Israel-Hamas war, hostage negotiations, Gaza humanitarian crisis

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The US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney transits the Suez Canal, Egypt, on October 18, 2023. US Navy/Aaron Lau/Reuters

US warships in the Red Sea have been battling a growing number of weapons fired by Houthi forces in Yemen over the past several weeks, including an incident on Saturday when a US destroyer shot down more than a dozen drones.

And US faceoffs with the Houthis, who say they are targeting commercial ships headed for Israel after its invasion of Gaza, could grow after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Monday a new US-led operation focusing on protecting merchant ships operating in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

The US Navy has not said what weapon systems its ships are using against the Houthi attacks, but the experts said a US destroyer has a range of weapons systems at its disposal.

These include surface-to-air missiles, explosive shells from the destroyer’s 5-inch main gun and close-in weapons systems, the experts said. They also said US ships have electronic warfare capabilities that could sever the links between drones and their on-shore controllers.

But in its effort to protect merchant ships, the US is facing drones that can be produced and deployed in large numbers for unit prices under $100,000. This means a prolonged campaign could eventually tax US resources, the experts say.

“These are advanced air intercept capabilities with an average cost of around $2 million — making the intercept of drones not … cost-effective,” said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College in London.

Houthi forces are funded and trained by Iran, so they have resources for an extended fight, the experts point out. It’s also a question of to what lengths the US wants to go to protect merchant shipping, the experts said.

Why this matters: Iran-backed Houthi forces have launched numerous attacks against US interests in the region, and Israel, since the October 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, as fears ripple across the region that the Israel-Hamas war could widen.

The group has said any ship heading to Israel was a “legitimate target” as it puts pressure on Israel to stop its Gaza offensive. They have staged several drone and missile attacks on commercial shipping and even tried landing commandos by helicopter on one vessel to hijack it.

The biggest container shipping companies have paused transit through one of the world’s trade arteries, which experts say could snarl supply chains and drive up freight costs.

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