Advertisement

Why the West can't stop the Houthi rebels' missile attacks on ships

Navy destroyer USS Carney Red Sea
USS Carney, a Navy guided-missile destroyer, defeating a combination of Houthi missiles and drones in the Red Sea in October.US Navy/MCS2 Aaron Lau
  • America is discovering there are few good options for stopping the Houthis.

  • Modern anti-ship weapons are powerful yet simple enough that a militant group can operate them.

  • Houthi rebels hold territory near a key strait they can menace with drones and missiles.

When it comes to raw military power, the US and its allies should have no problem smashing the Houthis who are attacking cargo ships in the Red Sea.

But as Houthi missiles continue to disrupt global shipping routes and supply chains, America is discovering there are few good options for stopping the Houthis. Repeated strikes by US and British forces — including sinking several Houthi boats — don't appear to be deterring the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group in war-ravaged Yemen, one of the poorest nations in the world.

The Houthis aren't a major military power, but they don't need to be. They enjoy three advantages that magnify their ability to create havoc and make it difficult for the West to stop them.

First, there's geography. Nature has decreed that the best shortcut for ships traveling between Europe or the US east coast to India and East Asia is the Suez Canal in Egypt, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. That's why nations fought desperately to control the waterway in the First and Second World Wars. It's estimated that as much as 15% of world trade and 20% to 30% of cargo arriving at US east-coast ports pass through the 120-mile-long Suez Canal.

The canal has always been vulnerable, as evidenced when the giant container ship Ever Given ran aground in 2021, disrupting global commerce for weeks. But the problem today isn't the Suez Canal itself, but rather the menace that ships face passing through the Red Sea and the straits of Bab el Mandeb ("gate of tears" in Arabic), bounded by Eritrea and Djibouti to the west, and Yemen to the east.

Bab el Mandeb is just 70 miles long and 20 miles wide, within easy range of land-based anti-ship missiles, drones, and even howitzers firing extended-range shells. Unlike most highways, there are no bypasses if the straits are blocked.

The second problem is technological. Modern anti-ship weapons are powerful yet simple enough that even a militant group can operate them (Hezbollah used a Chinese-made C-802 cruise missile to damage an Israeli warship in 2006). Drones are cheap, and even a small drone can cause minor damage on a large ship.

The Houthis have a polyglot array of ship-killer missiles, mostly from Iran but with older Soviet and Chinese models, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Anti-ship cruise missiles include the Soviet-era P-21 Termit and Chinese C-801 (with ranges up to 80 miles), as well as Iran's Ghadir (185 miles) and Quds Z-0 (reported to be up to 500 miles). The Houthis also have Iranian-made anti-ship ballistic missiles with a range of about 300 miles, as well as drones.

These missiles are fired from mobile launchers that can rapidly change locations. They can fire a rocket and then scoot away before the US Navy can pinpoint the launch site and strike it with a Tomahawk cruise missile. The Houthis are familiar with these tactics from their 9-year war with the Saudi-led coalition that bombed them relentlessly.

Geography compounds the technological threat. A ship's best defense isn't guns or jammers, but open space. Even a giant aircraft carrier is hard to spot in the vastness of the ocean, and an anti-ship missile's onboard radar can scan only a small area.

That's why the US and other nations invest so much effort in satellites, patrol planes, and sensors: to provide real-time tracking data to guide a missile close to a moving ship. But the Bab el Mandeb is only 20 miles wide, which means ships can be tracked by ground radar, small boats, small drones, or even a hilltop observer with a good pair of binoculars.

The third problem is political. The Houthis claim they are only attacking Israeli ships out of solidarity with Gaza, though many of the ships have nothing to do with Israel. The real reason seems to be Iran's attempt to use proxies to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Though the Houthis aren't Iranian puppets, they do have a strong sponsor in nearby Iran and its hard-line Shiite government, and their confrontation with Israel is a popular stance with their population and across Arab states more generally. Tehran isn't just aiding the Houthis with weapons and money: Reports say Iranian ships are giving the Houthis information on ship movements in the Red Sea.

Just as Soviet and Chinese aid propped up North Vietnam, Iranian support could sustain the Houthis indefinitely. Sanctions against the Houthis, such as the US's move to re-designate them a terror organization, are unlikely to be effective against a martyrdom-obsessed group that doesn't seem overly concerned that its own people are starving.

This doesn't mean the Houthis are invincible. Perhaps enough Western attacks on their military and surveillance platforms — and even against their leaders — might make a difference (the US has already conducted numerous drone attacks against Al Qaeda in Yemen). An ongoing peace deal to end Yemen's civil war, which the UN estimates has led to 227,000 deaths, might sway behavior. Or, perhaps the Houthis will decide to focus on the needs of a country so poverty-stricken that half the population survives on the equivalent of $2 a day.

Read the original article on Business Insider