Pirates shooting ballistic missiles at a US warship probably merits a response

This weekend has been a busy time for the Iranian-backed Houthis of Yemen. Not content with their precarious but ultimately successful helicopter-enabled hijack of the MV Galaxy Leader and her 25 crew last week, they have now doubled down, attempting to hijack another vessel and then firing ballistic missiles at the US Navy warship which drove off the attack.

This failed hijacking was of the Liberian-flagged Central Park, owned by Zodiac Maritime which is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. The ship’s cargo is phosphoric acid, used in production of fertilisers.

In between the successful and the failed hijacking (or acts of piracy if you would prefer), the Houthis fired a Shaheed-136 drone at container ship CMA CGM Symi in the Indian Ocean which damaged the ship but no crew were hurt.

These three events deviate from their previous attacks in a couple of important ways. First, this is the first time the US Navy has been directly targeted by Houthi missiles since 7 October – previous engagements and intercepts in the Red Sea were all categorised as ‘crossing targets’, i.e. meant for someone else. This will change the US metric on self-defence.

Second, the Houthi ‘area of operations’ is expanding further from their home in North-western Yemen. The closest port in this instance, Aden, is controlled by the legitimate Yemeni government, not the Houthis. They clearly continue to grow in confidence as their Iranian technical and intelligence support increases. This has resource implications for anyone choosing to address it.

But let’s get back to the failed hijacking. Being a former escort captain myself, I can well imagine the story from the point of view of USS Mason’s commanding officer.

The tanker, MV Central Park, had left the Red Sea and was transiting the Gulf of Aden. The tanker crew had been on high alert since the Galaxy Leader incident and had their Automatic Identification System (AIS) switched off to make themselves harder to find.

United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, an information and warning service for merchant ships, warned shipping in the area of approaches by “two black and white craft carrying eight people in military clothing”. The Central Park was then boarded “35 miles south of Yemen, 50 miles east of Djibouti and 70 miles northeast of Somalia”.

On being boarded, the crew retreated to the ship’s citadel, a fortified safe compartment which it is difficult for attackers to gain access to. Establishment and use of citadels was a major anti-piracy lesson of the last ten or so years: it prevents attackers from taking the crew hostage and makes things much simpler for responding naval or military forces. The crew then put out a distress call. Ships of the regional counter-piracy task force (TF 151), USS Mason and Japanese destroyer Akebono, responded.

As a side note, three ships of the 45th Naval Escort Task Force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were also in the area and did not respond. This is absolutely not the same as being actively involved, which some are already suggesting.

At this point, things for the captain of the USS Mason would have become busy.

The first thing is to establish an accurate location. Hopefully this came in the initial Mayday call but if not, find out where they are, and therefore how quickly you (and your helicopter) can get there. You wouldn’t relay that information back to them as it’s too useful to the hijackers, but you would want to reassure them that you are now closing ‘at best speed’.

You need more information on the nature of and timing of the boarding. How many, what are they armed with, what communications have you had etc. You’d want confirmation of the situation on board. If the attackers have hostages, the situation becomes much more complex and a normal warship crew would not normally be allowed to deal with it: any boarding of a vessel with hostages held aboard is normally a job for Special Forces, who will seldom be present aboard a normal warship.

Then it’s a call to your Marine Engineering Officer, “I need every engine you have, without limitations”. You think you’re being punchy: the engineers think you’re being overdramatic, and besides they were probably doing it anyway.

Next, it’s a chat with your Flight Commander, “how quickly can you get airborne armed with these weapons” and then some quick speed-times-distance on the electronic chart to agree on the best place to launch. You want to throw the helicopter out in front of you to get early eyes-on so that they report back what they can see and react accordingly. The earlier conversation with the merchant ship’s master about what the attackers were armed with pays dividends here – you can now decide on your helicopter’s approach limitations.

Given the missile threat in the area and that you are now rushing at full speed and therefore blind on sonar, a chat with your Operations Officer will be in order about taking the ship to Action Stations, the highest state of readiness. You want everyone up, weapons ready and all sensors pointing at the boarded vessel and all around.

All of this happens in the first five minutes including a quick address to the ship’s company to let them know what is going on.

Houthi commanders aboard the captured ship Galaxy Leader, seized on 22 November. The Houthis have threatened shipping with Israeli connections following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war
Houthi commanders aboard the captured ship Galaxy Leader, seized on 22 November. The Houthis have threatened shipping with Israeli connections following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war - Houthi handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In this case, it appears that a combination of not being able to reach the crew and hearing the chatter from the approaching the US and Japanese warships was enough to spook the hijackers. They scarpered in a skiff, heading at best speed for Yemen – their promise of glory fading with every wave taken in the face as they tried to outrun an armed helicopter.

