Did Iran Launch Missiles at US Warships?

A big question surrounding missile attacks against two U.S. ships ( the USS Mason and USS Ponce) is whether it was the Yemeni rebel Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah) who did it? Or, instead, did Iran carry out the attacks? A related question is what were these U.S. ships doing near the Bab el-Mandab straits in the Red Sea? The Ponce is, admittedly, an at-sea forward staging base.

Iran has been harassing U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf for some time, and on each occasion the Iranians appear to have been bolder in what looks like a naval game of chicken. So much so that most recently Iranian fast boats equipped with missiles and torpedoes literally parked in front of the U.S. destroyer Nitze, forcing it to alter course to avoid a collision. But that is not nearly as serious the as events that unfolded starting on October 1st. Early in the morning the Houthis fired a C-802 missile that hit the HSV-2 Swift, a very fast and relatively large catamaran ship originally built by Incat in Australia. Acquired by the U.S. Navy in 2003, the Navy’s Sealift Command operated the vessel for ten years. Then it went out of service in 2013, replaced by another Incat-built catamaran. In an unusual move, in fact a strange one, the Sealift Command leased the Swift to a UAE organization called the National Marine Dredging Company. According to various news reports, the Swift was shuttling supplies and passengers between the UAE and Eritrea on the one hand and Aden on the other. So-called independent experts speaking on Iranian TV say that the Swift was moving troops from a training base in Eritrea to Aden, controlled by the Hadi government (Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi) backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies. According to Aden, the ship was evacuating wounded persons and bringing in humanitarian supplies.

The problem is that the Swift was nowhere near Aden. It was just off the coast of Houthi-controlled areas north of the Ban el-Mandab close to the Port of Mocha. 

As acknowledged by the Houthis, they fired on the Swift and caused almost catastrophic damage. There is a video of the attack that appears to have been made from a small skiff. The video shows the missile launch and the missile hitting the target. The Swift is very close by. What follows is a terrific explosion and fire. The Swift did not sink, but it did burn. According to reports from some of the crew who survived the attack, another small boat fired at the survivors with a machine gun as they fled the Swift. The Houthis declared they used a C-802 missile to hit the Swift.

We do not know how many died or were wounded in the attack on the Swift. The Swift crew was working on a contract basis and many of them came from elsewhere (e.g., Ukraine, Poland, India). No one has said how many passengers it was carrying (it can hold more than one hundred).

The C-802 is a major threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf, in the Mediterranean, in the Red Sea and elsewhere. The C-802 is an evolved C-801, both produced in China. The C-802 has a very small radar cross section, is hard to jam, and has decent range. China has supplied these missiles to Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, supplied them to operators including Hizb’allah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

On 14 July 2006 the Israel ship, the INS Hanit, off the Lebanon coast, was struck by a C-802 missile. The Israelis said, afterwards, that the defense systems on the Hanit, a Saar V class fast boat, were turned off. One sailor was killed and three sailors were missing.

The warhead of the C-802 is designed to fragment to cause additional damage and is known as an explosively formed penetrator (EFP) warhead. Photos of the Swift hull, after the missile strike and fire, show a signature typical of an EFP round.

Why would the Houthis attack the Swift? One reason is that the Saudi coalition had carried out an air strike on a very large funeral in Sana’a, killing more than a hundred. The Saudi-led attack used U.S. Paveway II laser-guided bombs and Saudi and coalition planes hit the building where the funeral was held a number of times. No surrounding buildings were damaged. What was the Saudi objective: surely it was to decapitate a good part of the Houthi leadership. In fact, the Saudis have now admitted that they were trying to kill the Houthi leadership but had bad intelligence that the funeral was filled with women and children. 

The Swift, an unarmed ship, was, in the eyes of the Houthis, engaged in military supply and support operations and its mission may have been to land specially trained forces to follow up on the funeral attack. So from a Houthi perspective, the target would appear as an appropriate response to the attack on the Sana’a funeral.

From what we can discern, the C-802 that hit the Swift was probably fired from a small patrol boat. That leads to the suspicion that the Iranians may have been involved, since the Iranians, not the Houthis, have patrol boats equipped with C-802 missiles. Those fast patrol boats belong to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy.

It is well known that Iran is engaged, up to its armpits or beyond, in supporting the Houthis. It is, for Iran, a double or triple proxy war. It is a war against Sunni infidels epitomized by the Arab Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are Sh'ia, not Sunni, and so are the Iranians. It is a war to take control of Yemen and with it control over the entrance to both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. And it is a war against the all-around infidel, the United States and its allies.

From the Iranian point of view, and certainly that of the Revolutionary Guard, it is the United States that is blocking Iran from controlling the Persian Gulf and Red Sea commerce. In regard to Yemen and the coastline and Bab el-Mandab straits, the U.S. has been absolutely clear that the U.S. Navy mission is to keep them open for international shipping.

