On Thursday, the 241st birthday of the U.S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson drew a connection between the service's first major fight with the African Barbary Pirates in the early 1800s and sea-launched missile strikes Wednesday that destroyed radar sites used by Houthi rebels in Yemen to target Navy ships.
Speaking at a town hall meeting with sailors at Naval Support Activity Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Richardson said the strike this week was evidence that the Navy continued to do the same mission for which it was founded.
"As you know, our Navy was stood up in 1775 ... to defend freedom of navigation, freedom of trade against the Barbary pirates in the Strait of Gibraltar," Richardson said. "Fast-forward 241 years, what were we doing last night. You had USS Mason and USS Nitze in a geographic choke-point in the Bab-el-Mandeb, protecting freedom of navigation and our national interests around the world."
Richardson provided new details about the strike on three radar sites in rebel-controlled territory on the coast of Yemen. The strike totaled five missiles, he said.
While defense officials yesterday declined to specify what kind of missiles were used, multiple media outlets have reported they were Tomahawk subsonic cruise missiles, launched from the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Nitze from its position within the Red Sea.
The five-missile strike came after the destroyer Mason and another ship, the amphibious transport dock Ponce, had been targeted by missiles originating from those radar sites on the Yemeni coast, days apart.
According to a policy analysis published by experts at the Washington Institute on Wednesday, all three U.S. ships were told to patrol the area north of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, after rebels apparently targeted and damaged the United Arab Emirates-operated catamaran HSV-2 Swift, a vessel previously operated by the U.S. Navy.
"After defending themselves against a couple of coast cruise missile shots this last weekend and then again yesterday, they decided enough was enough," Richardson told the sailors. "In 241 years, much has changed, but the fundamentals stay the same."
Richardson has said the Navy plans to keep the ships in the region to continue with planned patrol operations.
The Navy's actions, carried out with authorization from President Obama, drew praise from the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
In a statement, Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, congratulated the sailors who executed countermeasures to thwart missile attacks and later carried out the planned strikes.
"If not for the skill of the crew of the USS Mason in defending their ship and others nearby, hundreds of American sailors could have been harmed, or worse, by Houthi rebels armed with missiles likely provided by the Iranian regime," he said. "Thanks to the successful strikes carried out in response by the USS Nitze, the United States Navy has delivered a strong message that aggression of this kind will not be tolerated."
McCain also warned that the attacks on Navy ships were a symptom of greater "chaos engulfing the Middle East" that includes terrorist groups such as the Islamic State as well as the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
It's not clear if further U.S. actions are planned in response to the rebels' missile attacks. A defense official told Military.com on Wednesday the strikes were carried out in keeping with international law and were not in coordination with the Saudi-led coalition executing airstrikes on the rebels.