Friday, July 27, 2018

Yemen Missile Attacks

It’s coming up on two years since the series of reported attacks on US Navy ships off the coast of Yemen.  It’s worth taking a look back at the events and see what lessons can be learned.  As a reminder, here’s the timeline and description of events.  Note that the descriptions are pieced together from many reports.  As such, I’ve not included any specific references because the reports, at the time, were fragmentary, sometimes contradictory, and far from definitive.

Sunday, 9-Oct-2016

USS Mason (DDG-87), a Burke class destroyer, operating near the Bab-el-Mandeb strait off Yemen’s southern coast, in concert with the USS Ponce (AFSB-15), was reportedly targeted by two missiles fired from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen. Both missiles fell short and impacted the water.

Some reports state that the missiles were detected over a 60 minute period, suggesting two separate launches of one missile each.

Initial reports indicated that Mason employed countermeasures but did not launch its own missiles.  Later reports indicated that Mason fired two SM-2 Standard missiles and one RIM-162 ESSM missile as well as deploying its Nulka decoys.

Official statements say that it is not clear whether the attacking missiles were shot down or crashed on their own.

One report indicated that one of the missiles traveled more than two dozen nautical miles before crashing into the water.  Two dozen miles would be an incredibly short distance for an anti-ship missile.  This report seems highly questionable.

Confirming the uncertainty, USNI News reported that the crew of the Mason was uncertain if the suspected cruise missile was taken out by an SM-2 or went into the water on its own. The Pentagon claimed that an investigation was ongoing.

Some reports suggested that the missiles coming from Yemen might have been intended to strike Ponce.

Wednesday, 12-Oct-2016

On Wednesday, 12 October 2016 Mason was again targeted by missiles fired from Yemeni territory while operating in the Bab el-Mandeb strait.  Mason was not hit by the two missiles, which were fired from near the city of Al Hudaydah.   While the Navy is not certain whether the first incoming missile was intercepted or it just fell into the sea, officials claim Mason successfully intercepted the second missile at a distance of about 8 miles (13 km).

Thursday, 13-Oct-2016

On Thursday, 13 October 2016, US ships attacked three radar sites in Houthi-held territory which the Navy claims had been involved in the earlier anti-ship missile attacks against U.S. ships.  Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from USS Nitze. The Pentagon assessed that all three sites were destroyed.

The areas in Yemen where the radars were located was near Ras Isa, north of Mukha and near Khoka.

Saturday, 15-Oct-2016

USS Mason was targeted in a third attack by five anti-ship cruise missiles while operating in the Red Sea north of the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Reports claim that Mason launched radar decoys, an infrared decoy, and several SM-2 Standard missiles in response, either neutralizing or intercepting four of the five incoming missiles. The Navy claims the fifth incoming missile was neutralized by a radar decoy launched from USS Nitze, after Mason alerted her to the threat.  Thus, the Mason was the only ship to have seen the claimed attack.

One report puts it this way:  one of the U.S. ships saw on radar what sailors believed to be missiles being fired on it out of Yemen at night.  Well, was it or wasn’t it attacking missiles?

Here’s a quote from CNO Richardson which indicates the general uncertainty and inability to even determine whether an attack even occurred.

“The latest is there has been recent activity today with the Mason once again. It appears to have come under attack in the Red Sea again from coastal defense cruise missiles fired from the coast of Yemen.” (1) [emphasis added]

So, according to the CNO, the Mason “appears” to have come under attack.  Put another way, no one can say for sure if an attack actually occurred.


To the best of my knowledge, no Navy report has ever been publicly issued about the purported attacks and I have not seen any results from the subsequent official investigation.

It is obvious that the Navy has no definitive idea whether any missiles were actually launched against any Navy ships.  If they were, they would likely have offered much more public proof because such attacks are potential windfalls for the Navy in terms of going to Congress and asking for money.

It is further obvious that the Navy has no evidence that any of the defensive missiles hit any attacking missiles if such even existed.  If they had, they would have plastered the news all over the media since successful combat operations would bolster recruiting efforts, justify increased budgets, “prove” the validity of Navy weapon systems, and help make a case for more ships – the thing the Navy wants more than anything else.

We see, then, that despite the most advanced suite of shipboard sensors ever constructed, despite the combined sensor systems of multiple ships, despite the use of networked naval data sharing which make up the foundation of the Third Offset Strategy, despite the oversight of satellite coverage, the Navy appears to have no credible evidence that actual attacks occurred and no credible evidence that any attacking missiles were shot down if there were actual attacks.

