The U.S. conducted its fourth round of strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen today, a preemptive attack against missiles, a senior U.S. administration official told The War Zone.
Today's attack follows a preemptive strike against Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles on Tuesday. The U.S. previously struck a Houthi radar site with a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile fired by the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Carney on Jan. 13. That came after U.S. and U.K. aircraft, surface ship and submarine attacks on more than 60 targets hit at 28 sites in Houthi-controlled Yemen on Jan. 12.
This latest strike came after U.S. Central Command said the Houthis struck a U.S. owned and operated bulk carrier M/V Genco Picardy with a drone earlier today in the Gulf of Aden. Damage was reported to the ship, but no injuries resulted from the strike.
The Houthis claimed credit for the attack.
The U.S. is clearly now moving to striking anti-ship weapons before they are launched. Going after time-sensitive targets of this nature can be very challenging and resource intensive, as we previously discussed in a December 17th article:
"Having the U.S. military strike targets in Yemen sounds easy, and it wouldn't be hard to do operationally, but the escalation that could follow could pose much more challenging tactical problems. Giving the Houthis a 'bloody nose' is very different than actually stopping or even significantly curbing their ability to launch anti-ship attacks. Preempting anti-ship missile and drone attacks would require a large, costly, resource-sucking, open-ended operation. This would include persistent intelligence gathering across a very broad area, as well as strike assets at the ready to hit time-sensitive targets based on that real time intelligence. Is the United States prepared to see that through and to what end?"
And from a more recent post about America's first strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen:
"Still, it must be highlighted that attempting to directly stop the Houthi missile and drone attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden military would be extremely resource intensive. While space-based infrared warning satellites would have detected the locationsof anti-ship ballistic and most cruise missile launches — with many other intelligence capabilities gaining valuable information on these operations in recent weeks, as well — and documenting these patterns of operations would be critical to stopping launches before they occur, actually doing this would be a huge challenge. It would require a far more elaborate surveillance and reconnaissance enterprise to be persistently deployed over large swathes of Yemeni coastline and inland areas. This would need to be paired with assets at the ready capable of time-sensitive strikes. They would need to hit the launchers before firing. Considering the Houthis have years of experience fighting against Saudi Arabia and their Arab coalition, they have dispersed their capabilities so they cannot be easily destroyed and know that firing from unpredictable locations and moving the weapons themselves around constantly is key to surviving. This makes eliminating them very challenging.
That being said, degrading the Houthis ability to target ships in other ways, like striking known radar systems and command and control nodes, could help reduce their ability to launch attacks but it will not eliminate it. Not even close."
As for how much of the Houthis arsenal and ability to use it has been degraded by the strikes, the Pentagon isn't saying, but clearly they retain a robust ability to threaten shipping off their shores. Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's top spokesman, told The War Zone and other reporters in a briefing today:
"I can't get into a percentage is because now we start to get into intelligence. And from the podium here, I wouldn't start talking about what we know and what we don't know which can then be reverse engineered in terms of potential adversary or in this case, that would be the Houthis understanding where we may have gaps or not in our intelligence. So I'm just not going to be able to get into those numbers."
"I'm not gonna be able to get into the specific launch sites of Houthi missiles other than to say, again, they do retain some capability, clearly, and again, we will continue to do what we need to do to work with partners to deter these attacks and importantly to safeguard vessels that are transiting the Red Sea."
As we have repeatedly highlighted, the Houthis are well adapted to keeping their prized weaponry distributed across many sites and otherwise hidden and/or on the move to keep from losing large quantities of capabilities in concentrated strikes. The New York Times reports that the strikes on Jan. 11 only damaged or destroyed an estimated 20-30% of the Houthis offensive anti-ship capabilities.
Some ships have begun declaring their lack of alignment with Israeli and U.S. interests via their AIS transpounder messages. Other 'colorful' messages have also been spotted by vessel trackers:
Commercial shipping is definitely feeling the brunt of this crisis, with many carriers avoiding the area at significant cost. You can read more about this situation in this report.
There are also growing concerns that Houthis could lash out at U.S. military bases in the region, something we highlighted as ominous possibility repeatedly.
Ryder responded to our query about these concerns: "I’ve seen the press reports, but don’t have any specific threats to highlight at this time. As always, we take force protection seriously and our forces maintain the inherent right of self defense."
This is a developing story. We will update it when more news becomes available.
Update: 8:45 PM Eastern -
CENTCOM released its statement on the attack:
"In the context of ongoing multi-national efforts to protect freedom of navigation and prevent attacks on U.S. and partner maritime traffic in the Red Sea, on Jan. 17 at approximately 11:59 p.m. (Sanaa time), U.S. Central Command forces conducted strikes on 14 Iran-backed Houthi missiles that were loaded to be fired in Houthi controlled areas in Yemen. These missiles on launch rails presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and U.S. Navy ships in the region and could have been fired at any time, prompting U.S. forces to exercise their inherent right and obligation to defend themselves. These strikes, along with other actions we have taken, will degrade the Houthi’s capabilities to continue their reckless attacks on international and commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden."
“The actions by the Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists continue to endanger international mariners and disrupt the commercial shipping lanes in the Southern Red Sea and adjacent waterways,” said General Michael Erik Kurilla, USCENTCOM Commander. "We will continue to take actions to protect the lives of innocent mariners and we will always protect our people.”
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