Navy counters Houthi Red Sea attacks in its first major battle at sea of the 21st century

June 24, 2024

This is an updated version of a story first published on Feb. 18, 2024. The original video can be viewed here

Editor’s Note: The Pentagon on Saturday said that the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier operating in the Red Sea and at the center of America’s response to Houthi attacks, had begun its journey home and would soon be replaced by the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

After Hamas launched its deadly terrorist attack in Israel this past October, and Israel began its unrelenting war in Gaza in response, President Biden warned Iran and its proxies in the Middle East to stay out of it. One of those groups decided instead that it was all in. That group is a Shia militia from Yemen, known as the Houthis. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, but its 1,200 miles of coastline leads in and out of the Suez Canal, the primary route by sea between Europe and Asia, responsible for a trillion dollars a year in global trade.  As we first reported in February, when the Houthis began to attack commercial ships, in solidarity with Hamas, President Biden faced a crisis in the Red Sea and sent the U.S. Navy into its first major fight of the 21st century.

Our report begins not on the water, but in the air, where from a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane 500 feet above the Red Sea, we saw the types of commercial ships the Houthis have targeted and the U.S. warships sent to protect them…  

Admiral Brad Cooper: We are not gonna let the Houthis hold this strait hostage.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper is the U.S. military’s deputy commander in the Middle East. After Oct. 7, as the Navy’s top officer in the region, he ordered the fifth fleet into an area it typically sailed right through.

Norah O’Donnell: How many sailors are now in the Red Sea?

Admiral Brad Cooper: Yeah, we’ve got about 7,000– right now. So, it’s– it’s a large commitment.

Norah O'Donnell and Vice Adm. Brad Cooper
Norah O’Donnell and Vice Adm. Brad Cooper

60 Minutes

Norah O’Donnell: What makes the Red Sea one of the most important waterways in the world?

Admiral Brad Cooper: Fifteen percent of global trade flows exactly through the Red Sea. And so, keeping these vital waterways open is critical. It’s a core commitment the United States has from a strategic perspective, maintaining the free flow of commerce.

The Red Sea is about the size of California. In the north, the Suez Canal. In the south, the 20 mile-wide strait known in Arabic as the Bab el-Mandeb or in English as the Gate of Grief. 

It was near there, seven months ago, that a Japanese-chartered ship built to carry cars was hijacked by the Houthis, who posted this video.

Since then, according to the Pentagon, the Houthis have launched more than 100 attacks and the U.S. Navy has shot down more than 150 drones and missiles fired by the militia that controls one-third of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.  

As Houthi attacks intensified in December and January, the world’s largest container ship companies all made the decision to avoid the Suez and go around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope – adding as much as a month of travel time and a million dollars in fuel.

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told 60 Minutes in February the diversions pose a risk to the global economy, and in the near term…

Jerome Powell (during Feb. 1, 2024 interview): “That’s going to affect Europe much more than it’s going to affect us.”

Tesla and Volvo were both forced to suspend some European production in January due to supply chain disruptions.

There are still ships going through the Suez, mostly smaller, regional carriers that are willing to run the current risks of the Red Sea.

Norah O’Donnell: How much is that in terms of that traffic? Has it been reduced by half?

Navy in the Red Sea

60 Minutes

Admiral Brad Cooper: It’s been reduced, uh, on any given day, sometimes 40%. But it’s clearly flowing, and I think in many respects it’s flowing because of the defensive umbrella that we put over the southern Red Sea, for sure.

The official name of that defensive umbrella is Operation Prosperity Guardian. It’s a coalition of more than 20 nations, that includes the United Kingdom.

… but most of the ships, aircraft and firepower …

… are coming from America.

Norah O’Donnell: When was the last time that the U.S. Navy operated at this pace for a couple months?

Admiral Brad Cooper: I think you’d have to go back to World War II where you have ships who are engaged in combat. When I say engaged in combat, where they’re getting shot at, we’re getting shot at, and we’re shooting back.

Initially the Houthis, backed by Iran, stated they would only shoot at ships linked to Israel, in support of the Palestinian people and to force a cease-fire in Gaza. Their ultimate political aims as well as their actual aim appears to be less precise – they have fired at ships tied to dozens of nations.

The Houthis’ official motto is: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam.”  While their slogan may not be new, their weapons and tactics are, according to Admiral Cooper.

Admiral Brad Cooper: The Houthis are the first entity in the history of the world to use anti-ship ballistic missiles ever, firing against shipping. 

Norah O’Donnell: No one has ever used these?

Admiral Brad Cooper: No one has ever used an anti-ship ballistic missile, certainly against commercial shipping, much less against U.S. Navy Ships.

Admiral Cooper took us inside the Fifth Fleet’s command center at naval headquarters in Bahrain.

Norah O’Donnell: I think there’s a sense that the Houthis are sort of, like, a ragtag kind of terrorist group.

Navy in the Red Sea

60 Minutes

Admiral Brad Cooper: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That can be a sense. And it would be a false sense. And we– we would be unwise to consider that. Ten years of being supplied– by the Iranians, very sophisticated, advanced weapons. They have hit a few ships.

Norah O’Donnell: Of those targets, how many of them are directed at U.S. Naval assets?

Admiral Brad Cooper: The overwhelming majority over these last couple of months have been directed at– internationally flagged merchant ships. A small percentage of them are directly at U.S. Navy ships.

Norah O’Donnell: What kind of damage would one of those anti-ship ballistic missiles do on a commercial ship?

Admiral Brad Cooper: Well, let’s go right here. This is exactly what it looks like. The Houthis attacked it. And you can see in practical terms what the damage was. 

