Last Tuesday, a cruise missile fired by Houthi rebels came within about a mile of the US Navy ship USS Gravely over the Red Sea. Since the Houthi attacks began in late 2023, a missile has not come so close to a US ship before being shot out of the sky. As far as we know, it was also the first successful use of the Phalanx rapid-fire cannon.
An MK-15 Phalanx in 2020 in archive image. (Photo: US Navy)
Houthis have been firing missiles from Yemen at naval and commercial ships in the Red Sea since the end of last year. The United States, among others, has taken on the task of disarming these missiles. Until now, these missiles have been intercepted by American destroyers at ranges of at least 15 kilometers, CNN writes. Standard Missile 6, SM-2 and ESSM were used.
Cannons have also previously been used to shoot down drones. For example, the British Type 45 destroyer HMS Diamond had to shoot down drones with a 30mm cannon several times after other means had failed. But USS Gravely (Arleigh Burke class) was dealing with a cruise flight weapon, a weapon that does much more damage on impact.
During Tuesday’s attack, a cruise missile was fired at the Gravely, according to US Central Command. The weapon thus managed to penetrate one of the destroyer’s last defenses. As a result, the ship’s Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) had to be deployed as a last resort and the missile was shot out of the sky just in time. According to various American media, this happened at (approximately) 1.6 km.
USS Gravely. The ship has a Phalanx at the rear of the superstructure. (Photo: US Navy)
Phalanx is a defense system developed by Raytheon. Phalanx is a rapid-fire cannon, has a rate of fire of 4,500 rounds per minute and fires 20mm shells towards the incoming missile. The weapon is installed on many US Navy surface ships (but not on the new Zumwalt-class destroyers).
The first versions of the system came onto the market in the late 1970s. Today, many countries around the world use the weapon, including on land.
The Phalanx has been around for a while and the land version has been regularly deployed, but the original variant had never successfully downed an enemy missile before.
The Belgian frigate BNS Louise-Marie and the Dutch frigate Zr.Ms. Tromp – both will also go into the Red Sea – do not have a Phalanx, but are equipped with the counterpart Goalkeeper that was developed by Holland Signal (now Thales). That weapon will be replaced by a mix of 76mm Sovraponte, RAM, Pharos and AWWS fire control.
Sketch of the defense layers based on the maximum ranges of the missiles. For SM-6, a maximum range has been used between 240 km (the officially announced range that is considered too low by experts) and 460 km. This overview does not include protection by friendly aircraft, and the use of jamming, chaff and other active means of electronic warfare have also been omitted. The range of the Phalanx is the maximum range of about 5 km. The effective range is much lower. (Image: Marineschips.nl)
The same sketch projected onto a map. The range of these rockets is long, but due to the curvature of the Earth, low-flying rockets can only be seen very late. The long range of the SM-6 is especially useful when used against ballistic missiles or as a supersonic weapon against ships. (Image: Marineschips.nl, map: Openstreetmaps.org)
Seconds before impact
An American official told CNN that it is not worrying that a missile manages to penetrate one of the last layers of defense, which logically means that previous defense mechanisms have not worked properly. This would not be an indication that the Houthis’ attacks are becoming more intense or sophisticated.
Tom Karako, director of the ‘Missile Defense Project’ at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, calls the development worrying.
A former Navy officer, Carl Schuster, told CNN that the rocket flew at 600 miles per hour.
The missile was thus disabled about six seconds before impact by one or more bursts of the Phalanx lasting several seconds.
Schuster emphasizes that the danger has not yet passed; the rocket parts then fly for hundreds of meters before falling into the water.
According to the United States, there are also strong indications that these attacks have been carried out again with the support of Iran. CNN previously reported that Iran has forwarded tactical information and monitoring systems to the Houthi rebels to gain a better picture of targets in the Red Sea.
The US Secretary of Defense said on Wednesday: “We see Iran’s hand in providing advanced weapons, information and expertise to the Houthis.”
The Houthis’ attacks were not limited to Tuesday’s attacks. A planned attack on Wednesday was thwarted by a US strike, which took down an anti-ship ballistic missile and three drones from the USS Carney. On Thursday, US units bombed drones on the ground and one drone was downed over the Gulf of Aden. Later that day, a sailing drone carrying explosives was spotted and destroyed, and two anti-ship ballistic missiles landed in the sea near merchant ships.
|Author: Tobias Kappelle
Tobias has been working as a freelance journalist for Marineschips.nl since August 2020. He is also mainly active in sports journalism at AD Sportwereld, Eurosport and Hockey.nl, among others. Tobias studied History and Public Administration and Organizational Sciences at Utrecht University and did a master’s degree in Media & Journalism at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
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