In the Bab el Mandeb Strait and Persian Gulf, Shoot them Out of the Water

by Stephen Bryen

A Saudi Arabian warship was attacked near Hodeida port in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of two Saudi sailors and wounding of three others.  The ship, struck toward the rear, was badly damaged.  The incident on Monday, 30 January last demonstrates that current tactics for protecting warships is inadequate and must be changed.  Far better air cover and a much more effective warn or beware system, with orders to shoot if the threat keeps moving forward, must be implemented.

The warship was a smallish frigate (2,610 tons) of the al-Madinah class.  This frigate was designed specially for Saudi Arabia by the state-owned French shipbuilder Arsenal de Marine, based in Lorient.  Four of them were made in the mid-1980s.  They are equipped with missiles and guns and this particular ship was almost certainly deployed in support of a Saudi-Yemen operation to take back towns and ports in the Bab al-Mandab strait area, presently controlled by Houthi fighters and a rump Houthi government.  

The Bab al-Mandab  serves as the shortest trade route between the Mediterranean (Europe and North Africa) and the Indian Ocean and beyond (India, China, and East Asia). If the Houthis control it, Iran, controls it.   This is a great danger for trade and commerce and for security in the region.

The town of Hodeida, which is roughly 150 km south west of Sana’a (which remains in Government hands) and Mocha, south of Hodeida. Hodeida and Mocha are under strong attack by government forces and Saudi-coalition air power in an operation launched on 7 January called Golden Spur.  Some hundreds of Houthi fighters have been reported killed and their bodies delivered to a hospital facility in Hodeida and repeated bombing have been aimed at shutting down telecommunications centers, troop concentrations and high value targets.  Many civilians also have been killed in the air strikes and fighting.

The Houthi-government press considers the Saudi operation actually a US-Saudi operation.  While officially the US is not openly part of the fighting (US Special Operating Forces are being used against al-Qaeda in Yemen but not in support of Yemen-government led operations against Houthi fighters), the US is almost certainly providing very significant support that includes intense naval patrols in the Bab al-Mandab straits area, supply of intelligence to Saudi-coalition commanders, and supplies of weapons such as smart bombs.

The al-Madinah class frigate involved in the January 30th attack has not been specifically identified by name.  And there is controversy as to how the ship was attacked.  An initial report said that the frigate was assaulted by three small boats, one of which smashed into the rear section of the frigate and exploded, either a suicide operation or an unmanned boat controlled from one of the other platforms.

A later report, initially supported by the Pentagon, is the frigate was hit by a missile, although there was no information on whether the missile was launched by a small boat (e.g., such as a C-802 missile comparable to those also mounted on Iranian fast boats) or from land (where missile sites were earlier destroyed by the USS Nitze in a Tomahawk missile attack last October).

Now there is some reconsideration and the missile attack scenario, which is endorsed by Houthi sources, may turn out to be misleading.  Pentagon analysts, according to Fox News, think the attack was by small boats and the Saudi frigate was thought to have been an American missile boat like the Nitze or the USS Mason, which had been attacked by missiles in October.

There is a video made of the attack, but the video is very blurry and seems to have been made from a fairly long distance.  Since the video is quite stable, it suggests that it was taken from the shore and not from a boat, much like the video of the attack on the Swift which was also filmed probably by the perpetrators.  In looking at the video none of the alleged small boats are visible, but neither is any missile heading to the target.  One sees the ship and then the explosion.

Fox says that the a  voice narrating the attack shouts in Arabic, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to the Jews.”  This would be expected had the target been a U.S. ship, but it is far from sufficient evidence since the Saudi operation is regarded as a proxy one for the United States, just as the U.S. regards the Houthi’s as a proxy for Iran.

If the attack was by small boats, it is something one needs to pay close attention to because of the real danger to U.S. ships operating in both the Red Sea and in the Persian Gulf.  Insufficient attention has been given to ways and means to defeat a swarming boat attack.  The infamous attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor is an example of a suicide boat packed with explosives that killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded another 39 crewmen.  And in the past couple of years U.S. ships have been repeatedly harassed by Iranian missile equipped fast boats run by the notorious Iranian Revolutionary Guards (“Navy of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”).  These confrontations have been very high risk, exacerbated by orders from above to the U.S. naval operators not to shoot at the threatening boats.  In most of these, three or more Iranian craft have been hovering around and in front of the transit of US warships in international waters.  Thus U.S. ships are left highly exposed and  an attack either with missiles or a boat packed with explosives is a daily threat.

If the Saudi frigate was in fact hit by an explosive-packed small boat then we can see just how the risk to U.S. and allied ships and shipping is multiplying.  If the Pentagon is going to keep ships in the area, close to harms way, it should have a much more intense cover operation for these vessels carried out by drones, helicopters and fighter aircraft, and it should preemptively be warning off any nearby threats with orders that say that if they don’t pull back, shoot them out of the water.

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