A U.S. Navy warship in the Red Sea on Thursday blew up three cruise missiles and multiple drones fired by Iran-backed Houthi fighters that were headed north from Yemen potentially to strike targets in Israel, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said Thursday. The rare direct American military engagement to defend Israel is meant to send a signal that the U.S. will act to protect its partners in the region, Defense Department Spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters.
The incident could be a sign of things to come. President Biden has ordered more military firepower to the region in an effort to convince enemies of Israel not to open new fronts on the country’s borders in the wake of the bloody attacks by Hamas that started Oct. 7. But experts warn that deterrence is only successful as long as your opponent doesn’t call your bluff—after that, it becomes direct engagement in the fight.
The U.S. Navy’s most advanced aircraft carrier group, led by the USS Gerald Ford, is now cruising closer to Israel in the eastern Mediterranean, reducing the response time of its advanced attack jets and the sea-to-land missiles. On Biden’s order, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group sailed out of port in Norfolk, Va. on Oct. 13 heading toward the Mediterranean Sea as well. And the Pentagon announced Thursday that more American fighter aircraft have been moved to bases the U.S. controls in the region.
All of that has put Biden and the U.S. on the hook to defend Israel and other allies there if the war between Israel and Hamas sparks a broader conflict.
The downing of the missiles and drones from an American warship in the northern Red Sea on Thursday showed just how far the U.S. military’s safety net over Israel can extend, and that Biden’s given the order for it to be used. The missiles were shot down from the USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer equipped with batteries of SM-2 sea to air missiles that use radar to home in on airborne targets. The destroyer stopped missiles and drones “heading north along the Red Sea potentially toward targets in Israel,” said Pentagon spokesman Ryder.
“This action was a demonstration of the integrated air and defense architecture we have built in the Middle East, and we have prepared to utilize whatever necessary to protect our partners and our interests in the region,” Ryder said.
The question is just how far is Biden willing to wade into Israel’s war with Hamas, and if Iran-backed Hezbollah decides to attack Israel, if the U.S. would break from its traditional posture of leaving direct attacks against Hezbollah in Israel’s hands.
“We have this instinctual reaction in the United States to want to move the carriers to where there’s trouble, because it’s a sovereign piece of America,” says Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. Then, if Hezbollah attacks Israel, “we’re implying pretty strongly that we would get involved which would be a huge departure from previous practices,” O’Hanlon says. “If Hezbollah calls your bluff, you’re going to be seen as backing down if you don’t retaliate.”
“I hope we’re not on a slippery slope towards winding up at war with Hezbollah,” O’Hanlon says. “I’m not really convinced that the downside was adequately considered.”
President Obama was broadly criticized in 2012 when he said he would consider it a “red line” if Syrian leader Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people to put down a rebellion against his autocratic government. When Assad used chemical weapons, Obama opted for targeted missile strikes in response instead of a broader US military engagement.
Biden has said plainly that the U.S. military build up around Israel is intended to make Israel’s enemies think twice before escalating more attacks. “My message to any state or any other hostile actor thinking about attacking Israel remains the same as it was a week ago. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” Biden said on Wednesday.
In a prime time address from the Oval Office Thursday night, Biden called on Congress–currently frozen by a Republican leadership fight in the House– to approve funding for helping both Israel and Ukraine defend themselves. Military funding for Israel, he said, is needed intimidate Iran-backed forces and deter them from further escalating attacks against Israel. “We’re gonna make sure other hostile actors in the region know that Israel is stronger than ever to prevent this conflict from spreading,” Biden said.
“The hope of the Administration is that they have a deterrence effect,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the editor of the Long War Journal. “But the problem with that is if you deploy them and you make the threat that you’ll weigh in if something happens and then that something happens and you don’t—you really look weak.”
By Brian Bennett/TIME