For the second time in two days, the USS Mason had to defend itself from incoming missile attacks launched from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen.
In doing so, the Mason likely recorded the first ever use of the SM-2 interceptor missile in combat after more than 20 years of peaceful service.
These incidents come just a month after Iran made a habit out of harassing US Navy ships at sea.
Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on Iran and Yemen at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said that these incidents, by all indications, look “like an Iran-backed harassment strategy that has been carried out with weapons that are almost certainly provided by the Iranians.”
“It’s a provocation and challenge to a crucial waterway,” Schanzer said of the incidents in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, one of the busiest waterways in the world and a choke point for crucial aide entering Yemen, where a war has raged for 18 months, causing mass starvation and a humanitarian nightmare.
According to Schanzer, these attacks are “a direct challenge to the US military,” which is only becoming more dangerous for US sailors as they refuse to return fire.
“The lack of response on the part of the US might be emboldening the group,” said Schanzer.
“After the first rocket there was an opportunity. It’s unclear to us why the US Navy didn’t fire back at the location from where the rocket was fired,” said Schanzer. Indeed, the Mason is an Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer with an Aegis radar, the world’s most advanced radar system, on board.
Instead of simply firing missiles to intercept and neutralise the incoming threats, the US Navy very likely had the capability to counter the 1990s-vintage missile and send another missile speeding toward the coast of Yemen where the Iranian-backed Houthis were likely in waiting.
“The fact that they didn’t [fire back] might have been an indication to these militants that they can continue to do so with impunity,” Schanzer said.
But the reason for the lack of action may come from the top. According to Schanzer, the Obama administration “doesn’t want to get dragged into another Middle East conflict, but [it’s] also an administration that is phobic of clashing with Iran-sponsored actors.”
Obama — who has repeatedly refused to engage allies of Iran militarily, even after Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” in Syria by using chemical weapons against his own people — seems completely averse to confronting the regional power in order to preserve the fragile Iran deal, a key element of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.
With Obama in office for just a few more months, Schanzer thinks we’re unlikely to see the US military respond to force with force. Instead, any million-dollar missiles fired by the US Navy will likely be in defence.
“The last thing they want to do is challenge Iran,” said Schanzer.
Confronting Iran’s Yemeni proxies “could put them in a peripheral conflict with the Iranians — that explains the reticence,” Schanzer concluded.
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