If they didn’t give up at this point, a short burst of small arms fire in front of the skiff would have done the trick. Royal Navy warships on anti-pirate duty seldom have full-blown Special Forces aboard – there aren’t enough of those to go round – but they often have Royal Marine snipers who can disable small boat engines from the back of the helicopter if shots across the bow don’t work. They usually do.

Boats are then launched to recover the hijackers whilst the captain calls the operational commander in Bahrain and asks what to do with them. This can be problematic, as seen during previous counter piracy operations in the area, and they may be on board for some time. Sooner or later, your purser is going to ask if he’ll get an extra allowance to pay for their food, only partly in jest.

So now you have boats in the water, people on the upper deck to recover them and process the detainees and a helicopter ranged on deck. You also have a skiff to deal with – you can’t just leave that floating around a busy shipping lane. You are just considering relaxing from Action Stations when someone blows a whistle to indicate that two ballistic missiles are heading your way.

This is the perfect time to attack. The ship is in no state to conduct anti-ship missile defence. You’ve got minutes to recover the boats and get everyone off the upper deck, including the helicopter, before you need to start firing countermeasures and your own missiles.

Maritime snipers of the Royal Marines in the door of a Royal Navy helicopter. Such snipers can often stop small boats without harm to the crew, a useful capability in operations against hijackers such as the Houthis of Yemen
Maritime snipers of the Royal Marines in the door of a Royal Navy helicopter. Such snipers can often stop small boats without harm to the crew, a useful capability in operations against hijackers such as the Houthis of Yemen - Anthony Upton

Fortunately, in this case, the missiles were poorly aimed and splashed harmlessly about ten miles short. The USS Mason, as she did in 2016 during her last brush with the Houthis, lived to fight another day.

So what might we see next?

Militarily there are three broad options. First, conduct counter-Houthi operations now – destroy missile launchers, radar stations, headquarters, port infrastructure etc. The US Navy has so many options in this regard already in theatre that many, myself included, are surprised it hasn’t happened already. Action against targets ashore has taken place during previous episodes when the Houthis got out of hand and needed to be put back in their box. Now, US forces having been targeted directly, US Central Command may feel it has good enough reason to do so. It’s true that the Dwight D Eisenhower carrier group has now left the Houthis’ neighbourhood, passing through the Straits of Hormuz into the Gulf, but US has plenty of other ships and options remaining.

Second, re-energise the counter-piracy operations which took place off the Horn of Africa from circa 2008 to 2016. Many of these systems and command structures are still in place and being used, just at a reduced tempo. It sounds like basic measures such as citadels and counter boarding measures have been quickly reintroduced post Galaxy Leader which is good. More proactive counter-measures will be considered – there is no doubt that the Galaxy Leader hijack could have been prevented by an armed security team of the sort that was often deployed during the heyday of the Somali pirates, when they were operating from the other side of the water.

Third, do nothing proactive. Deter, defend, de-escalate and conduct diplomacy, assisting with intelligence sharing and advice where possible. This seems to have been the posture so far – time will tell if this latest attack changes anything.

From a commercial perspective these activities are already having an effect. Two ships with Israeli connections, the Glovis Star and the Hermes Leader have significantly altered their routes since. Lloyds List reports at least two more, unnamed for now, have followed suit. Insurance premiums will be affected soon – presumably a desired Iranian outcome.

Economically it is worth remembering that whilst the military activity at sea to counter the Somali piracy helped, it was disrupting the criminals’ funding that proved decisive in the end. In this case, Iranian sanctions are already in place but there will be plans afoot to disrupt the economic model between them and the Houthis that might now be accelerated.

Finally, the strategy of it all. It is hard to determine when it comes to the Houthis who is pulling which strings and at what level. There is no doubt that Iran are providing them with equipment and intelligence but how actively they are instructing them to act on it is less clear.

Either way, all three of the military responses carry resource implications. As various US warship deployments are extended in the region and the UK discusses sending a Type 45 destroyer to the Red Sea, those who thrive on disruption and chaos – and there are a few – will be delighted with the role that the Houthis are playing. Regardless of the temporary cessation of hostilities ashore, the maritime component of the Gaza conflict is still very much underway.

Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and warship captain

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