A cruise missile launched by the Houthis into the Red Sea on Tuesday night came within a mile of a US destroyer before it was shot down, four US officials told CNN, the closest a Houthi attack has come to a US warship.
In the past, these missiles have been intercepted by US destroyers in the area at a range of eight miles or more, the officials said. But the USS Gravely had to use its Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) for the first time since the US began intercepting the Houthi missiles late last year, which ultimately succeeded in downing the missile, officials said.
The CIWS, an automated machine gun designed for close-range intercepts, is one of the final defensive lines the ship has to shoot down an incoming missile when other layers of defense have failed to intercept it.
The episode underscores the threat the Houthis continue to pose to US naval assets and commercial shipping in the Red Sea, despite multiple US and British strikes on Houthi infrastructure inside Yemen. The close call also comes just days after three US service members were killed in a drone attack by Iran-backed militants at a US outpost in Jordan.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin condemned the “reckless and illegal attacks” against US warships and commercial vessels in the region.
“We can see Iran’s hand here as well, providing the Houthis with advanced conventional weapons, intelligence and expertise,” said Austin during a bilateral meeting with his British counterpart.
A US official said the fact that the Gravely was not able to intercept the missile sooner does not indicate that the Houthis’ attacks have gotten more sophisticated.
Tom Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was “concerning” that the Houthi missile managed to get so close to a US warship.
“If it’s going at a pretty good clip, one mile translates to not very long in terms of time,” Karako said.
The Houthis acquire much of their weapons technology from Iran, Karako said. Even slower cruise missiles could cover a mile within a matter of seconds, and the decision time for the commanders of warships is compressed because of the narrow waterways in the Red Sea.
The challenge facing air defense, Karako said, is a “capacity problem,” since US warships have a finite supply of interceptor missiles to use. “We can’t afford to sit here and play catch indefinitely,” he said.
The Houthis have continued to launch missiles and drones at vessels in the Red Sea, however, and on Wednesday morning were preparing to launch a surface-to-air missile that posed a risk to US aircraft operating in the region, according to US Central Command.
In a statement, CENTCOM said US forces successfully destroyed the missile before it launched.
The US carried out airstrikes Wednesday against 10 Houthi drones and an Iranian-backed Houthi drone ground control station in Yemen, CENTCOM said in a separate statement. They marked the latest strikes in a series of attacks on Houthi weapons before they can be launched against international shipping lanes and US warships in the region.
Since January 11, the US has carried out multiple strikes inside Yemen against Houthi weapons depots, command and control nodes, and storage facilities, military officials have said. Officials have declined to detail what percentage of the Houthis’ weapons capabilities have been degraded by the strikes.
Iran, which supports and equips the Houthis, has continued to try to send the group weapons and supplies. Earlier this month, the US Navy seized Iranian-made ballistic and cruise missile components from a vessel off the coast of Somalia that was destined for Houthis in Yemen, according to CENTCOM. Two US Navy SEALs died in that operation after one fell overboard and the other jumped in to try to rescue him.
Iran has also supplied the Houthis with tactical intelligence and monitoring systems that has allowed them to better target vessels in the Red Sea, CNN previously reported.
The US is currently weighing how to respond to the drone attack in Jordan and could target certain Iranian or Iran-backed assets in the region with either strikes or cyberattacks, CNN reported. But amid the increasingly high tensions on multiple fronts in the region, US officials have repeatedly said they do not want to get embroiled in a war with Iran.
“We are not looking for war with Iran. We are not seeking a conflict with the regime in the military way,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said this week. “We’re not looking to escalate here.”
This story has been updated with additional details.
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