Regarding the question of whether the Saturday attacks were real, it is telling that there was no retaliatory attack as there was after the Sunday and Wednesday attacks.  The US Navy didn’t hesitate to respond to those attacks and yet a supposedly larger attack involving several missiles prompted no response.  The conclusion seems obvious that the Saturday “attack” did not actually occur.

This strongly suggests that the crew that reported the attack was seeing what they were conditioned to see.  It is noteworthy that despite the presence of several US ships in the immediate area as well as additional regional sensors, only one ship, the Mason, ever reported attacks and it was that ship that reported all three separate attacks.

USS Mason - Scenario Fulfillment?

Finally, if the attacks were real and the Mason actually shot down one to several attacking missiles, the Navy would, without a doubt, have showered medals on the Captain and crew.  You’ll recall that the Navy gave a medal to the crew member of the seized riverine boats who tried and failed to send a radio request for help.  If they would give a medal for a trivial, failed action they most certainly would have showered medals all around for the first successful combat action in quite some time – not only a successful combat action but hugely successful if they actually shot down four of five attacking missiles!  The conclusion is, again, obvious – there were no actual attacks.

It appears highly likely that the crew of the Mason behaved as the crew of the Vincennes did many years prior.  They saw a scenario that they “wanted” or were conditioned to see.  That the fog of war lead an overeager crew to see missiles where none existed is mildly interesting but hardly shocking.  This is nothing more than a common human tendency of scenario fulfillment demonstrated ad nauseum throughout history.  No, the more important aspect is that all of our vaunted technology utterly failed to tell us what was (or, was not) actually happening.  Despite this blatant failure of technology, we remain firmly committed to placing our entire combat welfare in the hands of technology and basing our entire military future in the hands of the Third Offset Strategy which is based entirely on sensor technology – technology that has been demonstrated repeatedly to be unreliable in application.

I know that my analysis completely contradicts the official Navy story but, lacking any documentation from the Navy, the logic is compelling and inescapable.


(1)USNI News website, “CNO Richardson: USS Mason ‘Appears to Have Come Under Attack’”, Sam LaGrone, 15-Oct-2016,


  1. This reminds me of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident - especially as depicted in the 2003 documentary "The Fog of War".


  2. Naval Surface Force Atlantic commander Rear Adm. Jesse Wilson Jr seems to have confirmed that those attacks happened.

    He said, “Mason successfully defended itself, three other U.S. warships, and multiple U.S.-flagged merchant vessels during missile attacks in the Red Sea. Mason employed Standard Missile (SM-2) defensive interceptors and is the only warship in U.S. naval history to successfully employ the Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) while under attack,”. “Mason’s actions protected 1,000 U.S. sailors on the warships and countless more mariners in merchant vessels. Many of Mason’s tactical operating procedures and lessons learned across the attacks are now being used to increase combat readiness and toughness across the force.”

    The Mason was then awarded the Battenberg cup for being the best ship in the Atlantic fleet, the 2016 Battle Efficiency and unit tactics awards from Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 2, and the Golden Anchor award.

    The attacks seem pretty plausible in light of the successful
    C-802 attacks that the Houthis carried out on the HSV Swift. It is indeed odd that no other ship reported the attacks, but the C-802 is a small target with a sea-skimming attack profile, making it difficult to detect at range, especially for a ship like the Ponce that was never designed for air defense.

    1. I know exactly what the Navy claimed. However, the logic I presented makes a pretty compelling case against it. This comes down to who you choose to believe.

      I'll repeat the main point - don't you think that if actual attacks had occurred and missiles had been shot down by defending ships that the Navy would have made a much, much bigger deal of it, given their overhyped reactions to much, much smaller successes in the past?

      Wouldn't people have written books and papers about this?

      The Navy/military routinely releases video of radar and images of successful strikes and yet they have released nothing about the first combat Standard missile and ESSM intercept? Does that seem likely to you?

      I would also remind you that the Navy routinely makes claims that are later proven false. Recall the entire Vincennes affair and the initial claims by the Navy as opposed to the truth that eventually emerged? Recall the Navy's claims about the Gulf of Tonkin versus the consensus truth that eventually came out. And so on.

