Six days ago, the US aircraft carrier Dwight D Eisenhower – Ike – transited the Suez Canal southbound and headed into the Red Sea as part of her pre-planned but accelerated deployment to the Gulf Region. En route she joined USS Ford and her carrier battle group in the Eastern Med for some interoperability training and the obligatory formation photo.
It is impossible to say for certain that this overt display of around two hundred thousand tons of nuclear-powered naval firepower – to say nothing of all the escorts – is what has kept Hezbollah relatively quiet over the last few weeks but it’s bound to have influenced their thinking. It is also risky to say that this effect will endure, but for now, it appears to be a win for carrier-based deterrence. Given how many predicted a region-wide escalation by now, this is one piece of good news alongside the horror of Gaza.
Aside from sporadic attacks on US troops inland in Iraq and Syria, there is one other Iranian-backed terrorist group in the region which hasn’t got the memo yet, and that’s the Houthis. They overthrew the legitimate government of Yemen in 2014, and Saudi Arabia and her allies have been engaged ever since trying to restore some semblance of order there with varying degrees of success. That the Saudis are often painted as the villain of this piece baffles me, although that is an article for another time. This year at least has seen fighting in Yemen slowing with talks between Saudi and Iran, mediated by the Chinese, apparently making some progress despite al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)’s best efforts to derail them.
However, as one would expect of Iranian proxies who see disruption and fear as endstates in themselves, the Houthis didn’t wait long after the Hamas incursion to start firing missiles up the Red Sea at Israel. USS Carney intercepted four in one go but there have been more since, forcing the US and Israeli navies to station destroyers and corvettes to intercept further firings.
What is clear is that Saudi and US efforts to prevent Iranian-supplied arms from entering Yemen over the last few years haven’t entirely worked and that the Houthis are still able to move and fire them without being detected and destroyed prior to launch.
But it’s possible that this might be about to change.
A straight-line Red Sea transit at 18 knots takes three days. Clearly a carrier at flank speed could reduce this but either way, that the Ike hasn’t appeared through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait and into the Gulf of Aden yet, suggests that she and her task group are spending some time in the Red Sea.
The Red Sea, and in particular the part at the bottom between Yemen and both Eritrea and Djibouti, is not a particularly nice place to hang around. Quite apart from the menace of Houthi missiles it narrows to just eight miles in the Bab-el-Mandeb itself – the “Gate of Tears” indeed – and it is riddled with small boats scuttling back and forth with various cargoes. They are fast, unlit, sit low in the water and are made of wood which makes them hard to see and detect on radar. Determining whether they are smuggling, people trafficking, about to go fishing, engaged in a bit of piracy, minding their own business or packed with explosives and coming for you is hard. If you can only detect them at, say, four nautical miles, and they are doing 30 knots, you only have a handful of minutes before they are on you, and worse still if there are twenty of them.
I took my Royal Navy warship through at night once because we were under time pressure to get to the next place, and it was no fun at all. Admittedly I only had one helicopter to provide overwatch and not a carrier air wing.
In any case as a Western naval vessel, you don’t want to hang around down there unless you have to. And there are only a few reasons why you might.
Interoperability exercises with the USS Bataan and Carter Hall, also in the Red Sea but possibly heading through Suez northbound in the coming weeks is one. Presence/reassure operations for Saudi Arabia and other allies is another. Shaping operations to ensure safe passage through the Bab El Mandeb is a third although that wouldn’t take this long.
That leaves the interesting one – activities in and around Yemen to prevent the Houthis from continuing to launch missiles up the Red Sea (or anywhere come to that). A few days ago it was reported here that an Ohio class SSGN submarine had just transited Suez headed south as well. You’ll always be told that these boats can carry up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. It’s not always mentioned that they can also carry 60+ special warfare operators, typically frogmen from the US Navy’s elite SEAL teams, and mini-submarines that can take the SEALs inshore while the mother sub remains safely in deep waters.
It might not be the best time, as a Houthi terrorist, to go for a walk on the beach down there right now: you might get dragged into the sea and wake up under interrogation somewhere.
OK, I’m really speculating now but if you look at what the Houthis have been up to recently, this starts to seem like an opportunity for the US to finally put an end to them as a regional threat/irritant. It would get the Saudis back on side and back on a trajectory towards rapprochement with Israel. Right now in the Red Sea the US has a carrier group with its more or less total air-sea-missile umbrella and strike power equivalent to a medium-ranking national air force. It also has most of a Marine Expeditionary Unit and probably a task unit or two of SEALs, plus hundreds of Tomahawks and other land-attack weaponry.
And the Houthis really have been very irritating. They aren’t just trouble for the Saudis and the Israelis: they are always trying to acquire the ability to interdict shipping through the Bab-el-Mandeb, which is by far the quickest way to the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean and Europe from just about anywhere all the way to the China coast. Yes you can go south around the Cape, but it’s an awful lot further. They’ve also just shot down a US Reaper drone off the coast, another indication that the US may be contemplating action in the vicinity.
Carney is not the first US warship to shoot down Houthi missiles in the Red Sea in recent years: but she just might be the last, if all that US firepower gets put to some use shortly.
Or the Ike could just emerge through the Bab-el-Mandeb into the Arabian Sea, join up with the Japanese Murasme class Destroyer ‘Ikazuchi’ which is heading purposefully her way and take up station in the Gulf of Oman to continue the general ‘deter Iran’ mission. Time will tell. But as ever with the US Navy, the range of capabilities and options they offer their policymakers is remarkable.
Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and warship captain
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