US admiral fears Yemen civil war widening into the Red Sea
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The Houthi boat that attacked and hit a Saudi frigate Jan. 30 in the Red Sea, reported earlier as a suicide boat, was instead carried out by an unmanned, remote-controlled craft filled with explosives, the US Navy's top officer in the Mideast said.
"Our assessment is that it was an unmanned, remote-controlled boat of some kind," Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander of the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet and head of US Naval Forces Central Command, told Defense News in an interview here Saturday.
The attack on the frigate Al Madinah appears to be the first confirmed use of the weapon which, Donegan said, represents a wider threat than that posed by suicide boats and shows foreign interests are aiding the Houthis.
Donegan is concerned "first that it is in the hands of someone like the Houthis. That's not an easy thing to develop. There have been many terrorist groups that have tried to develop that, it's not something that was just invented by the Houthis. There's clearly support there coming from others, so that's problematic.
"The second is the explosive boat piece — you don't need suicide attackers to do a suicide-like attack. There are certain terrorists that do things and they get martyrs to go and do it. But there are many others that don't want to martyr themselves in making attacks like that and that's pretty much where the Houthis are. So it makes that kind of weaponry, which would normally take someone suicidal to use, now able to be used by someone who's not going to martyr themselves."
The unmanned boat was likely supplied by Iran, Donegan said.
"I don’t know that it’s Iranian-built, but I believe that it’s production in some way was supported by Iran," Donegan said.
"Here’s how I connect those dots. About a year ago we began and were successful in interdicting about four weapons shipments of things going to Yemen," he said, noting that three of the shipments were intercepted by coalition partners of the US, while one shipment was intercepted by a US ship.
"We allowed the United Nations access to all the weapons we got from one of the interdictions, and they published quite an extensive report," Donegan said. "They said specifically that the weapons came from Iran and were destined for Yemen in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. That’s not my assessment, that’s the United Nations assessment.
"Secondly, the other three weapon shipments that were interdicted were examined by another independent group, the [U.K.-based] Conflict Armament Research. They’ve also put out a report that almost said exactly the same thing. And they did this by analysis of the weapons and serial numbers and where they were manufactured and the instruction manuals, and the GPS waypoints of the systems.
"So we know that weapons were shipped from Iran to Yemen. The question is at what level and how many, etc. We know what was in the weapon inventory of Yemen before the conflict started, and the Yemenis didn’t have a weapon that could range Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. That’s an 800-kilometer ballistic missile shot, whereas the Scud missile, about 200 kilometers is what it can do. They had a rudimentary coastal defense missile. But most of their systems had atrophied. So they’re being supported by Iran. Maybe there’s others supporting them, I don’t know. But for certain these things aren’t indigenous, there are parts and components that need to be coming from other places to make them effective like this."
The Houthis in western Yemen along the Red Sea coast have been widening the Yemeni civil war to threaten the large amount of international commercial shipping that passes through the Bab el Mandeb strait at the southern end of the Red Sea. Virtually all maritime traffic in and out of the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean passes through the strait.
"This is a region that is always in conflict," Donegan said. "We’re not here to maintain peace and stability. On the contrary, there are four, sometimes five active conflicts in the region going on. Most of our time is spent trying to get more peace and stability in the region.
"But over the 15 years of fighting we’ve been doing on land, we haven’t had the conflict spill into the maritime. What bothers me about Yemen is that you’ve seen this conflict spilled into the maritime in several places. The problem is the potential impact on the flow of commerce. And that’s not just our interest, it’s a global interest.
"What we have now is that non-nation-states get access to nation-state-like weapon systems, and that impacts the flow of commerce. You saw that in the attack on the motor vessel Swift on the 1
of October, and you saw that again with this explosive boat that was used against the Saudi frigate Al-Madinah. My fear is they move to use that [weapon] against any kind of commerce that flows through [the southern Red Sea]. And even if they don’t intend to, my fear is that it becomes a collateral damage, because they’re not so good at identifying targets and things like that.
