US, Allies’ Ships and Aircraft Thwart Pirates Despite Houthi Missile Attacks

A chaotic series of events in which two ballistic missiles were fired from Yemen toward an American destroyer began with an apparently unrelated act of Somali piracy, the Pentagon said Nov 27.

The disclosure adds a new twist to an increasingly complex security situation in the Middle East despite a temporary truce in the Israel-Hamas war. 

“Clearly a piracy-related incident,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder told reporters.

The episode began when the crew of the merchant vessel Central Park, a tanker owned by an Israeli businessman, put out a distress call that it was under attack Nov. 26. 

The USS Mason, a guided missile destroyer which was operating in the Gulf of Aden, heeded the alert. A team from the USS Mason embarked on a small boat, rushed toward the commercial ship, and captured five suspected pirates.

The U.S. personnel fired warning shots as the attackers tried to escape, but there was no return fire and nobody was injured.

“We’re continuing to assess, but initial indications are that these five individuals are Somali,” Ryder said.

USS Mason small boat
U.S. Navy Sailors participate in a small boat training evolution alongside the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) July 3, 2023. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Kaitlin Watt

In a statement released Nov. 26, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said “associated aircraft” were also involved, but Ryder declined to identify the type or number of aircraft.

“It was allied ships and aircraft that responded to this,” he said.

That, however, was not the end of the story. 

Around an hour and 40 minutes later, Houthi rebels in Yemen fired two ballistic missiles toward the USS Mason and Central Park in the early morning hours of Nov. 27 local time.

The Iran-backed Houthis had seized an Israeli-linked commercial vessel earlier this month in the Red Sea, shot down a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 drone on Nov. 8 and launched ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones toward Israel.

In this case, U.S. officials say the Houthis may simply have seized the opportunity to join the fray. 

“It’s not clear to us who they were targeting exactly,” Ryder said.

The Mason’s crew tracked the missiles but decided they did not need to take action since the projectiles landed roughly 10 miles from the Mason and the Central Park, the U.S. military said.

“They landed harmlessly in the water,” Ryder said.

The U.S. wasn’t the only nation on the scene according to the Pentagon. Three vessels from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy were also near the Central Park when it made its distress calls, Ryder said. A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said they could not immediately comment on the incident.

“Supposedly, those ships are there as part of a counter-piracy mission,” Ryder said of the Chinese vessels. “But they did not respond.”