In the first reported interception of an anti-ship missile, a US Navy warship shot down two incoming anti-ship ballistic missiles fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen.
While the firing of the anti-ship missiles heralds a new era in naval warfare, the interception highlights that the US Navy has incorporated technologies to take on lethal anti-ship ballistic missiles as it readies itself for the rise of the Chinese Navy.
The Red Sea trade waterway is growing dangerous with each passing day as the Houthis have been targeting vessels passing through the region protesting against the Israeli invasion of Gaza. On December 30, the US destroyer USS Gravely was responding to a distress call from a container ship hit in a separate strike.
The ship’s radar detected the missiles moving toward its position at supersonic speeds, each loaded with well over a half-ton of explosives. Two anti-ship ballistic missiles were fired at it from territory controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the US Central Command said in a social media post, describing it as the 23rd illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping since November 19.
According to CENTCOM, the USS Laboon and USS Gravely, both destroyers, answered a call for help from the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship operated and owned by Denmark that was flying the Singaporean flag and had reported being hit by a missile while sailing the Red Sea.
Anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), a type of weapon never before used in combat, were fired “toward the ships,” and the Gravely shot them down in response.
It heralds a new age in naval warfare, one in which ships at sea must defend themselves against ballistic missiles fired from far-off coastlines and coming through the Earth’s atmosphere, in addition to torpedoes and surface-skimming missiles.
“USS Gravely is an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, which is a warship primarily built around the concept and capabilities provided by Aegis Combat System and the SPY-1D multi-function passive electronically scanned array radar,” Commander Milind Kulshrestha (retired) told the EurAsian Times. He undertook the ab initio design, development, and successful onboard deployment of the first indigenous Naval Combat Management systems (CMS) for modern warships in the Indian Navy.
“These (Aegis Combat System) systems provide one of the best Anti-air Warfare capabilities, especially against a small cross-section of incoming missiles and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS),” Kulshreshta added.
On December 27, US F/A-18 Super Hornets from the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group shot down twelve one-way attack drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles, and two land attack cruise missiles in the Southern Red Sea that were fired by the Houthis over 10 hours.
The Houthis most likely used a homegrown derivative or Khalij Fars (“Persian Gulf”) ASBM, which was manufactured in Iran. With a potential range of 186 miles, the almost 9-meter-long Khalij Fars can reach a top speed of 40 to 50 miles per minute (Mach 3 or 4).
In 2022, the Houthis unveiled a purportedly native 10-meter-long Aasef (or Aasif) missile, which bore a striking resemblance to the Khalij Fars. It had a 700-millimeter diameter, a 1,212-pound warhead, and a 250-mile range.
The US forces in Iraq and Syria have repeatedly come under fire from drone and rocket attacks that Washington says are being carried out by Iran-backed armed groups. The US Central Command sees the deployment of anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles as a difficult challenge.
Cruise missiles designed to counter ship threats “may approach low and pierce a ship’s hull above the waterline.” These are the same kinds of munitions that struck USS Stark in the Persian Gulf in 1987 and sank many British ships during the Falklands War. Ballistic missiles might pose an even bigger risk.
The undisputed cornerstone of contemporary anti-ship combat, cruise missiles are essentially a type of replaceable drone aircraft. In comparison, a ballistic missile has significantly less maneuverability and acts more like a rocket ship. However, the most potent ballistic missiles are extremely difficult to intercept without specialized defenses since they can exit the atmosphere and travel enormous distances at absurd speeds.
The weapon’s payload and terminal velocity might cause significant harm to a warship or commercial vessel, and it might take the greatest US tracking radars like SPY-6 and interceptors, such as the speedy SM-6 multi-role missile, to shoot it down.
Defending against the Chinese ‘Carrier-killer’ missile DF-21D
As China pumped in more money in the development of the DF-21 D missile, which has earned the moniker of “Carrier-Killer” missile, it became imperative for the US Navy to deploy a spectrum of new air defense capable of stopping anti-ship ballistic missiles.
These featured the SM-2ER Block IV, the swift SM-6 multirole missile, and the very potent SM-3, which could protect wide regions. Even the Navy’s short-range missile defenses, which consist of RIM-116 SeaRAM launchers mounted on non-destroyer vessels and RIM-67 Evolved Sea Sparrow medium-range missiles that can be quadruple-packed into a destroyer’s missile cells, can offer some defense.
The Houthi rebels anti-ship missile technology is much inferior to the DF-21 D, which, integrated with China’s maritime reconnaissance-strike network of satellites, over-the-horizon radars, and maritime intelligence assets, could deny access to the best of the warships in case of a conflict.
The ground-launched DF-21 D has a reported range of 1,000 miles, ostensibly able to destroy aircraft carriers with advanced range and guidance systems.
The Red Alert In Red Sea
Around 1,200 commercial ships have passed through the Red Sea region since Operation Prosperity Guardian was launched a little over ten days ago, and none of them have been struck by drone or missile strikes. Denmark became the latest country to declare intentions to contribute a frigate to the operation, stating on Friday that “this is an international challenge that demands collective action.”
The Gulf of Aden is connected to the Red Sea and thereafter to the Suez Canal via the slender Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Markets in Asia and Europe are connected by this important trading corridor.
Numerous shipping firms have ordered their vessels to remain in place and not enter the strait until the security situation has improved due to the intensity of the attacks, several of which have resulted in damage to vessels. Significant shippers extended the duration and expense of the voyages by circling Africa and the Cape of Good Hope with their vessels.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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