U.S. Central Command said the two elite service members had not been located during a 10-day search and rescue operation.
“Their status has been changed to deceased,” the command said in a statement. “We are now conducting recovery operations.”
The SEALs disappeared during a dangerous nighttime operation that occurred on Jan. 11 in the Arabian Sea near the coast of Somalia, an area known for piracy and weapons smuggling. Troops were dispatched from a floating base, the USS Lewis B. Puller, to inspect a vessel suspected of carrying illicit arms. As they attempted to board, one of the SEALs slipped from a ladder and the second, having witnessed their comrade fall into the water, dove in to help, officials have said. Both were swept away by the powerful swells.
A search and rescue mission was launched as other personnel boarded the suspect vessel. They discovered ballistic and cruise missile warheads, propulsion and guidance systems, and air defense components, military officials said, describing the equipment as an Iranian resupply of Houthi militants in Yemen.
The Houthis, who control large swaths of the country that is ravaged by years of civil war, have conducted more than 30 attacks on merchant vessels since November, significantly disrupting commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The group has framed its campaign as retaliation for Israel’s war in Gaza.
In response, the United States and its partners have rushed warships to the region, leading to numerous altercations and an intensified effort to intercept weapons shipments from Iran. President Biden and his national security team have sought to tread carefully, however, fearful that an overreaction or miscalculation could further embolden the Houthis and other Iranian proxy groups who have amplified their attacks on U.S. troops and interests throughout the Middle East.
As the tragedy unfolded in the Arabian Sea, U.S. forces launched what has become a regular drumbeat of airstrikes in Yemen — numbering seven rounds so far, joined initially by Britain — to degrade the Houthis’ extensive arsenal of Iranian-made arms. U.S. military officials have made a direct connection between the weapons’ seizure at sea and the attacks emanating from Yemen.
After the missile components were discovered, the intercepted boat’s 14-person crew was taken into custody and their vessel — described as a dhow, a type of trading vessel sometimes used by smugglers — was sunk. The American boarding team had deemed it “unsafe,” officials said.
It remains unclear how the two SEALs were lost so quickly. The mission was undertaken with drones and helicopters already in the air to provide surveillance, and the sailors were wearing flotation devices, according to a defense official familiar with the operation. The dhow’s crew, who were still being questioned on Friday, did not exhibit hostility, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the incident.
It is unclear whether the sailors wore other gear that would aid in a rescue operation, such as infrared lights or strobes, which U.S. troops often wear on missions so they can be easily identified by friendly forces.
Interdicting suspicious or adversarial vessels, known as a visit, board, search and seizure, or VBSS, mission is among the most difficult and dangerous operations undertaken by highly trained troops. They typically involve approaching the suspect vessel in smaller boats and using ladders and climbing tools to get aboard, which can be complicated by heavy seas.
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.