The destroyer Cole was tasked Feb. 3 with patrolling in the region, days after a suicide boat attack by Yemeni Houthi rebels on the Saudi frigate Al Madinah off the port of Al Hudaydah killed two sailors on the warship. Two other suicide boats in the attack were driven off by gunfire.
Now, Pentagon sources say two more destroyers are likely to be stationed in the Red Sea, patrolling opposite ends of the 1,400-mile-long body of water. A U.S. assault ship also is staying in the region, carrying attack aircraft and Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The destroyers could come from the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group, which was operating in the Mediterranean Sea as late as Feb. 10. The destroyers Laboon and Truxtun are part of the group, which left Norfolk, Virginia, on Jan. 21 and is headed to the Central Command region in the Middle East on a regularly scheduled deployment. Whether or not directly associated with tensions in the region, the entire group needs to pass through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to get to its eventual assigned operating areas.
The destroyers carry significant anti-air and anti-missile weapons as well as Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.
For the record, the Pentagon would not confirm nor deny the movements. Christopher Sherwood, a Defense Department spokesman, would only say that “the U.S. Navy maintains a continuous combat-ready force within the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea to protect the free flow of commerce, reassure our allies and partners, and deter acts of aggression against our forces and our partners.”
The waters around the Bab el-Mandeb are quite familiar to U.S. Navy warships, which have patrolled in the Gulf of Aden since about 2008 against Somali-based pirates. With rare exceptions, all U.S. Navy warships transiting from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific pass through the strait, including aircraft carriers and submarines.
Ironically, it was at the strategic Yemini port of Aden on the Gulf of Aden where the Cole was famously attacked by an al-Qaida suicide boat in October 2000. The destroyer nearly sank and the attack killed 17 sailors and wounded 39. It remains the deadliest attack on a U.S. Navy ship by a terrorist group.
Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a hot war in Yemen since early 2015, supporting the Sunni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against Shia Houthi rebels led by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and backed by Iran. The political situation is compounded by the presence of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which holds about a quarter of Yemen’s mid-eastern section.
The country is in turmoil. According to a November report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed in the civil war, and out of a total population of about 27 million, nearly 19 million are defined as being in need of humanitarian or protection assistance.
The conflict in Yemen’s western region, held by the Houthis, has been spreading to the sea as government forces have begun a series of offensives to retake seaports on the Red Sea. According to news reports, the Saudi-led coalition began an offensive Jan. 6 to drive the Houthis from the coast. As they have fled, Houthis reportedly have mined harbors with sea mines and shore facilities with land mines.
On Jan. 29, the U.S. staged a raid in Yemen in an attempt to gather intelligence on AQAP activities. One U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in the action, which turned into a bloody fire fight with multiple casualties on the ground and ended with the loss of an MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. While it is unclear from where the SEALs were staged, the extracted SEAL Team Six reportedly was flown to the Makin Island, where the wounded sailor died.
U.S. President Donald Trump termed the raid a “winning mission” that killed 14 al-Qaida and garnered useful intelligence. Others criticized the action, with The New York Times reporting that “almost everything that could go wrong did.” There are conflicting reports as to whether or not the Yemeni government has withdrawn permission for U.S. special forces to operate in the country.
Nevertheless, incidents in the Red Sea have visibly been on the rise. On Oct. 9, for the first time in history, a hostile surface-to-surface missile was fired at U.S. Navy ships as three units were operating in the southern Red Sea. The destroyer Mason destroyed one of the missiles while another missed. Several other incidents reportedly had taken place in the days leading up to the direct missile attack.
On Oct. 13, the destroyer Nitze retaliated and launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory.
Earlier, on Oct. 1, Houthi forces carried out a devastating missile attack on an aluminum ferry operated by the United Arab Emirates. The vessel, once operated by the U.S. Navy as the high-speed vessel Swift, had to be abandoned and was largely burned out.
Security agencies also report a growing number of attacks on merchant ships in the region by small boats firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.
While the Pentagon declined to respond directly to queries for this story, Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told Stars and Stripes on Feb. 4 that the stationing of the Cole in the Red Sea was “for no other reason than to respond to Bab el Mandeb incidents.”
“When we see things like what happened to the Saudi frigate earlier this week take place it gives us great pause," Davis told Stars and Stripes. "This is on top of other things we've seen — to include the well-known missile attempts against U.S. ships last fall — we've seen evidence that the Houthis are laying mines in the waters outside at least one of their ports. We officially have great concern for the freedom of navigation there.”
The region around the Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden is full of international naval and military activity. The European Union has maintained regular patrols against Somali-based pirates in the Gulf of Aden since late 2008, using warships from Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, the Ukraine and the United Kingdom. China, Russia and Iran have maintained their own anti-piracy patrols, and China is building a small base in Djibouti to support the operations.
The U.S.-led multinational naval partnership of the Combined Maritime Forces provides two major operating elements around the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Combined Task Force 150 is responsible for maritime security and counterterrorism, while CTF 151 is tasked with counter-piracy. Another unit, CTF 152, handles security operations in the Persian Gulf. There are 31 member nations in the Combined Maritime Forces.
A number of nations, including the U.S., have military activities of various sizes in Djibouti, on the western side of the Bab e-Mandeb across from Yemen. U.S. Marine forces aboard deployed amphibious ready groups — including the amphibious ready group centered on the Makin Island — routinely exercise in and around Djibouti.
Saudi Arabia is reported to be in the final stages of an agreement with Djibouti to establish a base there, and Arab media report that the United Arab Emirates, a key ally of Saudi Arabia in the anti-Houthi conflict, is building a military base at the Red Sea port of Assab in Eritrea.
James Pothecary, an analyst with Allan & Associates, writing in November for the Center for International Maritime Security, noted that “any concerted naval action in the area will face determined resistance. Unlike the Somali pirates of the late 2000s, Houthi fighters are ideologically motivated, trained, battle-hardened, and well-armed. Moreover, they have freedom of movement in areas of south-western Yemen under their control.
“While international naval power, supported by air power and special forces, will likely be able to contain the threat, full elimination of Houthi capability is an unrealistic objective without substantially more committed resourcing,” Pothecary wrote.