"With about 64 vessels a day travelling through there, the Bab al Mandeb, almost all with energy cargoes, any issue of misidentification or misapplication of one of these weapon systems could become an issue with commerce, and that’s what we have to avoid. In the end what we’d like to see is that conflict back into the land mass and not out into where we have commercial traffic."
In January, Saudi Arabia, supporting the elected government of Yemen, began an offensive intended to drive the Houthis from the coastal regions along the Red Sea. The offensive has only been partially successful, and reports in the Arab media indicate the Houthis, as they evacuate an area, leave behind land and sea mines. There are fears that the sea mines, most of Soviet manufacture, are old and can break loose, drifting out into commercial shipping lanes.
"That’s exactly the part of my worry about this conflict spilling into the maritime," Donegan said. "It doesn’t matter to us whether it’s mines in the water or explosive boats in the water, that’s a problem for me.
"We’ve often talked in the past about the Strait of Hormuz being closed up. But the Bab al Mandeb and the Red Sea are so important for a couple of reasons. For one you have this flow of commerce that goes up to the Suez Canal. Anything going through the Suez Canal is feeding the Egyptian economy. We really can’t afford to have a reduction to the Eqyptian economy. It’s fragile and we can’t have that.
"The other piece that happens is, diverting around the Red Sea and Bab al Mandeb is something potentially that the oil industry may be able to accommodate with some initial cost, but industries like liquid natural gas, there is no excess capacity in the transporting of it, nor is there excess storage capacity at the destinations. So any kind of slowdown in traffic through the Bab al Mandeb is going to have a pretty quick impact on both the region but also on the global supply of energy. Because of that just-in-time liquid natural gas piece, there’ll be a delay before the oil will be able to move in a different direction, and then you’ll have the impact on the local economies that are getting their money – especially Egypt."
Asked if the US is stepping up interdiction actions, Donegan said, "No. But there are UN Security Council resolutions that compel all the nations that can to not allow weapons to go to Yemen. Very clear UN Security Council resolutions. So all the nations that can are compelled to not use their territory or waters for that use.
"We haven’t changed what we do. We’ve always had a focus on not allowing the maritime to be used for illicit purposes, especially those areas where we have UN Security Council resolutions that ask us to do that work."
Asked if the United States was preparing military operations against the Houthis, Donegan demurred.
"I don’t think I’d be able to answer that for a whole bunch of reasons," he said. "But suffice to say we’re certainly concerned about it and we’re doing prudent planning, not just ourselves but with our allies and partners in the region. We’re really concerned now more than before because of this spillage into the maritime. And it doesn’t have to be a military solution that gets to an end-state here.
"If we can get the factions in Yemen together to get back on the peace track then you can get in and clean out the weapons that are there, the higher-end weapons that have gotten in there.
"My biggest concern now is you’ve got nation-state-like weapons in the hands of non-nation-states. It’s not in the hands of the duly-elected government of Yemen. Some of them because they were able to pick up inventories of other weapons, and some because they’ve been augmented."
Donegan was also asked about the US commitment to the Gulf region, a perennial concern among the US partners here, particularly after the "America first" language in President Trump’s inaugural address.
"We’re absolutely committed to stay here," Donegan declared. "There’s been no change in that in any way, shape or form, in my mind. We’re battling the readiness issues of our service, because we’ve used them pretty hard. But my headquarters is not going away. We’ll have our ships out here in the region. We’ll have the carrier strike group in and out. We still have permanently-homeported ships based here in the region. So we’re not stepping in any way away from the region.
And America first means we’re here because it’s in America’s interests. It doesn’t mean we’re going to run back home and protect in a defensive way. It means we’re going to be out and engaged so we can have influence in places, and where our interests are at stake we can be there when and where we’re needed. That is not changing. I’ve gotten zero indications of that."
And he added, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ current visit to the region is "to emphasize those exact same things."
Christopher P. Cavas was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.