December 10, 2023

Excitement in the Bab-el-Mandeb

The last few days have seen a great deal of excitement in the area around the Bab-el-Mandeb,1 the strait that separates Yemen from Somalia at the southern end of the Red Sea.

The Bab-el-Mandeb is a vital chokepoint for global sea commerce, sitting astride the path between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. Something like 9% of the world's seaborne oil trade passes through, along with huge numbers of container ships and bulk carriers. And unfortunately for those who would very much like these vessels to pass unhindered, it happens to be adjacent to some of the most unstable countries on Earth. 15 years ago, the main threat in the region was piracy from Somalia, which was brought under control via a combination of naval patrols, better anti-pirate measures aboard merchant ships, and attempts to reduce the pirate population at the source. But as those efforts bore fruit a decade ago, civil war broke out in Yemen and the Houthis, who have been trying to overthrow the previous government and defeat its Saudi patrons, have occasionally lobbed missiles at passing ships. The most notable incident until recently took place in 2016, when catamaran HSV-2 Swift was attacked off the coast of Yemen, prompting the dispatch of destroyers Mason and Nitze.

In the next few days, Mason was the focus of three separate attacks, although frustratingly few details have been made public about the exact sequence of events. The first encounter, on October 9th, took place while Mason was escorting LPD Ponce, known for being the first ship to take an operational laser weapon to sea. A single cruise missile was fired and engaged with two SM-2s and an ESSM, as well as a Nulka decoy, but it is unclear if the missile was shot down, decoyed, or crashed on its own. A few hours later, a second missile was launched, but ran out of fuel short of the two ships. Three days later, two more missiles were fired, at least one of which is confirmed to have been shot down. The Navy responded with Tomahawk strikes to destroy three radar sites. There is some confusion over a third alleged attack on the 15th. The DoD was confused if anything actually happened, but reports are that at least five missiles were fired at Mason and Nitze, four of which were either decoyed off or shot down by Mason. The last got quite close to Nitze before a Nulka drew it off.

Nor were these the only attacks made by the Houthis on ships in the Red Sea. We have only limited details and I'm trying to get this out quickly but it appears that they have made numerous attempts to attack ships offshore using a combination of mines, suicide boats and missiles. Most of these were directed at Saudi and Emirati warships supporting the anti-Houthi intervention, and they appear to have trailed off after 2018 or so.

This all changed after the October 7th attack on Israel. The Saudi intervention has largely wound down, and the Houthis displayed a number of weapons last year, including several anti-ship ballistic missiles provided by Iran. Action in the Red Sea began on October 20th, when destroyer Carney downed 11 cruise missiles2 launched by the Houthis at targets in Israel. The Houthis have continued to launch missiles at Israel, and so far as I am aware, American destroyers have shot them all down, with Carney continuing to contribute, alongside Thomas Hudner. Mason also reappeared on the scene, deploying with the Eisenhower Battle Group, and in late November, she responded to the boarding of the oil tanker MV Central Park, detaining five suspected Somali pirates. The Houthis were not particularly happy about this, and launched an anti-ship ballistic missile into the area. It missed both ships by a wide margin, leaving doubts as to whether it was even targeted at them.

The excitement ramped up a week ago, on December 3rd, with the most consequential engagement of the whole campaign so far. Carney was still in the southern Red Sea, and detected another ASBM that impacted near the bulk carrier Unity Explorer before shooting down what CENTCOM3 describes as a Houthi drone. The statement seems to indicate that they believe it was actually a missile, although it could just as easily have been a surveillance drone scouting for more effective missiles.4 Half an hour after the drone was downed, Carney picked up a distress call stating that Unity Explorer had been hit by a missile. A second drone was shot down while Carney was providing aid to Unity Explorer, and another ship, MV Number 9, was hit by a second missile three hours later. An hour after that, MV Sophie II put out a distress call, and Carney shot down a third drone while en route to provide aid. To cap off the recounting of events, Mason downed a drone on Wednesday.

There are several interesting aspects to the events of the 3rd. First, I suspect that all but the first missile were cruise missiles instead of ballistic. At least for the first and third missile hits, the CENTCOM statement gives no indication that Carney knew the missiles were inbound before they hit, which is unlikely for ballistic missiles with Aegis in the area, but pretty plausible for a low-flying cruise missile targeting a ship tens of miles away. Second, all three ships targeted were bulk carriers, which meant that damage was relatively minimal. If the ship is either a big empty metal box or a big metal box full of rocks, then a typical anti-ship missile designed to damage a frigate isn't going to much more than annoy the insurers. The Houthis have claimed that they are only targeting ships linked to Israel, although there's some dispute as to how close the links of all the ships are. It's not clear if they just happened to hit three bulk carriers by chance (unlikely but not completely impossible, as bulk carriers make up 40+% of global merchant tonnage and at least a quarter of large merchant ships, and more in the Bab-el-Mandeb area based on a spot-check of AIS data), if the Israelis are deep into the bulk carrier business for some unfathomable reason, or if they were trying to send a message about their ability to interdict traffic through the Red Sea without really annoying someone or causing a major environmental disaster.

So what lessons can we draw from all of this? Well, first, the destroyers in the Red Sea are going through a lot of missiles, which suggests we may need to buy more. Second, Iranian ASBMs don't seem to work all that well, although their cruise missiles seem to perform fairly well. Third, this is a serious threat to global maritime commerce. Remember the chaos caused when the Suez Canal was blocked in early 2021? This would be almost precisely as bad as that was if the threat forced us to keep civilian ships out of the area. So far, there's no indication that the systems are a threat to ships with reasonable defenses, although anything without Aegis might be vulnerable to the ASBMs if the missiles actually work. And while it would certainly be possible to convoy ships through the Bab-el-Mandeb (the parallels to Operation Prime Chance are obvious) this would be a significant force commitment for an already-stretched USN, as well as slowing commerce through the area. And lastly, Aegis works, and the anti-ship missile threat is nowhere near as serious for warships as it is often portrayed to be.


