US Navy destroyer in Red Sea shoots down cruise missiles potentially headed toward Israel: Pentagon

The missiles were fired by Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen, the DOD said.

October 20, 2023, 3:35 PM

The USS Carney, a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer in the northern Red Sea, on Thursday shot down multiple missiles and drones launched by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen that the Pentagon said were potentially headed toward targets in Israel.

It is the first time in recent memory that a U.S. Navy ship in the Middle East has engaged missiles and drones that were not directly aimed at the vessel.

It's also the first U.S. military action taken to defend Israel in the current crisis and with the U.S. and other countries trying to contain the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the possibility that an Iranian-backed proxy group fired missiles and drones at Israel is sure to increase growing regional tensions.

The ship was in the Red Sea on Thursday evening local time when it intercepted three land attack cruise missiles and several drones, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a press briefing. U.S. officials on Friday told ABC News that the Carney had brought down four cruise missiles and 14 drones launched by the Houthis, an update from the three missiles and eight drones reported earlier.

The USS Carney is pictured Aug 11, 2020.
Business Wire/AP, FILE

The preliminary U.S. assessment was that the USS Carney was not the target of any of the Houthi missiles or drones, according to multiple U.S. officials.

"We cannot say for certain what these missiles and drones were targeting but they were launched from Yemen heading north along the Red Sea potentially to targets in Israel," said Ryder who added that information about the engagements was still being processed.

It’s unclear from where the Houthi militia's missiles were fired but they were headed in a northerly direction, an official said.

PHOTO: Illustration
The Pentagon on Thursday said the USS Carney shot down missiles fired from Yemen and potentially headed toward Israel.
ABC News / US Department of Defence

The Houthis are an Iranian-backed Shiite movement that has seized control over much of northern Yemen and has been at war with recent years while Yemen has been at war with a Saudi-led coalition since 2015.

As part of that conflict, the Houthis have launched missiles and drones deep into Saudi Arabia, but it appears that the missiles intercepted on Thursday were not aimed at targets inside Saudi Arabia.

Last week, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi was quoted as saying that if the U.S. directly intervened in the Gaza conflict his group would respond by firing drones and missiles, and take other military options.

"There are red lines when it comes to Gaza," he said, according to the SITE Intel Group.

Yemen's Houthi group held a military parade, commemorating the 9th anniversary of their takeover of the capitol, Sept. 21, 2023, in Sana'a, Yemen.
Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Thursday's incident occurred during the early evening hours (local time) when the missiles and drones were detected moving northward above the waters of the Red Sea.

The missiles fired by the Houthis were engaged by SM2 missiles carried aboard the USS Carney, a U.S. official told ABC News. No information was released about what weapons platform aboard the Carney brought down the 8 drones.

Brig. Gen. Ryder told reporters that the intercepts had taken place over water and not land. No sailors aboard the ship were harmed according to a U.S. official.

The United States has boosted its military presence in the region since the start of the Israel-Hamas war nearly two weeks ago.

The USS Carney is part of the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group that was deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran and Hezbollah from joining the Israel-Hamas war. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently extended the deployment of the Ford strike group so it can remain in the eastern Mediterranean and had ordered the deployment of additional fighter aircraft to U.S. airbases in the region.

To increase U.S. deterrence of an expansion in the conflict the Ford will soon be joined in the eastern Mediterranean by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group that left Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday and could arrive in the region over the next 7 to 10 days.

"By posturing these U.S. naval assets and advanced fighter aircraft in the region, we aim to send a strong message intended to deter a wider conflict to bolster regional stability and of course to make it clear that we will protect and defend our national security interests," Ryder told reporters Thursday.

Men chant slogans as they hold up Kalashikov assault rifles during a tribal meeting in the Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 21, 2019.
Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

The USS Carney had just transited into the Red Sea through the Suez Canal on Wednesday which is why the destroyer was still located in the northern stretch of that body of water that borders, Egypt, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

The missile shot down by the USS Carney will bolster the deterrence in the region and demonstrate that the show of force is serious stuff, a senior U.S. official told ABC News.

The risk to U.S. forces and U.S. interests in the region has increased particularly in the wake of a deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza earlier this week that inflamed regional tensions.

On Wednesday, three drones were shot down by U.S. military forces as they neared bases in western and northern Iraq, another drone was shot down near U.S. forces in eastern Syria on Thursday.

A U.S. contractor sheltering in place at one of the bases in Iraq died of a cardiac arrest in one of the incidents.

Al Asad airbase in western Iraq experienced indirect fire on Thursday according to a U.S. official.

The Carney's shootdown of Houthi missiles opens up the possibility that the U.S. Navy may have to position more ships in the Red Sea if the U.S. commits to protecting Israel from a southern attack said Steve Ganyard, an ABC News contributor and a former Pentagon official.

"The larger concern is if Iran now considers U.S. ships fair game," said Ganyard. "Because if the Houthis shoot at a U.S. ship there will be little doubt that it would have been at Tehran’s direction."

"That said, there is nothing to suggest, no known reason to believe that Iran wants a fight with the U.S. and/or Israel," said Ganyard. "So, hopefully things calm down."

ABC News' Martha Raddatz contributed to this report.

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