      Of all the assets in the region, only a single ship, the same ship each time, "saw" any of the attacks and that same ship saw all of the attacks. Does that seem likely?

      I'm starting to repeat the post so I'll leave it at that. Consider the history, the Navy's reliability in claims, the logic presented in the post and draw your own conclusion.

    2. Could you ascribe the Navy's unwillingness to release radar and data about the alleged intercepts to a desire to not allow other nations to know precisely the capabilities of the latest ESSM and Standard missiles?
      Releasing precise data may help potential adversaries devise countermeasures to our missiles.

    3. We haven't hesitated to release laser guided bomb videos, aircraft HUD displays (the F-14/Iranian incident and numerous F-15 engagements), satellite images of the Syrian Tomahawk attacks, lots of missile launch videos of all sorts (including ESSM and Standard) on YouTube, and on and on. Now, suddenly, we're going to clam up about what would be a routine intercept for a Standard/ESSM? Does that really seem likely or in keeping with previous releases where the military falls all over themselves to "advertise" successes?

      There are no secrets in the US military. We see official and unofficial reports about everything. Heck, the DOT&E annual reports are packed full of more information than a missile video or sanitized radar screen display would reveal.

      Which seems more likely to you - that the military has suddenly and successfully kept secret the most significant engagement in decades or that they're not releasing anything because they have nothing to release?

    4. Also, there were never any rebel videos of the launches released that I know of. The only reason we found about the Swift attack was because of a rebel video. You damn well better believe that if they thought they might be able to take out a US warship they would video tape it, even if it was over the horizon and they could only show the launch.

    5. I would expect them to have recovered the missiles, if they existed.

    6. "there were never any rebel videos of the launches released"

      A very good point that I overlooked. Thanks.

    7. "I would expect them to have recovered the missiles, if they existed."

      Another good point. Proof of the missile's country of origin (presumably Iran) would be a very useful negotiating tool.

      It's remotely possible that they recovered the missiles in secret although given Trump's hatred of the Iranian deal, I would think he'd loudly display the proof to the world if it existed.

    8. HUD displays and bomb videos are one thing, radar and fire control information? No way. The data would be more than just what would be seen on a display and that kind of stuff you don't talk about.

    9. I've seen all kinds of sonar and radar displays on YouTube, suitably blurred, of course.

      I take it that despite the logic and utter lack of proof, you believe the Navy's half-hearted claims? Note that even the CNO used the phrase "appears to have come under attack". After the initial, immediate, confused reports and statements, to the best of my knowledge, the Navy never came out during the subsequent investigation and stated that any attacks actually occurred.

      Where were the unit citations and hero's welcome home parades? First successful anti-air combat ever and the Navy says and does nothing? If it had actually happened, the Captain would be wearing every medal the Navy has and several that they would have commissioned just for the occasion!

    10. I have no opinion on it because the released evidence is murky at best. What the USN would have to release is much more than just displays, it would involve classified details about systems.

      In the Battle of Dong Hoi off of North Vietnam there have been questions as to whether Styx anti-ship was involved in addition to the MiG attack. There is evidence for and against it. See for how much details have to be looked out.

    11. Fair enough.

      Do you really think, though, that the Navy wouldn't have trumpeted the incidents to the heavens if they believed they actually occurred? The chance to claim validation of the Aegis system and go to Congress for more money for more and better ships and systems would be to good to pass up! As much as anything, the complete lack of response by the Navy tells me everything I need to know.

      It didn't happen, they know it, but I think they're content to let the original claims linger and let people believe it happened - almost as good as the real thing!

      You know what else proves it didn't happen? The Raytheon website has no mention of it, as far as I can see. If Raytheon's missiles had shot down a half dozen attacking missiles, they'd be advertising it for all they're worth! Again, the lack of reaction tells me everything.

    12. Yeah, just look how they brag about just a missile test , in that case the Patriot

    13. I think the reality is that some overeager ship's Captain fired off around $20M or so of missiles against figments of his imagination. I suspect that, privately, the ship's Captain was gently reprimanded.

    14. Well, to be fair what if radar data showed a realistic threat and you only had seconds to decide . . i you where that ships captain and had seconds to decide on the possibility of a credible radar lock you'd give the order to shoot also.

    15. If he hadn't fired the missiles and there was incoming he could have lost the ship and crew. I think the navy would weigh that against the cost of the missiles and let it slide.

      Besides, the techies have more data they can use to try and prevent it from happening again.