1 Arabic for "Gates of grief", which accurately describes how most world leaders think about it now.

2 Yes, the article says 3 cruise missiles and 8 drones, but that is a distinction that I do not recognize.

3 CENTral COMmand, the organization responsible for all US military forces in the Middle East.

4 A brief sidenote about targeting here. I believe the attacks on merchant ships used AIS for targeting, as this makes position data for virtually all merchant ships available online. Obviously, this makes shooting at merchant ships much easier than warships, which do not run with AIS on all the time.

Comments

  1. December 10, 2023ike said...

    Huh? Doesn't something like this have the potetial to bring the PRC into the war?

  2. December 10, 2023Basil Marte said...

    Someone (probably the Houthi) also boarded a car carrier from a helicopter, and took it to a port in Yemen. That ship (MV Galaxy Leader) had also turned its AIS off a fair bit up the Red Sea from where it got boarded.

  3. December 10, 2023Hugh Fisher said...

    There's a YouTube channel "What Is Going On With Shipping" by Sal Mercoglianos which has short summaries of various recent events and incidents.

    Most recent as I write this includes the full English subtitled announcement from the Yemeni Armed Forces.

  4. December 10, 2023Hugh Fisher said...

    Sorry for the double post, please delete.

    @ike, certainly has the potential to involve the PRC. French news is reporting that one of their FREMM frigates in the area just shot down a couple of Yemeni drones.

  5. December 11, 2023Techanon said...

    attempts to reduce the pirate population at the source.

    I know pirates get what they deserve, but that is one hell of a euphemism for mass murder

  6. December 11, 2023bean said...

    It's not. It's a euphemism for "I really want to get this post up tomorrow, and don't have time to sort through various programs (better policing, economic aid, etc) that were done ashore." I won't say that I didn't notice the connotations, but I was going the opposite way.

  7. December 12, 2023Forty said...

    Your RSS feed is broken again.

  8. December 14, 2023bean said...

    @Forty

    Should be fixed now. Let me know if it isn't.

  9. December 15, 2023megasilverfist said...

    Some recent updates. Honestly the headlines basically sum things up. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-12-16/maersk-pauses-shipping-red-sea-yemen-houthis-attack/103237256 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-12-15/naval-commander-says-australia-prepared-for-red-sea-patrol/103235194

  10. December 17, 2023Hugh Fisher said...

    How capable are the medium guns on modern warships as AA weapons against drones and subsonic missiles?

    I was following some French chat about the FREMM Languedoc shooting down two drones. There was a complaint that she had to use very expensive missiles to shoot down drones because the 76mm gun on 21st C French warships wasn't capable of doing so and that the older 100mm gun would have been better. If I'm understanding the French correctly the 76mm can only be used when the ship is directly threatened and can't be used to defend other ships by shooting down missiles or drones as they pass.

    Just saw a Tweet that the Royal Navy 4.5" doesn't have AA capability any more. No idea how reliable that is.

    So, anybody know more about how good the modern 76 - 130 mm guns are against the cheaper drones and missiles? (Not expecting them to shoot down anything supersonic.)

  11. December 17, 2023bean said...

    Probably not terrible, but also not good enough to be something I'd want to count on. Sure, it's a lot cheaper than a missile, but a missile is a lot more reliable and a lot cheaper than repairing what happens if the drone gets through.

    The ultimate answer, of course, is lasers, which are cheaper than a gun and quite effective against slow drones, but are also a few years away from wide deployment.

  12. December 19, 2023Alexander said...

    I don't think the Type 45s have Martlet on the 30mm mounts, but the Wildcats carry it. It's not going to be as cheap as a 76mm shell, but it should be plenty for dealing with a subsonic missile/drone, and far less expensive than a Sea Viper. Having them on a helicopter is a mixed blessing, as whilst it extends the reach, you can't always have it available.

  13. January 10, 2024muddywaters said...

    @Hugh Fisher: HMS Diamond has reportedly fired shells in anger, but also missiles and it's not specified which hit.

  14. January 12, 2024redRover said...

    It seems like this has escalated.

    Also, while the various anti-missile / anti-drone technology is working, it does seem like for this narrow set of circumstances (i.e., operating in constrained waters against land based launchers at relatively short range) a somewhat better resourced opponent could exhaust the more onboard stores of the more advanced missiles, leaving them with only CIWS and ECM.

  15. January 13, 2024Bernd said...

    That's the real problem, isn't it: the cheap options only work as a last resort, so you have to choose between safety and cost-effectiveness.
    I wonder if there's any possibility of a cheap, long range "first resort" option, because I can't think of a practical one. Drone blimp hovering over potential launch sites with 500lb glide-bombs? Offshore ESSM-picket barges? (Can ESSM even use datalink targeting?)

  16. January 13, 2024bean said...

    I mean, the answer is a JDAM to the launch site, which we've finally started. I suspect that lasers will provide a partial solution, although you have to let it get in closer than I suspect they'd like.

  17. January 14, 2024Alexander said...

    You could try something like the YAL-1, or rather a modern equivalent optimised for going after slow cruise missiles. But bean is right, at some point you have to shoot the archer. Restricting yourself to a purely defensive posture isn't a good plan, as Israel was painfully reminded.

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