U.S. Warships Need Better Protection*
By Stephen Bryen
Tuesday, January 31st, 2017 @ 7:12PM
The Iranian-backed Houthis suicide attack on a Saudi Arabian frigate in Western Yemen, in Bab al-Mandab Strait
on January 30, resulted in the deaths of two Saudi sailors and wounding three others. The ship struck the rear, was badly damaged. On the audio of the video of the attack, shouts in Arabic shouts are heard, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to the Jews and victory for Islam.” This and other findings led American intelligence to conclude that either the attackers thought they had attacked an American, not a Saudi, ship or “that was a “dress rehearsal” similar to the attack on the USS Cole,”
The incident 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 smallish frigate (2,610 tons) of the al-Madinah class, 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, which is backed by Iran.
Iranian control of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which serves as the shortest maritime link between the Mediterranean (Europe and North Africa) and the Indian Ocean and beyond (India, China, and East Asia), would jeoperidize the oil trade and commerce as well as the security in the region.
The town of Hodeida, which is roughly 150 km southwest of Sana’a (which remains in Government hands) and Mocha, south of Hodeida. Hodeida and Mocha are under heavy air and ground attacks by Saudi-coalition forces in operation launched on January 7, called Golden Spur. Hundreds of Houthi fighters have been reportedly killed and their bodies delivered to a hospital facility in Hodeida. Repeated bombing have been aimed at shutting down telecommunications centers, troop concentrations, and high-value targets. Many civilians have also been killed in the air strikes and fighting.
The Houthi-government press considers the attack a U.S.-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 U.S. is almost certainly providing significant support that includes intense naval patrols in the Bab al-Mandab Straits area, supply of intelligence to Saudi-coalition commanders, and 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, supported by the Pentagon, said 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). Later, Pentagon analysts, according to Fox News, thought 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.
If the attack was by small boats, it should raise the alarm 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 swarming boat attacks. The infamous attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor was by a suicide-boat packed with explosives. It killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded 39 crewmen.
Moreover, in the past couple of years, U.S. ships have repeatedly been 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”). In these confrontations, three or more Iranian craft have been hovering around and in front of the transit of U.S. warships in international waters. The risk to the U.S. ships was exacerbated by orders to the U.S. Naval operators not to shoot at the threatening boats. In most of these confrontations, thus leaving them highly exposed to attack with missiles or a boat packed with explosives, or both.
If the Saudi frigate was in fact hit by an explosive-packed small boat, it highlights the risk to U.S. and allied ships and commercial shipping.
If the Pentagon is going to keep ships in the area, it should have a more intense cover operation for these vessels, with drones, helicopters and fighter aircraft. It should also preemptively be warning off any nearby threats with orders saying: if they don’t pull back, shoot them out of the water.
* A version of this article has been posted on Bryen’s Blog, on January 31, 2017