    16. Storm/Seal, without a doubt a Captain would/should err on the side of caution. HOWEVER, at some point, after say, eight or nine phantom shots you've got to stop and ask yourself why you are seeing things that no other ship or sensor in the region is seeing. This is what I suspect that Captain's superiors probably quietly conveyed to him - to settle down and see what's really there not what he wants/expects to see.

      To remind, the Vincennes Aegis system apparently had all the data correct (climbing aircraft, in a travel lane, etc.) but the crew interpreted it the way they expected to see it. It appears that this happened here. A calmer Captain/crew would be able to see the reality and not have to react quite so frantically.

    17. "Besides, the techies have more data they can use to try and prevent it from happening again."

      I suspect that, like the Vincennes incident, the issue is not the data but the interpretation of the data. I'm betting that all the necessary data was available to the Mason and they just interpreted it incorrectly. The fact that no other ship or platform saw the launches supports this idea. The fact that the Navy didn't continue to support the attack story in the subsequent weeks also suggests that they studied the radar and sensor data and concluded that there was no attack - thus, the data was adequate but the "in the moment" data interpretation was not.

      One can forgive one instance of overeager reaction but after you've fired off several missiles over three separate instances and none turned out to be real, you've got to start some self-examination and the superiors have to start asking questions.

    18. Add it up - the Mason reported being attacked by at least 9 missiles. You could forgive one as being overly cautious but after 9, you're just acting in panic mode.

    19. In defence of the captain/crew, they have seconds to react.

      Either you launch, or you hope the alert was wrong.
      You can no longer wait to visually identify the missile, they're just too fast.

    20. If you accept the premise that the crew had only seconds to decide and were wrong nine times then, clearly, the data they were working with was inadequate to give them a clear indication of what they were facing. If that's true, that the very best Aegis system we have can't distinguish a genuine attack, then we simply can't operate within 50 miles or so of land. That would be a very disappointing finding.

      This is also what the Aegis "auto" mode is for. They system acts as needed, unhindered by human/emotional interpretations. Perhaps we need to let Aegis do its job if humans can't?

    21. Wait a minute, can this "auto" mode decide to launch missiles even without a human operator pressing the launch button ? ?

      I tought only the CIWS has such modes where literally time is 5-6 seconds to react?

    22. Yes, Aegis has a full auto mode. That's its preferred and intended operating mode.

  3. And the Yemenis don't even poses any modern missiles all they have is Iranian Silkworm copies and other Iranian missiles witch in turn are Chinese copies.

  4. Also, wouldn't it seem likely that the USS Mason would have been awarded some kind of unit citation if they had successfully shot down a half dozen or so attacking missiles? I'm unaware of any awards.

    1. Does the Battenberg not count?

    2. No, the Battenberg is not a medal. It's just a routine administrative award for all around excellence in many, many categories, most only marginally related to combat. The ship had won several other awards that lead to the Battenberg award so it was not unexpected and is a routine, if exclusive, peacetime award.

      A Presidential Unit Citation would have been the expected award for combat achievements. The Captain would almost certainly have been awarded the Navy Cross. To the best of my knowledge, these did not happen.

    3. The CO was awarded the Bronze Star w/ V. All other awards are still pending. Including unit awards.


    So, thats for the previous day, might have to do with the recent story they don't want anything to pass around Yemen.
    Some games are going on.

  6. The other possibility not mentioned is that the radar system was malfunctioning in some way that lead them to think they were under attack. That would explain why no-one else saw it.

    1. Possible. The Aegis systems have been degraded fleet wide for many years. The Navy convened one of their infamous Admiral-chaired committees to "fix" the Aegis degradation problem some years ago and I've never heard what came of it. I don't know if the fleet wide problems still exist but I strongly suspect they do.

      Also, bear in in mind that more than radar is used to detect attacks. For example, Burkes have SLQ-32 electronic systems designed to detect various radar and guidance signals. There should have been multiple sensor systems detecting an attack.

    2. Isn't Nulka triggered via the SLQ-32? Radar decoy for radar detected?

  7. I'm not sure what happened to our Navy ships, but Yemeni rebels reportedly struck an UAE ship with an antiship missile last month. If true, this would show that Yemeni rebels were at least capable of firing missiles at our ships.

    The Drive

  8. You conclusions are I think reinforced by blunder in Iran the other day. Western intell was quick see and understand the mistaken shoot down.


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