PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — American warships will keep operating off the coast of Yemen, despite recently coming under fire by anti-government rebels in the country, possibly taking action against those forces should U.S. service members in the region come into harm’s way again.
Washington remains “determined to preserve freedom of navigation” for American and allied warships traversing the waterways off the Yemeni coast, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters Monday.
“We are very capable of taking action against anybody who takes action against our warships” operating in the region or elsewhere around the world, said Mr. Carter who was en route to a biannual symposium with defense chiefs from Central and South America.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis upped the ante on Tuesday, saying “anybody who takes action, fires against U.S. Navy ships operating in international waters, does so at their own peril,” Reuters reported.
Those comments come in the wake of a failed missile attack on the USS Mason late last week. The missiles were fired from coastal territory in Yemen controlled by Houthi rebels, a Sunni separatist sect in the country that forced former President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power in 2015.
The country is also home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, the group’s Yemeni cell which is considered the best-financed and most-dangerous faction currently operating in the region.
Two missiles were fired at the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer while the U.S. warship was conducting routine operations in the Red Sea, Capt. Davis said Monday. When asked Tuesday whether American forces in the region were mulling possible counterattacks against Houthi-held territory, he replied: “I’m not confirming that right now.”
Launched from Houthi-controlled territory along the country’s western coastline, both missiles fell short of their intended targets, he said.
Pentagon officials were still in the midst of determining whether the attack on the USS Mason was carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen, Mr. Carter said Monday.
“We will find out the origins of this,” he said. “We certainly don’t take anything like this lightly. No one should.”
Mr. Carter declined to comment on whether U.S. commanders in the region were weighing an adjustment to Washington’s approach in Yemen, which until recently had been touted by the White House as a bright spot in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
Pentagon leaders are “constantly adjusting our force posture in that area in reaction to the entirety of things that are going on” in Yemen and the region writ large, Mr. Carter said.
Earlier this year, Pentagon officials dispatched American military intelligence team remains on the ground in Yemen, supporting the Arab coalition battling al Qaeda’s terror cell in the country.
The U.S. military team played an integral role in the operation in May to retake the coastal town of Mukalla in Hadramawt province, located 400 miles southeast of the country’s capitol of Sana’a.
Providing intelligence support to Saudi and UAE commanders, the team also coordinated aerial surveillance operations and assisted local commanders in mission planning for the Mukalla offensive.
USS Boxer Amphibious Ready Group and elements of 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit were also anchored off the coast of Yemen at the time, assisting in maritime security operations and coordinating casualty evacuations from Mukalla.
The Boxer and the U.S. military intelligence team were pulled out of the country this summer, according to the Pentagon.
The attack on the USS Mason was the second such strike against foreign vessels steaming through the Red Sea. A United Arab Emirates warship was struck by a missile attack while passing through the same contested waterway.
Abu Dhabi claimed the ship was was a humanitarian aid transport, while Houthi leaders say the warship was conducting combat operations against anti-government rebels in Yemen.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.