Fighter jets hunt down Houthi drones over the Red Sea

Under the cover of darkness, a fighter jet roars across the deck of the USS Bataan, a huge American assault ship. A second plane followed minutes later.

The flashing red and green lights on their wingtips soon disappear somewhere over the eastern Mediterranean.

Home to 24,000 US Marines and sailors, this giant floating military base, complete with armored vehicles, jets, and helicopters, is usually deployed at high speed to transport troops on land.

But when the Yemeni Houthis began firing rockets and launching drones at merchant ships in the Red Sea, the crew of the USS Bataan found themselves forced to adapt to air combat, sending planes to try to shoot them down.

"I never imagined I'd be doing this when we started," lead pilot Captain Earl Earhart told the BBC.

Just days before the Gaza war broke out, Captain Earhart and his crewmates thought they were coming home.

After months of patrolling the waters near the Persian Gulf, the tens of thousands of soldiers aboard the USS Bataan are about to end their tour of duty. But on the morning of October 7, everything changes.

Within an hour of Hamas attacking Israel and killing an estimated 1,200 people, the USS Bataan received new orders - to set a course for the Eastern Mediterranean and prepare to monitor the Gaza coast.

Twelve days later - another change in mission. This time - to join the operation against the Houthis.

In response to the escalating violence in Gaza, the Yemeni Houthis have attacked more than two dozen naval vessels since mid-December. They claim that they were all owned or ruled by Israel. Many of them, however, seem to have no connection to Israel.

In January, the US and UK also launched airstrikes in retaliation, including from the USS Bataan.

"The Houthis were launching a lot of suicide drones," Earhart says. "They are a strong and capable force," he adds and warns that they should not be underestimated.

To be effective against this insurgent group, the Marines had to adapt.

"We took a Harrier aircraft and modified it for air defense," says Earhart. "We loaded it with missiles and that's how we were able to respond to their drone attacks."

An experienced fighter pilot, Earhart says he shot down seven Houthi drones. But when he flies so close to these explosive devices, he says any interception carries great risk.

"They are shooting at us all the time, so we have to be even more focused. Our systems have to be prepared so that we can stay safe"./BGNES