Navy Gave Combat Action Ribbon to 7 Ships as More Details of Red Sea Combat Emerge

USS Carney transits the Suez Canal
Cmdr. Jeremy Robertson, commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney, oversees the ship’s transit of the Suez Canal, Oct. 18, 2024. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aaron Lau)

Six U.S. warships, in addition to the USS Carney, that deployed to the Middle East to fend off attacks by Houthi rebels were given prestigious military awards for actions "under enemy fire," has learned.

The Carney, which returned home earlier this week, was the only ship the Navy publicly acknowledged had been awarded the Combat Action Ribbon for the Red Sea operations. But the award was also given to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier; the USS Philippine Sea cruiser; and the destroyers USS Thomas Hudner, Gravely, Laboon and Mason, according to a citation released by the Navy to

Individual sailors aboard the Carney were also awarded for actions under fire, including a Bronze Star for the ship's commanding officer.

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With the Carney's return to Mayport, Florida, Navy officials have become more willing to offer details about the ships' operations in the Red Sea, shedding light on how military leaders are viewing and recognizing the numerous encounters with drones and missiles fired by Houthis intent on interrupting international shipping.

The seven Navy ships encountered more than 20 instances of combat between October 2023 and April 2024, according to the dates of eligibility in the citation, likely making the strike group one of the most battle-tested groups of ships in the modern era.

    Some of the instances are well known and documented -- such as the very first instance of incoming drones and missiles encountered by the Carney on Oct. 19. Others faded into the background as the number of Houthi attacks climbed into the double and then triple digits.

    In personal awards released to, Navy leaders praised the commander and crew for their quick thinking in defending the ship "just hours after completing a transit through the Suez Canal," according to a Bronze Star citation issued to Cmdr. Jeremy Robertson, the Carney's skipper.

    The ship detected "over 32 hostile air threats traversing the Red Sea," which the ship proceeded to engage with a combination of Standard Missiles and the ship's 5-inch gun over a three-hour period, according to the Bronze Star citation.

    "There was some nervousness and some anxiety ... at first because it was, 'Wow, this is really happening,'" Robertson told reporters in an interview Monday.

    "The team was there -- they were in the moment and it was amazing to see how quickly they transitioned into a battle mindset," Robertson said. "Their responsibility and actions and follow-up became very instinctual."

    The ship downed four cruise missiles and 15 drones that day alone.

    In addition to Robertson, personal awards were also given to two Navy lieutenant commanders, four lieutenants, an operations specialist senior chief, five chief petty officers, and six fire controlman petty officers of varying ranks for their actions that day.

    According to Navy leaders, the ship would go on to take part in dozens of engagements, downing Houthi land attack cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and drones during her deployment.

    Robertson told reporters that many of those engagements -- especially those against the anti-ship missiles -- were lightning fast.

    "From start to finish, it's anywhere from nine to 20 seconds," he said.

    The ship conducted two defensive strikes against Houthis in Yemen, destroying 20 targets. The crew also managed to successfully destroy one Iranian-launched, medium-range ballistic missile.

    Among the ship's achievements was the fact that it was able to destroy six targets -- five drones and one land attack cruise missile -- with its 5-inch deck gun rather than missiles.

    Pictures uploaded to social media showed that the crew proudly decorated the barrel of the gun with six bands -- five black and one red -- to commemorate the achievement.

    The Carney seems to be the first ship ever to down a land attack cruise missile with a 5-inch gun.

    In April, the Carney also became one of the first ships to launch the newer SM-3 missile in combat, and it appears to have scored the first kill from space with it by downing an Iranian medium-range ballistic missile bound for Israel.

    The long list of firsts that the Carney achieved is partly due to the fact that Navy ships have not found themselves in true combat situations for decades.

    The last time the service awarded a ship the Combat Action Ribbon was in 2016 when four Navy ships, also in the Red Sea, were forced to defend themselves from Houthi missiles off the coast of Yemen. However, before that, sailors had not received the award for operations in international waters since the 1991 Gulf War.

    To date, U.S. Central Command has revealed more than 150 Houthi drone or missile launches. Some have been successful in hitting merchant ships; others have been intercepted by Navy vessels; and others have simply splashed into the sea.

    When comparing the dates listed on the released Combat Action Ribbon citation to what U.S. Central Command has publicly revealed, it becomes clear that military leaders require ships to detect and successfully engage incoming drones or missiles to qualify the whole crew for the combat citation.

    Instances of a ship conducting a missile strike on land targets or having missiles or drones crash without shots fired from a ship do not appear to qualify.

    However, the list of dates on the released citation also appears to be incomplete. For example, the citation does not credit the Carney for its actions Dec. 3 when the ship engaged and shot down at least three drones while offering aid to a merchant vessel.

    Navy officials assured that U.S. Central Command would work to ensure all sailors serving in the Red Sea are properly recognized.

    The release of the award records -- days after the Carney returned home and months after they were awarded -- also highlights how little information the services are willing to provide on the actions of the sailors who are deployed and under fire.

    Some Navy officials have cited operational security as the reason why even basic details like the award citations could not be made public, while at the same time not shying from airing video of the Carney's combat engagements during the 2023 Army-Navy game.

    Yet at least in reading the citation for Robertson's Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, another personal award that was awarded to him in December for his actions Oct. 19, there are no details that were not publicly available days after the attack.

    The combat awards also clashed with early assurances from Navy and Pentagon officials that suggested U.S. ships were not being targeted and thus helped tamp down calls for stronger retaliation against the Houthis and their sponsors in Iran.

    In talking with reporters in early January, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, head of the Navy's Central Command at the time, said that there was "no specific information that any U.S. ship has been directly targeted."

    Meanwhile, Robertson's citation, signed by Cooper, says he "superbly defended his ship and crew from a complex air attack."

    At the same time, reporters got defense officials to confirm that a missile came within a mile of the USS Gravely during a Jan. 30 engagement, revealing that ships in the area were in far greater danger than officials had been willing to admit.

    Navy officials have also been hesitant to reveal just how many missiles ships such as the Carney have used to down the myriad drones and missiles.

    In 2017, months after the four Navy ships defended themselves against Houthi missile attacks, Navy Times was able to report not only which missiles were used by the destroyers but how many were fired at each threat, the maneuvers the ships took, and what defensive measures were employed.

    While officials inside the Navy often cited the need to maintain operational security in disclosing such details in the days and weeks after any one attack, the choice to stay tight-lipped was also happening as officials inside and outside the Pentagon began to raise concerns about the cost of downing cheap drones with multimillion-dollar missiles.

    "We've got to figure out a better way to do this ... a more cost-effective way than shooting down $40,000 to $50,000 unmanned aerial vehicles with millions of dollars worth of missiles," Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the Marine Corps' deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said in February at a Navy conference in San Diego.

    In addition to the combat award and the many personal awards that the Carney sailors received, when the ship returned to Mayport, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro announced that it -- alongside all the other units deployed to the Red Sea between Oct. 19 and May -- would be receiving the Navy Unit Commendation.

    That citation, released by officials to alongside the other awards, said the crew "provided crucial naval presence in the region at a pivotal moment in history" and praised the sailors' "truly distinctive achievements, bold and decisive actions, and unfailing devotion to duty."

    Related: Navy Destroyer Crew Receives Combat Award for Shooting Down Drones as Houthi Attacks Intensify in Red Sea

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