A $2M missile vs. a $2,000 drone: Pentagon worried over cost of Houthi attacks

The cost of using expensive naval missiles — which can run up to $2.1 million a shot — to destroy unsophisticated Houthi drones — estimated at a few thousand dollars each — is a growing concern, according to three other DOD officials. The officials, like others interviewed for this story, were granted anonymity to describe sensitive operations and internal deliberations.

“The cost offset is not on our side,” said one DOD official.

Experts say this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and urge DOD to start looking at lower-cost options for air defense.

“That quickly becomes a problem because the most benefit, even if we do shoot down their incoming missiles and drones, is in their favor,” said Mick Mulroy, a former DOD official and CIA officer. “We, the U.S., need to start looking at systems that can defeat these that are more in line with the costs they are expending to attack us.”

DOD officials would not confirm what types of weapons are being used or the range at which the drones are being intercepted, citing operational security. But former DOD officials and experts said only one weapon would make sense for that job: the Standard Missile-2, a medium-range air defense weapon that can reach up to 92 or 130 nautical miles, based on the variant. The latest variant, the Block IV, costs $2.1 million a shot.

A destroyer could also use the ship’s 5-inch gun with air bust rounds, which have been tested against similar drones on ranges with positive results, according to one former Navy official with expertise in that type of ship. This is a lower-cost option but can only reach targets less than 10 nautical miles away — which is likely too close for comfort.

The shortest-range options are the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, with a range of less than 5 nautical miles that costs $1.8 million per shot, or the 20mm Close-In Weapons-System gun, for targets inside one nautical mile.

But again, the closer the Houthi weapons get to the ship, the greater the risk of impact.

“My guess is the [destroyers] are shooting SM-2s for as long as they can — they are not in [the] business of taking chances on hostile targets getting close,” the former official said.

Experts also point out that destroyers are limited in how many missiles they can shoot before needing to return to a U.S. weapons pier to reload, and each ship contains 90 or more missile tubes. But with so many destroyers in the region — at least four as of Tuesday — magazine capacity likely won’t be a problem in the near future.

By contrast, experts estimate the Houthi one-way attack drones, which are primarily Iranian-made, cost just $2,000 at most. The larger Shahed-136 is estimated at $20,000, said Shaan Shaikh, a fellow with the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Either way, that’s a significant cost difference.

“Right now, [the] U.S. does not seem to have a better option other than what it is using,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser with the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded think tank for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. He drew a parallel of the DOD’s capabilities to Ukraine’s, as it shoots down Russian drones.

“Obviously, that’s a different domain — shooting Houthi drones at sea may be a different-order task, but it seems that driving down the cost of such defenses is essential in the long term,” Bendett said.

Keeping international commerce flowing is one of the U.S. Navy’s primary missions, and Austin has indicated he is taking the crisis seriously. The Pentagon has dispatched a massive amount of firepower to the region, including two carrier strike groups: the Gerald R. Ford in the eastern Mediterranean and the Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Gulf of Aden. At least four destroyers and a cruiser are now patrolling near the Bab al-Mandab chokepoint.

On Monday, Austin also announced the formation of a new maritime task force, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, to counter the attacks, which includes at least nine partner nations from around the world.

Nineteen nations have signed on to the task force, including some Arab partners, but only nine want to attach their names to the effort, according to a senior administration official. The situation is complicated for Arab nations because of the perception that the task force is designed to protect Israeli-linked commercial vessels, explained one of the DOD officials.

“These attacks are reckless, dangerous and they violate international law,” Austin told reporters in Israel Monday ahead of the announcement. “This is not just a U.S. issue, this is an international problem, and it deserves an international response.”

Yet the attacks have already disrupted shipping in the passageway that connects the Indian Ocean with the Suez Canal, through which about 12 percent of world trade passes annually. The world’s largest shipping companies this week started rerouting vessels away from the Red Sea, instead forcing ships to go around Africa via the southern Cape of Good Hope.