US defense chief Austin hints major strike on Iranian proxies imminent.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a Pentagon press briefing at the Pentagon, Washington, DC, on February 1, 2024.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday it’s time to further disable Iran-backed militias that have struck at US forces and ships in the Middle East and the United States is preparing to take significant action in response to the deaths of three of its service members in Jordan.

For days, the US has hinted strikes are imminent. While the threat of retaliation for Sunday’s deaths has driven some militant groups to say they were stopping hostilities, as late as Thursday, Yemen’s Houthi rebels were still attacking vessels and fired a ballistic missile at a Liberian-flagged container ship in the Red Sea.

“At this point, it’s time to take away even more capability than we’ve taken in the past,” Austin said Thursday, in his first press conference since he was hospitalized on January 1 due to complications from prostate cancer treatment.

Previous US strikes have not deterred the attacks. Since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out in October, Iranian-backed militant groups have struck US bases in Iraq and Syria at least 166 times with rockets, missiles and one-way attack drones, drawing about a half-dozen US counterstrikes on militant facilities in both countries. The US military also has carried out airstrikes targeting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In the Red Sea, the Houthis have fired on commercial and military ships almost 40 times since November. In the latest attack, they fired a ballistic missile at a Liberian-flagged container ship on Thursday, US defense officials said.

The attack happened west of Hodeida, a port city in Yemen long held by the rebels, said the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a British military group overseeing Mideast waterways. It said the crew and the vessel were safe and the blast came far off the vessel’s starboard side.

The US defense officials identified the targeted container ship as the Koi, a Bermuda-owned vessel. Its management could not be immediately reached for comment. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. The Houthis did not claim responsibility for the assault.

The private security firm Ambrey reported Wednesday night that a ship was targeted with a missile southwest of Aden, Yemen, near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Houthis claimed that the attack also targeted the Koi, though American officials had no immediate information on any attack Wednesday night.

The Houthis say they are targeting ships over Israel’s offensive in Gaza against Hamas. But they have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for global trade between Asia, the Mideast and Europe.

The Houthis hit a commercial vessel with a missile on January 26, sparking a fire that burned for hours.

Late Wednesday, American F/A-18 fighter jets struck and destroyed 10 Houthi drones that were prepared to launch, as well as a ground control station used by the rebels, the US military said. The US also intercepted a ballistic missile and other drones already in the air during the day.