Fox News is reporting that US Navy vessels are headed to the Mandeb Strait, where Houthi rebels successfully attacked the UAE-operated high-speed logistics ship Swift. According to the report, two Arleigh Burke class destroyers and the USS Ponce are moving into the area.
The Ponce is America’s specially equipped anti-mine and special operations forward staging sea base in the Persian Gulf, so moving it from that critical area seems like a huge commitment–one which will leave a capability gap in a region where the US is heavily engaged. As such, ordering Ponce to reposition to Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden seems highly unlikely. That is, unless a larger plan is underway wherin the US increases its involvement in the Yemeni civil war, or at least the larger strategic maritime implications surround it.
The area has also been plagued with piracy that mainly emanates from the Horn of Africa, so a strong naval presence in the area is not a new concept. In the past, amphibious and even carrier groups have trolled the region on anti-piracy patrols. Also, the US maintains a strong presence in Djibouti, including detachments of fighter, special operations and surveillance aircraft, as well as Predator and Reaper drones.
Two days after Swift was attacked, pinning down exactly how it was attacked, what the ship was doing when it was attacked, and how many people aboard were hurt or killed in the incident still remains an impossible task. The vast majority of news outlets have said that Swift was struck by an anti-ship missile, some specifically stating it was a variant of the Chinese designed C-802, found in Iran’s arsenal. The video posted seems to match with this account. Yet others have stated that the attack was executed with a group of smaller missiles. Even the Fox report alludes that this may have been an anti-tank missile attack. Such a strike could have come from shore, if Swift was within a mile or so of it, or it could have come from swarming small boats. Either way, if this is true and an anti-ship missile was not used in the attack then parts of the video supposedly showing the attack would be false.
As to what the ship was doing in the area when the attack occurred is not precisely clear either. The official story is that it was delivering medical aid and transporting the wounded. Yet a major military logistics bridge into Yemen has been established by the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab states fighting Iranian-backed Shiite rebels there. Considering Swift’s unique abilities, it could just as easily have been delivering weapons or troops as anything else.
Then there is the uncertainty surrounding how many people were killed or hurt during the attack. At first the UAE made the impression that nobody was harmed in the strike, a claim that seemed erroneous at the time. Now there are rumors that dozens were killed, including members of the royal family. So far neither of these reports can be corroborated.
The Sunni coalition said today that they are launching strikes against small boats tied to the attack. This is an odd statement if an anti-ship missile had been fired from land, though it's possible that a swarm of small boats were used to harass Swift and slow its movement through the area–possibly damaging it in the process and giving crews on land time to target the ship with an anti-ship missile.
The US Navy has an interest in eliminating the threat that these small boats pose as well, seeing that a massive amount of trade moves through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea everyday. American destroyers are equipped with Hellfire missile-slinging MH-60R Seahawk helicopters that can wreak havoc on small boats. But it's the USS Ponce in particular that has the ability to set up shop, unleash then sustain a small armada of boats and helicopters that could be used to control the entire area.
Although Swift was shown totally ablaze, there has been no evidence that it sunk. In fact, the Fox report says that the badly damaged ship is going to be towed to nearby Eritrea for examination.
As for the official US stance on the incident, the State Department addressed the attack on Monday stating:
“The United States strongly condemns the Houthi forces’ unprovoked attack against a UAE vessel operating near the Bab Al Mandeb," said US department of state spokesman John Kirby, according to Wam, the state news agency… We take these threats seriously. The United States remains committed to upholding freedom of navigation through the Bab Al Mandeb... These provocative actions risk exacerbating the current conflict and narrow the prospects for a peaceful settlement.
State Department spokesperson Retired Navy Admiral John Kirby continued:
"Resolution to the conflict in Yemen must focus on a political solution and we urge the Houthi-Saleh groups to demonstrate their commitment to a peaceful solution by taking steps to de-escalate by adhering to a cessation of hostilities without preconditions, and we continue to call on all parties to return to the negotiations being facilitated by the United Nations.”
The US has not been directly involved in the fighting in Yemen, but US aerial tankers, intelligence assets, search and rescue crews and other support capabilities have been provided to the Saudi-led coalition. Still, many of the weapons systems being used by the coalition against Houthi rebels are of US origin, as are much of the ordinance they employ. There have even been claims that US-supplied white phosphorus munitions are being used in the fighting.
Meanwhile the Arab League has also condemned the act, and has made it clear that an active military response is underway. This could very well include the first deployment of Egypt’s Mistral class amphibious assault ships, one of which was just spotted making its way through the Suez Canal.
Now it is a waiting game to see what, if any, US Navy assets actually show up off the Yemeni coast. Hopefully, we will also get more clarity as to how exactly Swift was attacked and how bad the damage is, both in lives lost and in terms of the condition of the ship.
Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com