The Houthis also have inexpensive Iranian-designed attack drones in their arsenal, like the 15-foot wide Samad, with a range of up to 1,100 miles. Some of their anti-ship ballistic missiles resemble the Iranian weapons seen here, and can hit targets up to about 300 miles away.

Admiral Brad Cooper: If there was an anti-ship ballistic missile launch, this ballistic missile travels at about Mach 5, about 3,000 miles an hour. 

Norah O’Donnell: How much time is there between a Houthi launch and then it could reach a U.S. ship? 

Admiral Brad Cooper: If it’s coming toward them, now just put yourself in the seat of the destroyer captain on that ship. He has about nine to 15 seconds to make a decision that they’re gonna shoot that down. It’s intense.

To speak to one of those destroyer captains deployed in the southern Red Sea, we took a five mile helicopter ride from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower over to the USS Mason… where we met Commander Justin Smith. The destroyer is one of four American warships in the area that have shot down 20 of the Houthis’ anti-ship ballistic missiles.

Norah O’Donnell: How quickly can you see those?

Commander Justin Smith: Anywhere from one to two minutes out. And providing me that decision space to give me the nine to 15 seconds as the captain of this ship on what my actions are gonna be. 

Norah O’Donnell: You made it sound like that’s a lotta time, nine to 15 seconds. It doesn’t sound like much.

Commander Justin Smith: Seems very small and very short in duration– but my crew has that ready proficiency to be able to engage.

We learned that so far, the Navy has fired more than 100 of their standard surface-to-air missiles, that can cost as much as $4 million each. The decision to fire one at an incoming Houthi missile or kamikaze attack drone is made in the ship’s Combat Information Center – or CIC.

Commander Justin Smith: We can be attacked at any time and any place.

… that’s where Commander Smith showed us a video of the USS Mason doing just that.

Commander Justin Smith: You’ll see an intercept here followed by a quick explosion showing a successful engagement.

Norah O’Donnell: The weapons systems that you have on board here and specifically the standard missiles, those are expensive weapons. And you’re using them to shoot down $10,000 drones. Is that worth it?

Commander Justin Smith: I don’t think you can put a price tag on s– safety and the defense of our sailors on board. 

Norah O’Donnell: You have to be right 100% of the time.

Commander Justin Smith: And they just have to get it right once. 

A day before our visit to the USS Mason, about a hundred miles away, another U.S. destroyer needed its weapon of last resort, a defensive cannon called a CIWS, to shoot down a Houthi cruise missile that was a mile out and closing fast.

Most U.S. warships have one of these gun systems, seen here in exercises. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has two.

On that ship, with its 5,000 sailors and more than 75 aircraft, strike group commander Rear Adm. Marc Miguez told us the Houthis have proven to be resourceful adversaries.

Norah O’Donnell: There are the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones that the Houthis are launching. How have you seen them used?

Rear Adm. Marc Miguez: When we first got to this– this– area, that– we would detect the drone, and then, all of a sudden, you know, ten minutes later or five minutes later, there was an attack, in other words, a ballistic missile bein’ launched– or a cruise missile bein’ launched. And we’ve deduced over time that they are obviously using these drones to perfect their targeting solution.

Since the war in Israel and Gaza began, other Iranian-backed militias have targeted U.S. forces in Jordan, Iraq and Syria, with at least 175 attacks, that injured 183 service members, and killed three. 

Adm. Miguez told us so far the USS Eisenhower has only been focused on the Houthis in the Southern Red Sea. Since Jan. 11, its planes have been regularly striking their launch sites in Yemen, as have U.S. destroyers.

The U.S. also conducted a cyberattack on an Iranian spy ship that was gathering intelligence in and around the Red Sea.

But the Houthi attacks keep coming. 

Norah O’Donnell: Could the Houthis do this without Iranian support?

Vice Adm. Brad Cooper
Vice Adm. Brad Cooper

60 Minutes

Admiral Brad Cooper: No. For a decade, the Iranians have been supplying the Houthis. They’ve been resupplying them. They’re resupplying them as we sit here right now, at sea. We know this is happening. They’re advising them, and they’re providing targeting information. This is crystal clear.

Norah O’Donnell: Are there members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps that are actually on the ground in Yemen providing intelligence and targeting?

Admiral Brad Cooper: The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is inside Yemen, and they are serving side by side– with the Houthis, advising them and providing targeting information.

Norah O’Donnell: And so what have we done to degrade that capability?

Admiral Brad Cooper: Yeah, that’s– that will obviously end up being a policy decision. Our role at this point is to simply be ready and continue to be aggressive in exercising our right to self-defense. 

Norah O’Donnell: Do these offensive U.S. airstrikes against these Houthi targets in Yemen risk escalating this conflict?

Admiral Brad Cooper: Yeah, I don’t think so. We’re targeting those platforms that are targeting us. 

Norah O’Donnell: If we were to look at the calendar, right, since October 7th, the surging of U.S. forces to the Red Sea. And yet, they keep firing back. They keep seeming to be opportunistic in their response. Is the U.S. Navy, the Fifth Fleet, are the actions having an effect?

Admiral Brad Cooper: It’s very clear that we are degrading their capability. And every single day they attempt to attack us, we’re eliminating and disrupting them in ways that are meaningful, and I do believe have an impact. 

Norah O’Donnell: How long does this go on?

Admiral Brad Cooper:  Well, I have a pretty clear– endgame in mind, and that is the restoration of the free flow of commerce and safe navigation in the southern Red Sea. 

Four months after our report first aired, the Houthis are still on the attack in the Red Sea. So far, they have sunk two cargo ships, the second, just this past week. Overall, shipping traffic remains about half of what it was before the attacks began.

Produced by Keith Sharman and Roxanne Feitel. Associate producer, Eliza Costas. Broadcast associate, Callie Teitelbaum. Edited by Sean Kelly.

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