But four other officials with knowledge of the discussions said in interviews that U.S. naval forces are clearly under threat in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
“If our ships see something is coming near them or toward them, they are going to assess it as a threat and shoot it down,” said one DOD official, who like others in this story was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “You’d be hard-pressed to find another time” U.S. ships have been this challenged in the region.
A separate U.S. official argued the administration was downplaying the seriousness of the situation in the Red Sea in order to avoid escalating tensions in a region that’s already on edge over the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
“People are thinking this is an Israel thing, and because they are heavy-handed in Gaza no one is saying anything,” the official said. “The world should be condemning this.”
A second U.S. official acknowledged that the U.S. has taken pains to say it does not know whether the Carney was the target because it is “trying to avoid unnecessary escalation.” But the official also pointed out that the administration has deliberately left some wiggle room and has not said definitively that the warship was not targeted.
“We are not hesitating to take action against forces or militia groups that could be a threat to our forces,” the official said.
Some DOD officials have said explicitly that the increase in attacks on commercial shipping is an escalation. Adm. Christopher Grady, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighted the attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea as “a big deal.”
Grady said “this is very much an expansion of perhaps the larger conflict between Israel and Hamas” — a contrast to recent comments by Pentagon spokespeople that previous Iran-backed attacks are “separate and distinct” from the conflict in Gaza.
“This is not just a U.S. problem. This is an international problem,” Grady said at an event in Washington on Monday. “There’s undoubtedly an Iranian hand in this. So this looks a little bit like horizontal escalation.”
The U.S. has retaliated against dozens of attacks by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks, including striking facilities used by the militants in both countries. On Sunday, U.S. forces in Iraq observed five militants preparing to launch a one-way attack drone and sent an uncrewed aerial system to take them out, according to the Pentagon. Iraqi forces later confirmed the five militants were killed.
Officials did not rule out the possibility that the administration will respond to the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.
“If we make the assessment or feel the need to respond, we will always make that decision at a time or place of our choosing. That is a decision that the [defense secretary] will also make in conjunction with the president,” said a second DOD official.
For now, the U.S. has ramped up its rhetoric, with U.S. Central Command warning in a press release it was considering “all appropriate responses” and indicating it would ultimately hold Iran accountable.
“We have every reason to believe these attacks, while they were launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran,” Sullivan told reporters Monday, reiterating the Centcom statement.
Sullivan noted that U.S. officials are in talks with other countries about setting up “a maritime task force of sorts” involving the ships from partner nations, alongside U.S. ships, helping ensure “the safe passage of ships in the Red Sea.”
A similar task force already exists: Combined Maritime Forces, a 38-nation maritime partnership based in Bahrain focused on countering terrorism and piracy.
But former national security officials said the Biden administration needs to do more to deter the Houthis from attacking ships in the Red Sea — and other Iran-backed groups from launching additional attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.
“Near to immediate term, where are the strikes on [Houthi] targets?” wrote Marc Polymeropoulos, former CIA official, on X. “Need to see this ASAP.”
Retired Vice Adm. John Miller, the former commander of U.S. 5th Fleet, said that “We are not taking this seriously,” adding that the attacks both at sea and in Iraq and Syria “have gone largely unanswered.”
“We’re not deterring anybody right now,” Miller said.