Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
It was February 1991, and the crew of the British frigate HMS Gloucester was scrambling, trying to knock out an Iraqi Silkworm missile heading toward the USS Missouri — a World War II-era battleship recommissioned by former United States President Ronald Reagan.
The extreme jolt from the firing of a salvo of Sea Dart missiles was alarming. And by the time I scurried sleepy-eyed to the deck, I’d missed the first successful engagement of a missile by another missile during naval warfare.
Today, 32 years later, such interceptions are now a dime a dozen in the Red Sea. And whether the West wants to admit it or not, thanks to the Hamas attacks on southern Israel and Iran’s response to Israel’s self-defense, it is at war in the Middle East once again.
We should all breathe a sigh of relief that missile interceptions have so far prevented the sinking of a Western warship or merchant vessel — something that would accelerate the out-of-sight conflict in the Red Sea into something much bigger and more obvious, risking further military escalation in a region already peering nervously over the precipice.
Since October 19, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis — the militant group that deposed a U.S.-allied government in 2014 — have targeted at least 10 merchant vessels transiting international waters with missiles and drones. Nearly all have been swatted away and downed by the superior firepower of U.S., French and British warships, although a few have got through causing only damage — notably to the Norwegian chemical tanker Strinda.
The same was true of a series of Iran-made Cruise missiles that the Houthis launched from the capital city of Sana’a, targeting the Israeli port of Eilat. The first one was shot down by the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Carney.
The Carney is part of the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, which U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered into the eastern Mediterranean within days of the Hamas attacks. An additional carrier group, led by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, was subsequently dispatched as well and has now been deployed just south of Bab-el-Mandeb in the Gulf of Aden.
Midweek, Austin then announced the formation of a naval mission involving more than a dozen countries, aimed at protecting commercial shipping in the Red Sea — one of the world’s major trade arteries along the Suez Canal traffic route.
But the Houthis remain defiant, saying they won’t halt their attacks.
“America’s announcement of the establishment of the Coalition of Shame will not prevent us from continuing our military operations until the crimes of genocide in Gaza are stopped, and food, medicine and fuel are allowed to enter its besieged population,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis’ ruling council, posted this week.
And the accelerating Houthi attacks are adding to fears that the Israel-Hamas war will, indeed, end up engulfing the ever-turbulent region.
U.S. officials are putting on a brave face in response to it all. It was just last month that Pentagon officials were claiming success in containing the war — but it wasn’t true then, and it’s even less so now. Neither U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration nor allied Western governments want to advertise the fact, but spillover has happened.
By November 14, border clashes between Israel and Hezbollah were already intensifying. Meanwhile, American and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria have come under drone and missle attacks from Iranian-backed groups 38 times.
The good news, however, is that the spillover is limited in scale. A full war hasn’t erupted between Israel and Hezbollah; Iran hasn’t tried to seize oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz or fired on any of them; and the Houthis haven’t started flinging missiles at Saudi Arabia again. Suffice it to say, things could be much worse.
And yet, we’re one failed missile interception away from something bigger.
Thanks to its Iron Dome, Tel Aviv has so far been spared hits from Hamas rockets and Hezbollah missiles. And the port of Eilat hasn’t been struck either thanks to the USS Carney and Israel’s Arrow 3 missile defense system, which intercepted a Houthi-fired ballistic missile over the Red Sea — its first operational use.
But what would have happened if all, or any, of those interceptions had missed their target? What will happen if a Hezbollah missile gets through, causing mass casualties in Tel Aviv? Or if a Western warship or merchant vessel is sunk? And add to that the risks posed by mines or fast-attack craft.
“U.S. policy on such types of attacks is to respond proportionally in a graduated manner,” said retired U.S. General Mark Kimmitt, who served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs in the administration of President George W. Bush. “However, I think we’ve seen situations in the past where once a red line is crossed, there is somewhat of a tectonic shift in the response.”
Kimmitt noted that “the U.S. has shown a significant amount of restraint, in particular on the significant uptick in attacks on U.S. troops and diplomatic personnel inside Iraq by Iranian-backed militias, and it has let the Iraqi security forces take care of the situation.” However, he did caution that “if there was an attack on either diplomatic facilities or Iraqi bases housing Americans, and there were a large number of casualties, I think we would expect a pretty significant response.”
Hence, the increasing clamor from the U.S. and its Western allies for Israel to curtail its campaign in Gaza. They are growing alarmed.
“The arena that’s opened in the Red Sea lately is not an Israeli problem. Of course, it is problematic to Israel, but it’s a global issue,” a senior Isareli official said.
Speaking to a group of reporters this week on condition of anonymity, the official said Israel welcomed Austin’s announcement establishing a combined maritime force to police the Red Sea. However, he also noted that “it might take time, maybe a long time, for this force to be effective,” and that Israel couldn’t wait forever “because it is harming our economy, and it’s going to raise the insurance rates that will affect practically all the world.”
“It isn’t really the Houthis. It’s Iran, Iran and Iran. Iran gave them the order. Iran is giving them the weapons. And Iran can stop it if it would like to. So we need the world to put pressure on Iran, so they will stop it,” he said.
And one of the big questions is whether the Western naval mission can remain only defensive in nature and still succeed in dissuading shipping companies and insurers from abandoning the route — traffic is already down 14 percent — or if offensive tactics will have to be employed.