Multiple commercial ships came under fire in the Red Sea on Sunday.
A US Navy destroyer responding to the incidents had to battle off multiple drones during the day.
It's the latest example of how American forces are increasingly engaging hostile Iran-backed groups.
As Israel's war with Hamas nears the two-month mark, US forces in the Middle East are increasingly finding themselves in fights with Iran-backed militant groups, with engagements taking place at sea, on land, and in the air.
In the most recent episode on Sunday, a US Navy warship shot down three drones over a period that lasted more than four hours as it responded to missile attacks against internationally flagged commercial vessels in the Red Sea. US Central Command (CENTCOM) pinned the blame on the Houthis, a rebel group in Yemen that's armed and supported by Iran.
All three drones were headed toward the USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, when it shot them down. But it's unclear if the warship or any of the commercial vessels that came under the attack were the actual targets in all three cases.
"These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security," CENTCOM said in a statement that provided details on the incidents. "They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world."
"We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran," the US military said, adding that it will consider "all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners."
After a 2016 incident, the US Navy retaliated against Houthi aggression by launching strikes on coastal radar sites in Yemen, but so far, the US military has yet to respond to the latest aggressive acts with force as it did in the past. Actions so far have been defensive.
The actions of the destroyer USS Carney on Sunday were not the first time in recent weeks the Navy has played defense in the Red Sea, where hostile activity has skyrocketed since the Israel-Hamas war began.
American destroyers like the Carney have shot down scores of drones and missiles launched from Houthi-controlled territory in recent weeks. The Houthis have claimed that they are targeting Israeli ships and have even fired projectiles at Israel itself — though none have reached its territory.
The Yemen-based Houthis fall under Iran's so-called "axis of resistance," which is a band of proxy groups across the Middle East that are backed by Tehran and include Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and various militias in Iraq and Syria. These groups have increased their attacks on Israel and its main ally, the US.
American forces based in Iraq and Syria have come under attack by proxy groups at least 74 times since the middle of October, according to a Pentagon tally shared by a spokesperson last week. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has tracked anti-US strikes during the Israel-Hamas war, suggests the figure could actually be much higher.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a conflict-oriented think tank in Washington, DC, said that with the continuous attacks against US troops in Iraq and Syria, Iran and its network of proxy forces are "exploiting" the Israel-Hamas war to support Tehran's longstanding objective: pushing American forces out of the Middle East.
"These attacks are meant to impose a cost on the United States for supporting Israel and also erode American willingness to remain militarily in Iraq and Syria," the analysts wrote in a Sunday assessment.
The report added that Iranian and axis of resistance leaders "are operating on the theory that relatively low levels of militant pressure gradually diminish the willingness of the US political establishment to sustain deployments in the Middle East."
The US has carried out multiple retaliatory strikes in response, sending fighter jets, gunships, and other aircraft to hit sensitive sites affiliated with the Iran-affiliated forces. Most recently, an American combat drone on Sunday killed five militants in Iraq who were preparing to launch a drone of their own.
Middle East security experts previously told Business Insider Washington has to walk a tightrope in weighing how best to react to the provocations, as it balances its own strategic interests in the region. US officials have routinely stressed that the small American footprint of a few thousand troops in Iraq and Syria is in place to ensure the defeat of the Islamic State.
The US is determined not to let other challenges deter that effort. "Our forces are there for one reason and that's to stay focused on the Defeat ISIS mission," Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters last month. "And so we will continue to focus on that mission, as well as ensuring that our forces are protected."
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