Houthi Missile Strike Results In Crew Abandoning Damaged Cargo Ship

A Belize-flagged cargo ship, the Rubymar, is now sitting at anchor without a crew in the vicinity of the Bab al Mandeb Strait after being hit by missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen. The Houthis claim the ship is now at risk of sinking, but the full extent of the damage remains unconfirmed. The Yemeni group also reportedly damaged another ship in a subsequent attack and shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone in a series of new incidents in and around the Red Sea.

“Two anti-ship ballistic missiles were launched from Iranian-backed Houthi terrorist-controlled areas of Yemen toward MV Rubymar, a Belize-flagged, U.K.-owned bulk carrier. One of the missiles struck the vessel, causing damage,” according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). “The ship issued a distress call and a coalition warship along with another merchant vessel responded to the call to assist the crew of the MV Rubymar. The crew was transported to a nearby port by the merchant vessel.”

The Royal Navy-managed United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) had first issued an alert about a reported attack on a ship near the Bab al Mandeb, which links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, late on February 18, local time. UKMTO said that the incident had occurred 35 nautical miles south of Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Al Mukha and, in a subsequent update, said that the ship in question had been damaged, but that the crew was safe.

As of early this morning, the crew had abandoned the stricken ship, which was also said to be at anchor, according to UKMTO. Unspecified military authorities were said to be on scene rendering assistance.

In addition to being Belize-flagged and British-owned, Rubymar is also Lebanese-operated. The operator, Lebanon-based GMZ Ship Management Company, has also said that the crew was uninjured in the attack and is now ashore in Djibouti, according to Bloomberg.

The War Zone cannot immediately independently verify the status of the ship itself. The Houthis claimed that it suffered “catastrophic damage” and is “now at risk of potential sinking.”

CNBC reported that the ship was afloat at least as of 8:00 AM today, London time, citing Ambrey, a U.K.-based maritime security firm. A separate report from Reuters said that the ship was understood to be taking on water, but that options for towing it to safety were being considered.

Since the attack on Rubymar, UKMTO has issued alerts about another ship being damaged by Houthi missiles in the Gulf of Aden, but its crew is said to be safe and it is still continuing on to its next port of call. At the time of writing, the identity of this ship is unknown, but reports citing information from Ambrey say it is a Greek-flagged and U.S.-owned cargo vessel.

The Houthis separately claimed today to have shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone off the coast of Yemen. CNN has reported, citing anonymous sources, that Reaper was indeed shot down and that CENTCOM is now investigating the incident. The War Zone has reached out to CENTCOM for more information.

The Houthis have released a video they claim shows the MQ-9 shootdown. An unconfirmed video purportedly showing the Reaper going down off the coast of Yemen had already been circulating on social media. Both clips are seen in the social media posts below.

Pictures claiming to the show the remains of the downed MQ-9 have now also emerged online.

The would not be the first time the Houthis have downed a Reaper since they started their anti-shipping campaign in and around the Red Sea. U.S. authorities acknowledged another MQ-9 shootdown back in November. The Houthis, who have amassed a significant arsenal of surface-to-air missiles, including Iranian-designed types and repurposed air-to-air missiles, have shot down U.S. drones, as well as crewed and uncrewed military aircraft operated by members of the Saudi-led coalition, in the past, as well.

Iranian-backed militants in Iraq also reportedly shot down another MQ-9 in January.

MQ-9s are chief among assets that the U.S. military is known to have in the region to help keep tabs on Houthi activities and provide time-sensitive actionable intelligence about potential attacks. American forces are now regularly launching preemptive strikes on Houthi targets, something that requires persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage to be as effective. The Yemeni militants have every incident to try to hamper sorties by Reapers and other U.S. ISR aircraft.

The new flurry of Houthi attacks in and around the Red Seas itself follows another round of U.S. strikes on Houthi targets this past weekend. American forces targeted “three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, one unmanned underwater vessel (UUV), and one unmanned surface vessel (USV) in Iranian-backed Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen” on February 17, according to CENTCOM. “This is the first observed Houthi employment of a UUV since [the group’s] attacks began in Oct. 23.”

CENTCOM has, so far, provided no details about this Houthi UUV or its capabilities, or about how and where it was struck. Regardless, Iran, the Houthi’s main benefactor, has previously shown a number of torpedo-like UUVs that could be used in kamikaze attacks. The Houthis already have a long history of launching attacks using explosive-laden drone boats acquired from Iran or otherwise crafted with Iranian assistance. The Yemeni group has already been observed using its kamikaze USVs are part of its current anti-shipping campaign.

Missiles, including cruise and ballistic types, and aerial kamikaze drones, have still been the Houthi’s weapons of choice in the course of its anti-shipping campaign. The Iranian-backed Yemeni militants have notably become the first to employ anti-ship ballistic missiles in anger. To date, the group has launched dozens of missiles and more than a hundred drones, and U.S. and other foreign forces have shot down dozens of those threats.

“It is the first time since World War II that the Navy has operated in an area where they are susceptible to getting shot at all day, every day, according to Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the U.S. military’s deputy commander in the Middle East,” according to a report this weekend from CBS News‘ “60 Minutes.”

The new spate of Houthi attacks also comes amid today’s formal launch of a new European Union-led maritime security operation in and around the Red Sea, dubbed Operation Aspides. At the time of wirting, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium have all reportedly pledged to contributed warships to the new force, which is being managed from a command center in Greece. Other assets, including aircraft, are expected to be part of the full force.

“The operation will be active along the main sea lines of communication in the Baab al-Mandab Strait and the Strait of Hormuz, as well as international waters in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf,” according to a statement today from the EU’s European Council. “Within its defensive mandate, the operation will provide maritime situational awareness, accompany vessels, and protect them against possible multi-domain attacks at sea.”

“Europe will ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, working alongside our international partners,” President of the EU’s European Commission, said in a post on X. “Beyond crisis response, it’s a step towards a stronger European presence at sea to protect our European interests.”

Forces assigned to the new EU maritime mission will reportedly not have authority to engage in pre-emptive attacks on Houthi targets, but will instead only be able to respond if fired upon. You can read more about what is known about Operation Aspides in The War Zone‘s reporting last week.

How the EU’s Operation Aspides will coordinate or otherwise interact with the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), which has a number of European participants, remains unclear. At the same time, that U.S. maritime security coalition has faced challenges from the start, including French authorities being unwilling to place their forces under American command. These issues may have, in turn, helped prompt the creation of the new EU mission.

The attack on the Rubymar and the other still-unnamed ship in the past 24 hours or so, as well as the reported shooting down of a U.S. MQ-9, make clear that the crisis in the region is still very in swing despite these intentional efforts. Whatever the exact status of the Rubymar might be now, that specific incident looks to be the most serious attack on a commercial ship since the Houthi’s began their anti-shipping campaign last year.

“It’s been reduced … on any given day, sometimes 40%. But it’s clearly flowing, and I think in many respects it’s flowing because of the defensive umbrella that we put over the southern Red Sea, for sure,” Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the Deputy Commander of CENTCOM, said in his recent interview with “60 Minutes” on CBS News. “Fifteen percent of global trade flows exactly through the Red Sea. And so, keeping these vital waterways open is critical. It’s a core commitment the United States has from a strategic perspective, maintaining the free flow of commerce.”

The EU’s Operation Aspides makes clear that the free flow of maritime commerce through the region is a strategic imperative to countries outside of the United States. What kind of impact the still-growing international response will have on the Houthis, and their willingness and ability to launch attacks like the ones we’ve just seen recently, remains to be seen.

Contact the author: joe@twz.com