Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower and its accompanying warships have spent four months straight at sea defending against ballistic missiles and flying attack drones fired by Iranian-backed Houthis, and are now more regularly also defending against a new threat — fast unmanned vessels fired at them through the water.

While the Houthis have launched unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, in the past against Saudi coalition forces that have intervened in Yemen’s civil war, they were used for the first time against U.S. military and commercial vessels in the Red Sea on Jan. 4. In the weeks since, the Navy has had to intercept and destroy multiple USVs.

It’s “more of an unknown threat that we don’t have a lot of intel on, that could be extremely lethal — an unmanned surface vessel,” said Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, commander of Carrier Strike Group Two, of which the Eisenhower is the flagship. The Houthis “have ways of obviously controlling them just like they do the (unmanned aerial vehicles), and we have very little fidelity as to all the stockpiles of what they have USV-wise,” Miguez added.

The Houthis began firing on U.S. military and commercial vessels after a deadly blast at the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza on Oct. 17, a few days after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. The Houthis have said they will continue firing on commercial and military vessels transiting the region until Israel ceases its military operations inside Gaza.

The Eisenhower has been on patrol in the region since Nov. 4, and some of its accompanying ships have been on location since October.

In those months the Eisenhower’s fleet of fighter and surveillance aircraft have worked non-stop to detect and intercept missiles and drones fired by the Houthis at ships in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Gulf of Aden. The carrier’s F/A-18 fighter jets are also frequently launched to take out detected missile sites before munitions are fired.

As of Wednesday, the carrier strike group, which includes the cruiser Philippine Sea, the destroyers Mason and Gravely, and additional U.S. Navy assets in the region — notably, the destroyers Laboon and Carney — have conducted more than 95 intercepts of drones, anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles. The strike group has also conducted more than 240 self-defense strikes on more than 50 Houthi targets.

On Thursday, U.S. Central Command reported that the strike group had intercepted and destroyed seven additional anti-ship cruise missiles and another explosive USV prepared to launch against vessels in the Red Sea. A commercial vessel in the Gulf of Aden reported a suspected Houthi attack after an explosion occurred near the ship, though the crew and ship were able to safely continue, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center reported.

“We are constantly keeping an eye on what the Iranian-backed Houthis are up to, and when we find military targets that threaten the ability of merchant vessels, we act in defense of those ships and strike them precisely and violently,” said Capt. Marvin Scott, commander of the carrier air wing’s squadrons of warplanes.

But the USV threat, which is still evolving, is worrisome, Miguez said.

“That’s one of the most scary scenarios, to have a bomb-laden, unmanned surface vessel that can go in pretty fast speeds. And if you’re not immediately on scene, it can get ugly extremely quick,” Miguez said.

U.S. Central Command also reported Thursday that personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Clarence Sutphin Jr. boarded a vessel in the Arabian Sea that was bound for Yemen on Jan. 28 and seized medium-range ballistic missile parts, explosives, USV components and military-grade communications equipment.

Current threats, meanwhile, have resulted in ships spending the last four months at a constant combat pace without a port call or days off. That takes a toll on sailors, Capt. Christopher “Chowdah” Hill, the commander of the Eisenhower, said in an interview with The Associated Press aboard the carrier.

The carrier’s leadership has attempted to boost morale by continuing to praise the work of its sailors and by providing wi-fi access so they can stay connected with families back home.

“I was walking through the mess decks the other day and I could hear a baby crying because someone was teleconferencing with their infant that they haven’t even met yet,” Hill said. “It’s just extraordinary, that sort of connection.”

The strike group’s destroyers, however, don’t have wi-fi because of bandwidth limitations, which can make it harder for those crews.

Joselyn Martinez, a second class gunner’s mate aboard the destroyer Gravely, said not being in touch with home and being in a fighting stance at sea for so long has been hard, “but we have each other’s backs here.”

When a threat is detected, and an alarm sounds directing the crew to respond, “it is like a rush of adrenaline,” Martinez said. “But at the end of the day, we just do what we come here to do and, you know, defend my crew and my ship.”

Armangue reported from onboard the Eisenhower and Gravely. Copp reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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