What it's like aboard a US warship on the front lines of the Red Sea fight: Reporter's notebook

"It's definitely a high operations tempo. We're on call 24/7."

February 18, 2024, 6:02 AM

SOUTHERN RED SEA -- Just a few yards away from where I'm is standing on the frenetic flight deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, an F-18 Super Hornet carefully maneuvers into position on the runway for take off on a mission across the Red Sea.

Its powerful engines growl louder and louder with every second as the crew on deck lock the plane's front gear into a propelling shuttle.

The plane is now at full throttle as the signaling officer lunges forward, extending his right arm out and giving the pilot permission to launch.

The plane shoots forward in a flash, ripping and roaring across the runway while leaving behind a trail of steam rising from the tarmac.

This is the front line of the United States and its allies' response to attacks here in the Red Sea by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

ABC News' Britt Clennett reports from the deck of the USS Eisenhower while it's stationed in the Red Sea.
ABC News

The Houthis have been firing at merchant ships in this passageway, causing major shipping companies to diverge their vessels away from this vital shipping route that provides passage for an estimated 12% of global trade every year, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Commanding Officer Melanie Ahle's job is to respond to distress calls from ships in the area.

"It's definitely a high operations tempo," the VAW-123 squadron leader said. "We're on call 24/7."

A short helicopter ride away from the Eisenhower, I'm given a tour of a guided missile destroyer, the USS Gravely, a critical piece of weaponry at the sharp tip of U.S. engagement with the Houthis. These assault ships are launching near-daily preemptive strikes on Houthi targets.

"This is where we fight from," said Lieutenant JG James Rodney, standing between rows of screens and colorful switches.

The officers here stare hawkishly at the radars in front of them. Their readiness is palpable. Rodney tells me they have minutes, sometimes just seconds, to react to a possible incoming threat.

Naval officers are keen to express their effectiveness in diminishing the Houthis' capabilities since the U.S. began retaliatory strikes more than a week ago.

ABC News' Britt Clennett interviews Rear Admiral Marc Miguez onboard the USS Eistenhower.
ABC News

Rear Admiral Marc Miguez tells us that "numerous strikes" on Houthi positions from the Eisenhower and other ships in Carrier Strike Group Two are successfully degrading the Houthis' capabilities to launch their attacks.

Miguez says he can't predict exactly how long the Houthis will be able to sustain their drone and missile attacks, but that "they're not going to be able to do this forever."

A F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet is catapulted off the flight deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) aircraft carrier in Southern Red Sea, Middle East, Feb. 13, 2024.
Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

The residual fact is that these attacks have actually made the Houthis far more popular inside Yemen. Their longevity in this fight will depend on how steady the stream of weapons and intelligence supply continues from Iran.

"We know that's happening," Miguez said, "and we continue to monitor it and continue to interdict when we can."

But for those on board the Eisenhower, this is a long slog. Miguez told me it's been months since the ship's last port visit, making it an unusually long time out at sea, with no clear end in sight to the game of cat-and-mouse in these troubled waters.

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