Thus the two or possibly three subsequent events, the firing of anti-ship missiles aimed at the USS Mason and USS Ponce, represents a qualitative escalation in the competition between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the U.S. Navy. The Houthis were quick to say that while they took credit for the Swift attack they did not attack the U.S. warships.

There were two sets of missiles fired on two different days coming from the Yemeni shoreline north of the Bab el-Mandab strait. In the first attack, aimed at the USS Mason, the Mason responded by trying to intercept the incoming missiles.To accomplish this the Mason fired two SM-2 Standard missiles and one Evolved Seasparrow missile. The Mason also launched a Nulka anti-ship missile decoy, designed to provide a false radar target to the incoming missiles. Whether any of these systems worked is not known. The first missile attack apparently fell short of the target, an odd result since the attacking missiles had plenty of range. A day later there was a second attack, thought to have targeted the Mason and the USS Ponce. Those missiles did not hit their targets either. After consultations with Washington, the president authorized a retaliatory Tomahawk cruise missile attack on the radar sites thought to be actively supporting the failed missile strikes. The U.S. knocked out three sites, according to the Pentagon. One or two were located at the Mokha port (which is where the Swift was operating near the shore) and the other further north at al-Hudaydah. While it is not completely certain, it appears that the missiles fired at the U.S. ships were Chinese-made Silkworms, known as the Hai Ying (Hy) CSSC-3. This is a good-sized missiles and carries a 325 kg shaped-charge armor-piercing warhead, making it very destructive. Many Hy-2 Silkworms have been delivered to Middle Eastern countries including Iran. Yemen never had them, meaning the missiles fired were almost certainly from Iranian stockpiles.

The Silkworm is less accurate than the C-802. It is claimed the U.S. ships were in international waters at the time of the attack, suggesting that the ships were at least 12 miles from the Yemeni shore. That is quite different from the attack on the Swift, which took place in very close quarters, perhaps no more than half a mile between the launch and the target. This may help explain in part why the shots missed. Or it could have been U.S. countermeasures. Or, perhaps they were never intended to hit the U.S. ships.

On Sunday, October 16, the USS Mason reported a possible third attack with multiple missiles, either from land bases or from the sea, and deployed countermeasures. But subsequent reports suggest this may have been a false alarm.

Until these attacks, Iran's policy was to harass U.S. military ships and, wherever possible, embarrass them in front of both the Arabs and Iranians in the region. The U.S., to a degree, facilitated the Iranian scheme by extracting no price for the taunting, even when U.S. Navy sailors were captured and taken prisoner and forced into phony confessions.

So what would cause the Iranians to decide to shoot missiles at, or at least near, U.S. warships?

1.) The Saudi coalition funeral attack was seen by Iran (as it was by the Saudis) as a major attempt to decapitate the Houthi government. Iran would surely believe, watching U.S. drone attacks against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS, that the Houthis were in for the same treatment. With the risk that the Houthis insurgency would collapse, Iran would be the loser and America the winner. In addition, it would appear to the Iranians with the presence of the Ponce and the operations of the Swift, that the funeral bombing was going to be followed up by special operations forces going in to kill any remaining Houthi leaders. Thus, the Iranians would believe that they would have to act dramatically to thwart U.S. plans.

2.) By firing on U.S. warships from Houthi-controlled territory, the Iranians had plausible deniability that it was they who pulled the trigger. In this way the U.S. military would be pushed back with only a small risk to Iran. And, in fact, the U.S. response was so benign, knocking out some obsolete radar sites, that the Iranians would have to conclude that they pulled off quite a coup against the U.S. To add fat to the argument fire, the U.S. said it was convinced that all the attacks were Houthi. Nothing was said about Iranians, probably because the administration is still covering the Iranians for fear of losing the nuclear deal.

3.) Had a U.S. warship been hit by a missile, even a supine U.S. government would have to carry out a significantly more drastic retaliation. The entire scenario would be different and far more dangerous with an unpredictable outcome. This leads inexorably to the conclusion that the Iranians killed their own missiles before they would hit a U.S. warship, or at least made sure they were badly aimed and could not strike an American vessel. In other words, the game of chicken escalated, but not at a tipping point.

4.) To make clear that Iran was not going to stand by and let the U.S. roll up the Houthis, Iran also moved two of its ships -- a frigate (the Alvand) that is equipped with C-802 missiles and torpedoes and a large auxiliary ship (the Bushehr) to the Yemen coast in waters where the U.S. was operating. While no match for U.S. ships, the aging Alvand demonstrated that Iran would stand by the Houthis.

Iran’s ploy paid off. The U.S. response to attacks on its ships was minimal. Iran was successful, at least so far, in protecting the Houthi regime and keeping the U.S. fleet at bay, at very low cost. As a result, the U.S. comes out the loser again.

Dr. Stephen Bryen is a former senior Defense Department official and author of Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publications).

Rear Admiral Norman T. Saunders, USCG (Ret) is a veteran of 35 years of Coast Guard service. Norm consults on homeland security, homeland defense, border security, port and maritime security and maritime domain awareness.

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