US downs Iranian drones, strikes Huthi anti-air missile

Map of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, showing the positions of ships during incidents attributed to Huthi rebels since November 2023

An American naval destroyer shot down three Iranian drones along with an anti-ship missile fired by Yemen’s Huthis rebels Wednesday, the US military said.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) had also earlier announced a strike on a Huthi surface-to-air missile it said posed an “imminent threat” to American aircraft -- a deviation from past air raids that focused on reducing the rebels’ ability to threaten international shipping.

While the United States has carried out strikes on the Huthis and other Tehran-supported groups in the region, both it and Iran have sought to avoid a direct confrontation, and the downing of three Iranian drones could heighten tensions between the two countries.

“Iranian-backed Huthi militants fired one anti-ship ballistic missile from Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen toward the Gulf of Aden. The missile was successfully shot down by the USS Carney,” CENTCOM said in a statement, adding that less than an hour later the same ship “engaged and shot down three Iranian UAVs in its vicinity.”

It did specify whether the drones were armed or just for surveillance.

Earlier on Wednesday, US forces “struck and destroyed a Huthi surface-to-air missile that was prepared to launch” after determining that it “presented an imminent threat to US aircraft,” CENTCOM said.

It did not identify the type of aircraft that were threatened or the exact location of the strike, only saying that it took place in “Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen.”

Persistent attacks

The Huthis began targeting Red Sea shipping in November, saying they were hitting Israeli-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.

US and UK forces have responded with strikes on the Huthis, who have since declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well.

Some of the US strikes have been carried out against missiles that CENTCOM has said posed an imminent threat to ships, indicating a robust surveillance effort focused on Huthi-controlled territory that likely involves military aircraft.

The United States also set up a multinational naval task force last month to help protect Red Sea shipping from the Huthis, who are endangering a transit route that carries up to 12 per cent of global trade.

In addition to military action, Washington has sought to put diplomatic and financial pressure on the Huthis, redesignating them as a terrorist organisation earlier in January after previously having dropped that label soon after President Joe Biden took office.

But the Huthis’ attacks have persisted, with the rebels saying Wednesday that they targeted an American merchant ship bound for Israel with “several appropriate naval missiles that directly hit the vessel.”

Maritime security firm Ambrey said a commercial vessel was reportedly targeted with a missile southwest of Aden, and that the ship reported an explosion on its starboard side, but did not mention its nationality.

Earlier the same day, the Huthis said they fired multiple missiles at American destroyer the USS Gravely -- a claim that came after CENTCOM said the warship downed an anti-ship cruise missile launched “from Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen toward the Red Sea.”

Anger over Israel’s devastating campaign in Gaza -- which it launched after an unprecedented attack by Hamas in October -- has grown across the Middle East, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, as well as Yemen.