Houthi rebels are stepping up their maritime campaign of targeting vessels they claim to be connected to Israel and U.S. Navy warships are increasingly being caught in the crossfire, testing the limits of the Pentagon's claim it is successfully deterring further attacks in the Middle East.
U.S. Central Command announced on Sunday that the USS Carney responded to four attacks against three separate commercial vessels off the coast of Yemen and shot down drones. Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told reporters Monday that "it's still important to understand and to focus on [the fact that] what's happening in Israel and within Gaza has not spread out into a wider regional conflict."
It was the fifth incident in the region in recent weeks where a Navy warship felt threatened enough to take the relatively rare step of firing its weapons, or encountered missiles flying in its vicinity. Meanwhile, Houthi rebels in Yemen have said the attacks are aimed at Israel, which remains at war with Hamas amid a U.S. military buildup in the region to support the Israelis and deter expansion of the conflict.
Tensions in the Red Sea kicked off on Oct. 19 -- less than two weeks after Israel declared war on Hamas -- when the destroyer USS Carney detected and destroyed four land attack cruise missiles and 15 drones using its missiles and deck gun that were launched by the Houthis. The group is considered an Iranian-backed militia like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and smaller groups operating in Iraq and Syria.
It was not clear where the drones and missiles were headed, but officials in the Pentagon said they believed Israel to be the target.
The next incident didn't come until almost a month later on Nov. 15 when the destroyer USS Hudner downed a drone coming from Yemen that came too close to it.
Then, just over a week later, on Nov. 26, the USS Mason responded to a distress call from a merchant ship under attack by individuals that Pentagon officials later said appear to be Somali. As the Mason was responding to the incident, missiles fired from Yemen landed about 10 miles from the ship.
The next incident was just days later -- Nov. 29 -- when the Carney downed a drone heading in its direction. Then, just days after that incident, the Carney downed three more drones as it was responding to distress calls from merchant vessels under apparent missile attack.
The uptick in attacks, and the apparent targeting of merchant shipping, appears to be part of a concerted campaign by the Houthi rebels to target Israeli ships passing through the waterway that heads to the Suez Canal and then Israel.
In a statement reported by multiple outlets, Houthi officials said that their forces will continue to "prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea and [Gulf of Aden] until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops."
"The Yemeni armed forces renew their warning to all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis that they will become a legitimate target if they violate what is stated in this statement," Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree, a spokesman for the group, said.
Israeli officials speaking to reporters have not denied the connection outright.
Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, the Israeli Defense Forces international spokesman, told reporters last week that the merchant ships "have very minimal connection to Israel, if at all" and, instead framed the attacks as "terrorism against the freedom of navigation in the region."
The threat certainly appears to be felt on the decks of the Navy ships in the region.
Although Singh stressed that the Pentagon has no indications that either the drones or the missiles in any of the five incidents targeted Navy ships, self-defense was cited in every instance and a recent incident with an Iranian drone in the Persian Gulf underscores the threat ship commanders feel from the Houthi aircraft.
On Saturday, just a day before the Carney's last engagement with Houthi drones, U.S. Central Command released a picture of an Iranian drone flying in "an unsafe and unprofessional manner" within sight of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Arabian Sea.
On Monday, Singh said that "just because something is unsafe and unprofessional doesn't always meet the threshold to feel the need to shoot it down."
"It's up to the discretion of the commander," Singh added, when asked about the different responses to similar drones. "They have the absolute right to make that decision and make that call when it is happening in that moment."
This position by the Pentagon -- that ships and sailors are not being targeted outright -- is also being used as a way to push back on the idea that the U.S. needs to retaliate against Yemeni forces.
Singh said the situation "certainly is something that is very concerning to us, something that we're going to continue to monitor" but stopped short of saying that there are plans to retaliate like the military has done several times in Syria and Iraq.
Retaliatory actions in Iraq, specifically, have drawn the ire of the country's prime minister. There were also two planned retaliations on weapons storage facilities in Syria.
"If we decide to take action against the Houthis, it will, of course, be at a time and place of our choosing," Singh said.