A Royal Navy warship has shot down a suspected attack drone in the Red Sea, the Defence Secretary has said.

It is the first time in decades that the Royal Navy has shot down an aerial target in anger.

Grant Shapps said it was believed merchant shipping in the Red Sea was the intended target, in the latest such incident in the key global shipping route.

The Red Sea lies between north Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and connects the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal.

The HMS Diamond, the Type 45 destroyer that shot down the suspected drone, was only sent to the region two weeks ago amid growing international concern about the threat to shipping.

“One Sea Viper missile fired and successfully destroyed the target”, Mr Shapps said in a statement.

“The ship recently arrived in the region to bolster international efforts to maintain maritime security.

“The recent spate of illegal attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security in the Red Sea.

“The UK remains committed to repelling these attacks to protect the free flow of global trade.”

HMS Diamond (MoD/PA)
HMS Diamond (MoD/PA)

Earlier this month the US military said the Bahamas-flagged Unity Explorer, owned by a UK company, was among three commercial vessels targeted in an attack by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

On Friday Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, told all its vessels planning to pass through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea to “pause their journey until further notice” after a missile attack on a Liberian-flagged cargo ship.

The incident is believed to the first time the Royal Navy has shot down an aerial target in anger since the First Gulf War in 1991.

First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key said: “One sixth of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait and Red Sea. HMS Diamond deployed at short notice to the region from Portsmouth just two weeks ago and is already delivering effect together with our American, French and other allies and partners.

“The Royal Navy is committed to upholding the right to free use of the oceans and we do not tolerate indiscriminate threats or attacks against those going about their lawful business on the high seas.”

The Ministry of Defence has not said who was behind the attack.

But Yemen’s Houthis have been behind the a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, as well as launching drones and missiles targeting Israel in response to its war against Hamas in Gaza.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam said on Saturday that the rebels have engaged in “communications and discussions” with international parties, brokered by Oman, on the Houthis’ attacks on ships in the Red and Arabian seas.

He tweeted that the Houthis would continue targeting Israel-linked vessels “until the aggression stops” and the siege of Gaza is lifted. He added that “any genuine steps responding to the humanitarian situation in Palestine and Gaza through bringing in food and medicine would contribute to reducing the escalation”.