It’s been more than 25 years since the Navy officially recognized a ship crew at sea for coming under enemy fire.
Yet the recent attacks from the Red Sea – when an enemy cruise missile came within one minute of impacting a ship – will likely make thousands of sailors eligible for Combat Action Ribbons, a citation the Navy has not bestowed on the crew of a ship in international waters since the Gulf War in 1991.
“If I was on that ship, I would feel like I warranted it,” said a defense official familiar with the preliminary investigation, referring to the first attack on Sunday when two missiles were fired at the afloat forward staging base Ponce. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the incidents remain under review.
The two cruise missile attacks, the first occurring Sunday and the other Wednesday, targeted three U.S. Navy ships, the destroyer Mason and the Ponce and amphibious transport dock San Antonio, according to several defense officials. The high-speed, guided missiles came from Yemen, where Houthis rebels backed by Iran control a large swath of coastline.
“The splash point was within 10 [miles],” the defense official said, referring to the distance from the ships that the cruise missiles reached before crashing into the water.
“So when you’re talking about something traveling at 500 to 600 miles per hour, that is not a lot of time,” the defense official said. It would take about 60 to 80 seconds for a cruise missile at that speed reach a target 10 nautical miles away.
The first attack specifically targeted the Ponce, an official said. The nearby Mason, which was serving as the Ponce's heavily-armed escort, activated its missile defense system and fired interceptor missiles. Neither ship was hit by the incoming missile; it’s unclear if the interceptor missiles destroyed or deflected the cruise missile or whether it struck the water on its own.
The Oct. 12 attack involved a single missile shot that appeared to put both the Mason and the San Antonio at risk.
“It’s not really clear whether they were targeting the Mason or San Antonio. They were very close to each other,” the official said. In response, the Mason again fired up its missile-defense systems and the incoming explosive struck the water and was disabled.
On Thursday, the Norfolk-based destroyer Nitze fired Tomahawk missiles into southern Yemen, where the cruise missile attacks originated. The U.S. rockets destroyed three radar sites in the area controlled by Houthis rebels, who receive support from Iran. The coastal radar systems provided key targeting data to the cruise missiles fired from Houthis-controlled area.
Cruise missiles are designed to slam a high-explosive warhead of roughly 350 pounds into a ship's hull at 600 miles per hour, a substantial blow that will likely kill crewmembers and could render a ship combat ineffective. It's many times more dangerous to a warship than rockets and mortars, which were fired at Navy ship 11 years ago.
Under official Navy policy, the Combat Action Ribbon is intended for sailors who “rendered satisfactory performance under enemy fire while actively participating in a ground or surface engagement.”
Navy officials say it’s too early to determine what individual or unit awards may be appropriate for the ships that came under attack.
The two attacks were the first known instances of a U.S. Navy ship engaging its Standard Missile-2 air defense system outside of training situations. The SM-2 system uses interceptors to destroy incoming missiles at long-range before using last-resort self-defense systems, like the shorter-range Sea Sparrow missiles or the Close-In Weapons System 20mm gun.
Enemy targeting of the U.S. ships likely involved radar as well as small boats sent out into the water to help track and identify the American warships.
“There is some speculation that there were some spotter boats that were out there,” said the U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the attacks remain under investigation.
“Does that mean they knew what they were shooting at? And they knew what each ship does? We’re not sure,” the official said.
Many military officials believe were missiles were C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles, originally made by China but widely replicated. The missile has been a part of the Iranian military’s arsenal for decades. Experts say they can travel more than 600 miles per hour with an estimated range of 60 nautical miles.
The military services have awarded many Combat Action Ribbons for ground combat for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the award is rare for entire ship's crew. Twice in recent years, the Navy has approved the awards for incidents involving terrorism targeting ships in port.
That includes the 2000 attack on the destroyer Cole, which was struck by a suicide bombers while in port in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Navy gave Combat Action Ribbons to four minesweeper ships -- the Ardent, the Dextrous, the Cardinal and the Raven -- for clearing mines in a narrow estuary between Iraq and Kuwait.
In 2005, the Navy approved Combat Action Ribbons for the crew of the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and the amphibious dock landing ship Ashland after militants fired several rockets at the ship while pier-side at the Red Sea port of Aqaba, Jordan. The rockets did not strike the ships.
The latest attacks on U.S. Navy ships are the first attacks on ships in operating in open international waters since the Gulf War in 1991. More than two dozen ships received unit citations for coming under enemy fire in those operations.
For many of today’s sailors, the recent attacks in the Red Sea are the first time they’ve seen surface warfare.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson spoke to sailors at an “all-hands” event Thursday and clearly said the ships were under fire.
"After defending themselves against a couple of coastal-defense cruise missile shots this last week and then again yesterday, [U.S. commanders] decided enough was enough and they launched five missile strikes into Yemen to take out the radars that control those cruise missiles.”