Another Burning Cargo Ship Abandoned After Houthi Missile Attack (Updated)

The Barbados-flagged cargo ship True Confidence is adrift and reportedly on fire after being abandoned following a missile attack by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi militants in the Gulf of Aden. Reports say that members of the ship’s crew suffered serious injuries in the incident or are now missing.

This is the second ship to be abandoned in the region after sustaining serious damage in the past two weeks or so. The other vessel in question, the Belize-flagged Rubymar, sank in the adjacent Bab al Mandeb Strait over the weekend. Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen have continued to escalate their anti-shipping campaign in and around the Red Sea despite the efforts of now multiple interactional coalitions to defend commercial vessels, as well as strikes against the group ashore.

A view of the True Confidence following today’s attack. CENTCOM

An alert from the Royal Navy-managed United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) office has confirmed that the crew of an unspecified “merchant vessel” in the Gulf of Aden is “no longer under command” after its crew abandoned ship. UKMTO has since identified the vessel in question as the True Confidence, something that had already been widely reported to be the case.

“Coalition forces are supporting the vessel and its crew,” according to UKMTO.

For their part, the Houthis claim they fired “a number of appropriate naval missiles” at the True Confidence, ostensibly after it ignored their warnings, and that the attack caused a fire on the ship. For months now, the Iranian-backed militants have been launching attacks on commercial vessels and foreign warships, primarily with anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles and kamikaze drones. The group has also employed explosive-laden uncrewed surface vessels (USV) and has access to uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUV), as well as naval mines.

The exact state of the True Confidence is not entirely clear, but its situation was already reported to be very serious before it was confirmed to have been abandoned. The ship’s owner said earlier today that the vessel was on fire after having been hit by a missile, according to Reuters. That outlet also reported that at least three members of the crew are missing and four more suffered serious burns, citing an anonymous “shipping source.” The ship is said to have had 20 crew members and three armed guards aboard before the apparent attack.

U.K.-based maritime security firm Ambrey earlier told AFP that a rescue operation was underway and that a portion of the crew was already in lifeboats. Ambrey also said that the ship had been hailed ahead of the apparent attack by individuals claiming to represent the Houthi’s self-styled Yemeni Navy and had issued a demand for the ship to change course, which was not followed.

At least 15 commercial vessels, including four U.S.-owned ones, have been “impacted” by Houthi anti-shipping attacks Pentagon spokesperson U.S. Army Maj. Pete Nguyen said in a statement last week, according to Defense One. As already noted, the Rubymar sank on Saturday following a Houthi attack last week. This was the first time the Iranian-backed militants had succeeded in destroying a vessel of any kind since it launched its anti-shipping campaign in and around the Red Sea in October.

To date, no naval vessels have sustained damage or casualties in Houthi attacks. There have been concerning reports about how close Houthi threats have gotten to U.S. Navy and other foreign warships in the region in certain instances. Just yesterday, CENTCOM said that the Houthis had launched an anti-ship ballistic missile and a trio of kamikaze drones at the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Carney, which were subsequently shot down.

Houthi attacks have continued despite a growing international naval presence in the region. This now includes two international coalitions dedicated to protecting international shipping, the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian and the European Union-led Operation Aspides.

Separate from Operation Prosperity Guardian, the U.S. military has also conducted a number of strikes targeting Houthi missiles, air defense assets, and other objects ashore. Some of those strikes have been conducted together with the armed forces of the United Kingdom. Another round of American strikes yesterday targeted anti-ship missiles and USVs, according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the top U.S. military command in the Middle East.

These various operations are demanding a considerable amount of resources. Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Nguyen that “there are between four and eight Coalition ships in the Red Sea on any given day.” Carrier and land-based crewed aircraft and drones have been supporting these operations, as well.

On top of that, U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyers alone have reportedly expended some 100 Standard-family surface-to-air missiles, at least, in the source of shooting down Houthi missiles and drones since October. The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond also recently made a lengthy trip to Gibraltar to rearm after months on duty in and around the Red Sea. This all underscores the logistical complexities of keeping warship magazines full during sustained operations, issues The War Zone explored in detail earlier this year in the context of the U.S. Navy’s future Constellation class frigates and other surface combatants.

The Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Carney fires a surface-to-air missile at Houthi threats on October 19, 2023. U.S. Navy

Despite all this, the Houthi’s anti-ship campaign has clearly continued. The sinking of the Rubymar and today’s incident involving True Confidence point to a worrisome trend in the severity of those attacks.

There have also been concerns that the crisis in and around the Red Sea might expand beyond just anti-ship attacks. A number of undersea communications cables in the Red Sea have been cut. However, U.S. and other authorities say is unclear if this is the result of a deliberate attack on the cables or something accidental, such as damage from a ship’s anchor.

“This is an international, multinational effort to address this problem. … our approach is to work with international partners and allies to disrupt and degrade Houthi capabilities, but most importantly, to work with international shipping companies and countries around the world to help ensure that they can safely transit that waterway,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson, said at a routine press conference yesterday. “We have a significant amount of capability already in the region but it’s not just about the U.S. We will continue to work with allies and partners. And as we continue to need more, we’ll certainly work with them, and certainly are willing to take any and all helpers on that front.”

Today’s incident involving the True Confidence underscores the continued challenges that U.S. and other international forces are facing in trying just to defend international shipping from Houthi attacks amid a crisis that only seems to be escalating.

Update 1:50 PM EST:

U.S. officials have now said that two members of True Confidence’s crew were killed and six more were injured in today’s missile attack, according to posts on X from Politico‘s Laura Seligman. No Americans were among them.

A Pentagon official also said that an unspecified Indian Navy warship was first on the scene and helped rescue the crew, according to Seligman. The U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Philippine Sea also responded to the attack.

“At least 2 innocent sailors have died,” a post from the official X account of the British Embassy in Yemen also reads. “This was the sad but inevitable consequence of the Houthis recklessly firing missiles at international shipping. They must stop.”

Separately, online ship tracking data has shown that the Behshad, a floating Iranian support base that U.S. officials say has been feeding intelligence and otherwise assisting the Houthis, was in the area at the time of the attack on True Confidence. Reports last month said that the U.S. government had conducted a cyber attack of some kind to degrade and disrupt Behshad‘s activities.

Update 6:15 PM EST:

CENTCOM has now issued a press release about today’s attack on the True Confidence, which says that three members of the ship’s crew died and four more were injured as a result. Three of the four injured individuals are said to be in critical condition and the ship itself has suffered significant damage.

The full release from CENTCOM is as follows:

“At approximately 11:30 a.m. (Sanaa time) March 6, an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) was launched from Iranian-backed Houthi terrorist-controlled areas of Yemen toward M/V True Confidence, a Barbados-flagged, Liberian-owned bulk carrier, while transiting the Gulf of Aden. The missile struck the vessel, and the multinational crew reports three fatalities, at least four injuries, of which three are in critical condition, and significant damage to the ship.

The crew abandoned the ship and coalition warships responded and are assessing the situation.

This is the fifth ASBM fired by Houthis in the last two days. Two of these ASBMs impacted two shipping vessels – M/V MSC Sky II and M/V True Confidence – and one ASBM was shot down by USS Carney (DDG 64).

These reckless attacks by the Houthis have disrupted global trade and taken the lives of international seafarers.”

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.