Hard choices for the West in Red Sea stand-off

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File handout photo showing HMS Diamond (14 October 2020)Image source, PA Media

The mass attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels against vessels in the Red Sea on 9 January was their biggest yet and it signals two things.

Firstly, the Iranian-backed Houthis, who control their country’s Red Sea coastline, are not backing down in the face of international pressure.

Secondly, they clearly have a powerful arsenal of missiles and drones and they are not afraid to launch them at Western warships.

In the event, all 21 drones and missiles were shot down by a combination of US Navy F/A-18 fighter jets and missiles launched from US and British warships.

But this is expensive, very expensive, and the Houthis know it.

A basic Houthi explosive drone costs just under £16,000, while a Sea Viper missile of the sort carried by HMS Diamond costs in excess of £1m. Then there are all the fuel and other costs of maintaining the multinational US-led flotilla of warships under the banner of Operation Prosperity Guardian.

“It’s clearly not practical in the long term, either logistically or economically,” says Royal Navy Rear Adm (retd) John Gower, “to combat a mixture of medium and low-cost missiles and drones with very expensive high-end interceptor missiles.”

Swarm attacks

The risks, too, are mounting.

Older US Navy officers will not have forgotten the humiliation of al-Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour in 2000. Using a simple speedboat packed with explosives, al-Qaeda suicide bombers rammed it into the side of that billion-dollar warship, crippling the ship and killing 17 US sailors.

Onboard close-range defences have improved since then, but Western warships are not impregnable.

Iran, which arms, trains and supports the Houthis, has specialised in the doctrine of “swarm attacks”, whereby they or their allies will attempt to overwhelm the air defences of their enemy by simultaneously launching a large number of drones or missiles.

This is what the Russians have been doing in Ukraine, with partial success, using Iranian-supplied drones coupled with more sophisticated missiles.

In the case of Western warships protecting shipping in the Red Sea, Adm Gower warns that “the supply of [US and British] missiles onboard is probably more limited than those available to the Houthi militia. A lower-scale, longer-term attritional approach by the Houthis would soon cause logistical headaches.”

A new report published on Wednesday by the Whitehall think tank Rusi details some of the more sophisticated weaponry available to the Houthis.

Its authors say this includes the 400-km range Asef Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), which carries a 500kg warhead and uses an electro-optical seeker to home in on its target.

Then there is the Al-Mandeb 2, an anti-ship cruise missile similar to the one fired by Hezbollah in 2006 against the Israeli ship Hanit.

The Rusi report asserts that the Houthis are getting tipped off about shipping movements by an Iranian surveillance ship, the MV Behshad, operating in the lower Red Sea, close to the narrow Bab al-Mandab Strait, through which about 15% of global trade normally passes.

The recent attacks by the Houthis have forced a growing number of shipping companies to reroute their vessels all the way round the western coast of Africa, adding days, fuel and costs to the journey.

Centcom, the division of the US Department of Defense that deals with the Middle East, will have already drawn up detailed strike plans for destroying a range of Houthi military targets along the coast.

So given how most of the world deplores the Houthi attacks on shipping, why doesn’t the US and its allies take action to stop them?

Here’s why they are hesitating.

The Gaza factor

The Houthis, formerly known as Ansar Allah, or “Partisans of God”, have professed themselves to have joined the Gaza war on the side of Hamas. They claim, inaccurately, to be targeting only shipping that is calling at Israeli ports or those vessels with Israeli links to their ownership.

This stance, while massively unwelcome to global shipping and trade, is going down very well with their own population and across the wider Middle East, where the popular Arab consensus is that the US is part of the problem because it is feeding Israel’s war machine and it has been blocking a ceasefire in Gaza.

Arab populations are also dismissive of their own governments’ inability to stop the slaughter in Gaza.

So much as those governments dislike the Houthis and their Iranian backers, they – with the exception of Bahrain – dare not risk triggering popular unrest by joining any military action against the Houthis.

Any US-led attack on Houthi missile launch sites, storage facilities, naval dockyards or command and control centres would undoubtedly be portrayed as “a US-Israeli attack on the Arab nation”.

It would risk inflaming the Israel-Hamas war well beyond its current borders and spark a conflict with Iran which the US is keen to avoid.

The Saudi factor

The Saudis find themselves in an especially delicate position.

They have been busy trying to extract themselves from a disastrous civil war in Yemen that they joined in with air strikes against the Houthis in 2015. An estimated 150,000 people have been killed there since then.

Not only did the Saudis and their UAE allies fail to reverse the Houthis’ illegal takeover of the country, but the Houthis hit back with missile and drone strikes of their own, targeting Saudi airports, cities and petrochemical facilities.

According to Rusi, they launched 340 missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia in March 2021 alone.

Today, there is a fragile truce in Yemen and the Saudis have no wish to derail that.

The Saudi leadership is also acutely aware of how popular the Houthi stand is with some of their own population.

As graphic TV reports are beamed in daily of funerals and grieving families in Gaza, the notion of an anti-Western, anti-Israel militia standing up and being part of an “axis of resistance” strikes a chord with many Saudis and other Arabs. Should Riyadh side with the US in the Red Sea, it would risk being seen as siding with Israel.

Given all the above factors, the US, the West and all the other nations taking part in the multinational operation to protect shipping in the Red Sea would much rather the Houthis simply back down in the face of overwhelming firepower.

But that shows no sign of happening, so unless they can be persuaded otherwise, then some sort of limited military action against Houthi facilities may now be imminent.

A map showing the Bab al-Mandab strait, which sits between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea on the African coast

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