A U.S. warship destroyed a drone launched from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen after responding to reports of a commercial vessel coming under an anti-ship ballistic missile attack in the southern Red Sea, a U.S. official told The War Zone.
The latest in a series of Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping began around 8 a.m. local time when the M/T Ardmore Encounter reported that they were being approached by men in skiffs, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details. The Houthis then fired two ground-based anti-ship ballistic missiles at the vessel that missed, the official said.
The Royal Navy's United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) reported that the commercial vessel, which it did not name, was approached by armed men in a skiff that got within a half nautical mile of it. An armed security team on the ship fired warning shots and then there was an exchange of small arms fire. A short while later, the commercial vessel reported seeing an explosion 200 meters astern and went to emergency stations. Ships in the area were then warned by UKMTO to "exercise caution and report suspicious activity."
The Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason responded to a call from the commercial vessel and shot down a Houthi drone, launched from Yemen, that was heading toward it, the official told us. There were no injuries or damage reported by either vessel and the Ardmore Encounter continued its trip.
The Houthis did not immediately take credit for the attack, but on Tuesday, spokesman for the group Yahya Sare'e said that the rebels will "continue to prevent all ships of all nationalities heading to Israeli ports from navigating in the Arab and Red Seas until they bring in food and medicine that our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip need."
The Ardmore Encounter Marshall Islands-flagged, according to The Associated Press. It is an oil tanker that was carrying Indian-produced jet fuel bound for the Netherlands with an option to Sweden, the company said in a statement.
"Ardmore Shipping Corporation, owner and operator of the M/T Ardmore Encounter, reports that earlier today the vessel came under attack while transiting the Red Sea," the company said. "No one boarded the vessel and all crew members are safe and accounted for. The vessel remains fully operational with no loss of cargo or damage onboard, and is considered to be out of immediate danger."
The company "is in close contact with the relevant authorities and received military assistance during the attack."
“We would like to thank the captain and crew of the M/T Ardmore Encounter for their calm and professional actions during the attack, as well as the armed guards onboard and the naval assistance provided in defending the vessel; all acted in a rapid, coordinated, and highly professional manner," said Anthony Gurnee, CEO of Ardmore Shipping. "We also want to highlight the importance of the training and preparations taken prior to the transit, and the effective coordination with all authorities.”
The attack on the Ardmore Encounter came just two days after the Mason responded to a distress call from the Norwegian-flagged chemical tanker M/T Strinda, that was struck by a land-based cruise missile that caused a fire on board.
French Navy (Marine Nationale) FREMM Frigate Languedoc, patrolling off the coast of Yemen, was also involved in the Strinda incident, shooting down a drone threatening the vessel.
Today's incident was Mason's fourth encounter with the Houthis. On Dec. 7, it downed a drone launched from Houthi-controlled Yemen, UNSI News reported. Nov. 27, two ballistic missiles fired from Yemen came down in the Red Sea in its vicinity. At the time, the warship was concluding its response to a distress call from the M/V Central Park, a commercial vessel that had itself come under attack from a group of armed raiders that had attempted to board it.
The Houthis have repeatedly attacked shipping in the Red Sea and launched missiles and drones at Israel. There have been several instances where U.S. Navy vessels have also had to shoot down Houthi drones and missiles. On Nov. 19, the Houthis staged a helicopter-borne raid on the Galaxy Leader, a Bahamian-flagged vehicle carrier transiting the Red Sea. The Houthis still hold the ship and its 25 crew members. A U.S. military official told The War Zone it is believed to be the first Houthi helicopter-borne raid on a ship. You can read more about these incidents and others involving the Houthis in our story here.
On Tuesday, Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's top spokesman, told reporters that the U.S. continues to discuss the creation of an international task force to provide protection to shipping in the region.
"The actions that we've seen from these Houthi forces are destabilizing, they're dangerous, and clearly a flagrant violation of international law," he said. "And so this is an international problem that requires an international solution. We do continue to consult closely with our international allies and partners on implementing a maritime task force."
So far, the U.S. has taken no military response against the Houthis. In 2016, the U.S. did retaliate against them after they slung four anti-ship missiles at the USS Mason and USS Ponce on two separate occasions in just three days.
Ryder seemingly left all options on the table.
"As we've demonstrated in the past, is that our military will not hesitate to take action where we deem it necessary and appropriate, including to protect against actions in the maritime domain that could threaten our forces," he said.
When or if that will happen, and when the new task force is launched and how it will respond all remain unknown, but something we will watch closely.