was hit with an anti-ship ballistic missile in the Gulf of Aden last month.
The Marshall Islands-flagged, Bermuda-owned M/V Marlin Luanda after it was hit with an anti-ship ballistic missile in the Gulf of Aden last month.Screengrab/US Central Command

These repeated provocations have drawn in the Navy and prompted it to respond. Over the past two months, US warships operating in the region have shot down a handful of anti-ship ballistic missiles — most recently in early February. The US has also conducted preemptive strikes targeting these missiles in Yemen before they were launched.

BI recently traveled to the USS Gravely, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer in the Red Sea that has been on the front lines of these efforts and has shot down several Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles.

The ship's commanding officer, Cmdr. Brian Sanchez, hailed his sailors as "resilient" and said they have months of training under their belts to prepare for these engagements.

"Now that we're out here, this is what we've trained to do," he said in an interview with BI. "We might be seeing it for the first time, but it's nothing new, because we've had those repetitions of training."

The USS Gravely's vertical launching system, where missiles are fired from to intercept Houthi threats.
The USS Gravely's vertical-launching system, where missiles are fired from to intercept Houthi threats.Jake Epstein/Business Insider

Sanchez said that his warship sends collected data back to the US, where weapons-systems performance is analyzed for any technical and tactical improvements or adjustments. He credited his sailors for being able to respond to these engagements in the way they were trained.

"They've been doing a very good job reacting the way we expect them to react and then getting right back to business and making sure the ship continues to stay ready for another engagement," Sanchez said of his sailors.

The Gravely is part of the Navy's Carrier Strike Group 2, which consists of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, four destroyers, and a cruiser. The carrier strike group's commander, Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, said he's already received feedback from some of the data that has been sent back to the US, including that ship weapons systems are performing "exactly as intended."

"We do have some new capabilities that were fielded over the last couple of years, and it's paid huge dividends when it comes to basically defeating this ballistic missile threat," he told BI during a visit to the USS Eisenhower this week.

The combat-information center, where missiles are launched from, aboard the USS Gravely.
The combat-information center, where missiles are launched from, aboard the USS Gravely.Jake Epstein/Business Insider

Houthi rebels boast a rather sizable arsenal of anti-ship ballistic missiles, some of which are Iranian, while others just contain parts from Tehran, according to an analysis the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank published in early January. US Central Command, or CENTCOM, called attention to the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles but has not specifically identified which missiles have been used in any of the attacks.

Long before the Houthis began attacking international shipping lanes with anti-ship ballistic missiles, these weapons had emerged as a growing concern for the US military as it looked across the Pacific to China given the country's growing arsenal of anti-ship ballistic missiles and rising tensions.

Were Washington and Beijing to go to war at some point in the future, the maritime domain would likely be a key battleground, making anti-ship ballistic-missile capabilities and defenses designed to defeat them important considerations.

A missile is fired from the USS Carney.
A missile is fired from the USS Carney, another destroyer that's been at the forefront of the US response to the Houthis.Screengrab via US Navy

Experts have said Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles don't quite stack up against China's arsenal, which is much more sophisticated, particularly in terms of guidance technology, and is increasingly expanding. Beijing has invested heavily in the development of its Rocket Force and has even built mock-ups of American naval vessels, which are thought to be used for target practice. China also has a wide range of sensors — including radars and satellites — that it can use to direct its missiles.

But while there may be a difference between the threat environments and capabilities in the Middle East and the Western Pacific, any anti-ship ballistic missile could cause catastrophic damage, and current and former military officers agree that the Navy is gaining extremely valuable experience and a degree of reassurance through its regular engagements with the Houthis.

"Not that we like getting shot at," Miguez said. "But it was a great opportunity to prove that the systems that we did purchase, and we fielded, and we trained to, actually work when asked."

Read the original article on Business Insider