WASHINGTON – An unmanned armed surface ship launched from Houthi-controlled Yemen came within “a couple of miles” of U.S. Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea before detonating Thursday, just hours after The White House and a number of partner countries issued a final warning to the Iran-backed militia group to cease attacks or face possible military action.
Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, chief of U.S. Navy operations in the Middle East, said it was the first time the Houthis had used an unmanned surface vessel, or USV, since they began harassing commercial vessels in the Red Sea after the outbreak of war. War between Israel and Hamas. However, they have used them in the past.
Fabian Hinz, a missile expert and researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the U.S. vehicles are a key part of the Houthi maritime arsenal and were used during previous battles against Saudi coalition forces intervening in the Yemen war. They have been regularly used as suicide drones that explode on impact.
Most of the Houthis’ American vehicles are likely assembled in Yemen, but they are often equipped with Iranian-made components, such as computerized guidance systems, Hinz said.
At the United Nations, U.S. Deputy Ambassador Christopher Lu told an emergency Security Council meeting on Wednesday that Iran has provided the Houthis with money and advanced weapons systems, including drones, land-attack cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. He said Iran has also been deeply involved in planning Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.
He said the United States is not seeking confrontation with Iran, but that Tehran has a choice.
“It can continue its current course,” Lu said, “or it can withhold its support, without which the Houthis would struggle to effectively track and attack commercial vessels plying sea routes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. “.
This raises questions about whether any action against the Houthis would also somehow address Iran’s role, which could threaten to widen the conflict.
A statement signed Wednesday by the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom gave the Houthis what a senior Biden administration official described as a final warning.
“Let our message now be clear: we call for an immediate end to these illegal attacks and the release of illegally detained ships and crews,” the countries said in the statement. “The Houthis will take responsibility for the consequences if they continue to threaten lives, the global economy and the free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder did not say whether any military action would occur following the launch of the marine drone on Thursday.
“We will let the statement speak for itself, which, once again, represented many nations around the world and highlighted that if these attacks do not stop, there will be consequences,” Ryder said.
Since late October, the Houthis have launched dozens of drones and one-way attack missiles against commercial ships transiting the Red Sea. US Navy warships also intercepted ballistic missiles that the Pentagon said were headed toward Israel. Cooper said U.S. warships have shot down a total of 61 missiles and drones.
In response to the Houthi attacks, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in December announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, in which the United States and other countries sent additional ships to the southern Red Sea to provide protection for commercial vessels passing through the narrow critic of Bab el-Mandeb.
Cooper said 1,500 commercial ships have been able to transit safely since the operation was launched on December 18.
However, the Houthis have continued to launch missiles and attack drones, prompting the White House and 12 allies to issue what amounted to a final warning on Wednesday to cease their attacks on vessels in the Red Sea or face possible action. selective military.
Cooper said Operation Prosperity Guardian was exclusively defensive in nature and separate from any military action the United States might take if Houthi attacks continue.
The United States, the United Kingdom and France are providing most of the warships now, and Greece and Denmark will also provide ships, he said.
Associated Press writer Jack Jeffery in London and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.