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When Houthis fire missiles, these Navy warship officers must make split-second decisions

ABOARD THE USS MASON in the Red Sea — They sit crammed inside a windowless control room for hours at a time, staring at radar screens for any sign of an incoming threat. The officers aboard this Navy warship sometimes have less than 15 seconds to assess and shoot down an incoming missile or drone.

“It’s all muscle memory,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ben Kozlowski, a combat system officer aboard the USS Mason.

The Navy destroyer is among the warships tasked with protecting commercial and military vessels traversing the Red Sea amid attacks by Iranian-backed rebels

Since October, Houthi forces in Yemen have launched more than 40 drone and missile attacks against ships in the vital waterway separating Africa and Asia. The strikes have disrupted global trade and heightened tensions in the region amid the ongoing conflict in Israel. They have also challenged American sailors.

“I won’t beat around the bush — this is a kinetic environment,” said Capt. David Coles, who is leading Operation Prosperity Guardian, a coalition of countries working to protect ships in the Red Sea. “The Houthis have caused a lot of mayhem here.”

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A U.S. sailor at his post aboard the USS Mason in the Red Sea.NBC News

Navy warships like the Mason have long defended against torpedoes and surface-skimming missiles. But they now face a new threat: anti-ship ballistic missiles.

The missiles travel hundreds of miles and plummet from the sky at extraordinary speeds.

“That is probably one of the most lethal threats that we face on a daily basis out here,” said Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 2. “It is the first time in recent history, I think ever, that we’ve had a nonstate actor or a country use ballistic missiles to target shipping.”

One such missile struck an oil tanker in late January, setting it ablaze. But the fire was extinguished, and there were no casualties. On Tuesday, Houthi militants fired missiles at two ships in the Red Sea, causing minor damage, U.S. officials said.

The USS Mason is part of a Navy strike group that was deployed to the region in the days after Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The threat of ballistic missiles requires split-second decisions on the part of Cmdr. Justin Smith, the Mason’s commanding officer, and his top officers.

“I have about 10 to 15 seconds of decision time to make sure that I have that ability to successfully defend Mason, as well as the 330 crew members and sailors that are onboard the ship,” Smith said. 

“It’s a pretty intense environment out here, high-paced, but my sailors and the crew are absolutely equipped to be able to handle this higher activity and very dynamic environment here ,” he said.

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A U.S. sailor at his post aboard the USS Mason in the Red Sea.NBC News

Over the weekend, more than two dozen fighter jets and support aircraft took part in a joint U.S.-United Kingdom mission to target Houthi facilities in Yemen. In all, the U.S. and the U.K. struck 36 Houthi targets in 13 locations in Yemen, U.S. officials said. 

Houthi militants issued defiant statements after the strikes, vowing to keep up their attacks in the Red Sea until Israel halts its military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The officers and the crew aboard the Mason, meanwhile, remain on high alert. 

“We train and we train and we train,” Kozlowski said. “We have hundreds of hours, thousands of hours training at this, so you’re just reacting to it because you have that muscle memory.”

Miguez said he and his fellow officers and crew members are well aware they have no margin for error.

“I tell my watch standers all the time: ‘We’ve got to be right 100% of the time. However, the enemy has to be right once,’” Miguez said. “It’s a massive mission … but it’s a noble mission.”

Courtney Kube reported from the USS Mason and Rich Schapiro from New York.

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