20 years ago, on October 12, 2000 at 11:18 a.m. the USS Cole (DDG-67), an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis-equipped guided missile destroyer was attacked while at anchor in Aden, Yemen. The ship had arrived in Yemen that morning for a brief fuel stop after completing a lengthy transit through the Suez Canal the day prior. The Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers (DDGs) is a United States Navy class of destroyer built around the Aegis Combat System and the SPY-1 radar. Ships of this class are, in addition to other capabilities, a mobile antiballistic missile platform. They are part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, designed to intercept short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles using the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor.
12 October 2000 is a grim day in U.S. Navy history and for missile defenders. The USS Cole was attacked by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers who sailed a small boat next to the Aegis destroyer and detonated explosives, killing 17 American Sailors and injuring 39. The ship was severely damaged, as the explosion blew a nearly 40 by 40-foot hole in the side of the ship. The surviving sailors fought for the next 96 hours to save the ship. The damage took over a year to repair to bring the ship back to service.
In October 2000, I just had graduated from Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA and was about to be sent to my new unit to Germany. At this point, combat and sacrifice had been a theoretical concept, only dealt with in training. As a member of the military, the killing of 17 Sailors was a grim reminder for me that there was a real threat and real danger, and that we were a target, even (and especially) when it was least expected. For the first time, strangers on the street would come up to me when I was in uniform to express their support for my military service.
The attack on the USS Cole was a precursor for what was to happen eleven months later on September 11, 2001. Three days after the 9/11 attack, the USS Cole was moved from dry-dock repairs back into the water once again. Finally, in November 2003, the USS Cole deployed for her first overseas deployment after the bombing.
12 years after the bombing of the USS Cole, I had the honor to serve in a function where I could directly support the Cole’s missile defense mission in the Mediterranean and got a chance to visit the USS Cole. The historic ship is a stark reminder of not only the dangers our military faces throughout the world, but of the courage and bravery of the over 200 service members that fought desperately to search for the missing, care for the injured, and keep the ship afloat.
20 years after the Cole bombing, the USS Cole is still providing ballistic missile defense. Aegis ships play a vital role in the defense of the U.S. homeland, U.S. troops abroad, and U.S. allies. Another U.S. guided missile destroyer just like the USS Cole, the USS Stout, has broken the record for the longest consecutive number of days at sea for a military surface vessel a few days ago in September. Among its many other roles, the Navy is an integral part of the Ballistic Missile Defense mission.
20 years after the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen, Yemen is in the middle of an ongoing conflict that has been referred to as a missile war. Missile proliferation, especially among non-state actors, is on the rise. Missile defense is critical to regional and global security. However, as conflicts continue to evolve, missiles are not the only threat. The attack on the Cole reminds us of the often-overlooked vulnerability of highly technical, sophisticated, and expensive weapon systems against cheap and unsophisticated threats. We should not lose sight of this. Terrorists will use whatever means available to disrupt and degrade friendly operations. We must remember the USS Cole when we hear about the recent mysterious drone incursions that occurred over the U.S. THAAD Anti-Ballistic Missile Battery in Guam. As the THAAD system provides defense for Guam, what is protecting the THAAD battery itself? The same question is valid for missile defense radars and systems throughout the world. Cruise missiles, drones, and other non-conventional weapons can cause catastrophic damage, such as the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in September 2019. Comprehensive air defense is required to protect these important assets to prevent another USS Cole-like tragedy.
The attack on the USS Cole must be remembered. The murder of 17 Sailors and maiming of 39 Sailors was significant. The Acamar Institute believes in the importance educating the public about air and missile defense, commemorating air and missile defense history, and recognizing veterans’ sacrifices. We offer veterans speaking and writing opportunities to share their unique experiences and tell their stories so they are not forgotten. If you are a missileer or air and missile defense veteran or current military service member, we’d like to hear from you! Contact us so we can share your story and preserve the history of air and missile defense.