US Navy and Dealing with the Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea

By Justin Katz

Directly citing the ongoing engagements between the US Navy and Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, the Defense Innovation Unit is seeking industry’s help for a “kinetic defeat solution” for medium-sized unmanned aerial vehicles, according to a new solicitation.

“It is expected that solutions will be capable of expeditious worldwide deployment, integrated with a variety of naval platforms and must display the ability to be easily integrated into the existing sensors onboard a naval vessel,” DIU said in the solicitation, released June 17.

“Solutions may assume they will receive a track from the naval vessel’s combat systems to facilitate find and fix. The solution must be able to integrate with the naval vessel’s existing combat systems, but may also utilize an adjunct passive system (e.g., Electro-Optical / Infrared) that does not interfere with the ship’s organic sensors,” the solicitation continues.

“Kinetic defeat” in Pentagon lingo is essentially short for a weapon that physically destroys an enemy’s asset, as opposed to electronic warfare technology which can temporarily disable a drone without causing permanent damage. For DIU, medium sized refers to drones in “group three,” which are UAS as large as roughly 330 pounds.

DIU is seeking relatively mature technologies, requiring the assets be available for testing within 90 days of a prototype award and for the company to be capable of delivering five “production representative prototypes within 12 months” of an award.

“The solution must minimize the cost per defeat to reduce the asymmetry of the current cost of traditional air defense defeat solutions compared to the threat,” the DIU adds.

Countering aerial and seaborne drone threats has become a top priority for the Pentagon’s research and development enterprise in the recent months in response to persistent attacks by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea aiming to disrupt both military operations as well as commercial shipping.

DIU said the attacks to date have killed three people, destroyed one vessel, severely damaged numerous ships and resulted “in a 9% reduction in effective global shipping capacity.”

While the US Navy’s carrier strike groups in the region have been effective at destroying hundreds of incoming threats since Hezbollah’s October 2023 attack on Israel, Navy brass back in Washington have come under scrutiny by lawmakers, third-party analysts and even industry who question the sustainability of firing multimillion dollar missiles to destroy what one Marine Corps general characterized as “jet skis packed with explosives.”

This “isn’t really a cost equation problem,” Andy Lowery, Epirus’ CEO, told Breaking Defense in an April interview, referring to the Navy’s weekly expenditure of interceptors to protect shipping lanes in the Red Sea. “It is a bigger problem than that. … The bigger problem is attrition. It’s the war of attrition.”

That questioning has frequently led to observers, such as Maine Sen. Angus King (I), urging the Defense Department to more heavily invest in directed energy technology, which promises a capability to defeat an incoming missile at a fraction of the cost of an SM-6.

But, curiously, at least this time, DIU preempted any solution involving directed energy, saying the agency “and our mission partners are not considering directed energy or laser-based solutions for this solicitation.”

This article was published by Breaking Defense on June 18, 2024.