Houthis Shoot Down Second Air Force MQ-9 in Three Months

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper was shot down off the coast of Yemen by Houthi fighters, defense officials said Feb. 20.

“Initial indications are that it was shot down by a Houthi surface-to-air missile,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters. 

The U.S. military believes the drone crashed into the Red Sea in the early morning hours of Feb. 19 local time. Footage circulating on social media shows the wreckage of a drone that was recovered by the Houthis, as well as video of the purported engagement released by the group.

It was the second time that an Air Force MQ-9 was downed by the Houthis since November as the Iranian-backed Houthis pursue a months-long campaign against commercial shipping and naval vessels in the region with drones, cruise missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missiles. Reapers cost roughly $30 million apiece.

Forces under U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) have been taking out Houthi targets in Yemen since mid-January as the U.S. and its allies seek to deter attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Singh said that she did not know if the MQ-9 that was shot down earlier this week was armed. 

“These are multimillion-dollar platforms,” said Singh. “The commander’s using them to keep commercial mariners safe, to keep our U.S. service members safe in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. So, of course, there’s a risk incurred, but it’s something that we’re going to continue to do to ensure that freedom of navigation can continue to be upheld, the rule of law can be upheld, and that commercial shipping can continue, whether it be in the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden.”

Following the shoot-down of the MQ-9 on the morning of Feb. 19, a surface-to-air missile launcher was located and destroyed by U.S. forces in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen at approximately 5 p.m., CENTCOM said in a Feb. 20 statement. CENTCOM did not say if that strike was related to the downing of the MQ-9.

In addition to the drone shot down near Yemen in November 2023, the Houthis have also shot down U.S. drones in 2019 and 2017. The U.S. has lost two more MQ-9s in the past year when one was shot down over Iraq in January, and another was forced to crash into the Black Sea after being run into by a Russian fighter in March 2023.

Despite daily strikes by U.S. forces, the Houthis appear determined to keep up their attacks. 

“We know that Iran is continuing to supply them with what they are continuing to launch at U.S. vessels and commercial mariners,” Singh said. “Every single day, I think our dynamic strikes or coalition strikes absolutely have an impact. But we at no point said that we’re wiping all of their capabilities off the map. We know that they have a large inventory, a large warehouse, and they’re going to continue to use it.”