US and UK strikes won’t stop Houthi attacks in Red Sea, experts warn

US and UK strikes on Houthi fighters in Yemen will not deter the Iranian-backed group from attacking ships in the Red Sea, experts have warned, as tensions spike across the Middle East.

While the US has launched at least seven rounds of strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen – with the UK also involved in the first strikes last week – experts have told The Independent that the strikes amount merely to a short-term solution to a problem that requires a long-term answer.

“There is nothing in the Houthis’ narrative to suggest they have any intention to stop, whatever the cost,” said Alessio Patalano, a professor specialising in maritime strategy and doctrine at the department of war studies at King’s College London.

President Joe Biden said on Thursday that airstrikes would continue even as he acknowledged they may not halt the Houthi attacks. “Are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they gonna continue? Yes,” he said.

The Houthis began their attacks in November along the key maritime trade route, with the Hamas-allied group claiming they are aimed at bringing a halt to the war in Gaza. Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and took 240 more hostage – around half of whom are still captive in Gaza – during an attack on 7 October. In response, Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas and has launched airstrikes and ground operations inside Gaza, backed up by a blockade. Health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory say more than 25,000 people have been killed.

While claiming to target vessels bound for Israel, the Houthis have fired at more than 30 commercial ships since 19 November.

Sailors on HMS ‘Diamond’ fire Sea Viper missiles at Houthi drones earlier this month

(UK MOD © Crown copyright 2024)

Utilising positions in northwestern Yemen which surround the Bab al-Mandab Strait, through which around 12 per cent of global maritime traffic travels, the Houthis have threatened to destabilise supply chains between Asia and Europe.

Their attacks have forced hundreds of commercial vessels to reroute around the Cape of Good Hope, a lengthy detour beneath Africa, and more than doubled the insurance premiums on shipping companies looking to operate in the area.

In late December, the US established a naval coalition in the Red Sea – Operation Prosperity Guardian – supported by the UK, to counter this threat.

Professor Patalano said the initial strikes on Houthi positions had clearly had an effect. “We went from upwards of 20 missiles and drones per [Houthi] attack to just single shots,” he noted, citing this as evidence of the degradation of the group’s offensive capabilities. But he described the wider intention to prevent Houthi attacks altogether as “naive”.

Baraa Shiban, an expert on Yemen at the Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank based in London, suggested the US ability to destroy Houthi capabilities longer-term was the issue.

“This is something [the Houthis] are used to,” he said. “They are very mobile. They have adapted their military capabilities around how to sustain an aerial campaign against [targeted strikes].”

Houthi supporters attend a protest against the United States-led airstrikes on Friday 12 January, in Sanaa, Yemen


According to Offshore Energy, a trade publication specialist in maritime energy, “oil supplies have not been endangered” as companies such as BP and Shell redirect their vessels away from the Red Sea. War insurance premiums, a tariff that must be paid by shipping companies to sail in dangerous waters, may have doubled to 0.7 per cent, but the industry can swallow larger rises, Prof Patalano said, citing the roughly 10 per cent premiums during the tanker war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.

But, as Mr Biden said, the Houthis still pose a threat, and the economic impact will grow if strikes continue for months.

Going forwards, Prof Patalano said he believed the US would look to evolve its strategy with this new reality in mind. He said destroying the Houthi’s offensive capability, or convincing them to stop, appears impossible now, although the US will probably continue to try.

“It needs to be a combination of different strategies that minimise risks in different settings,” he said. “The US must also reduce the number of convoys going through the Red Sea and look at extended escorting of commercial vessels in the area.

“That should be enough to keep the war insurance premiums at bay for a little longer.”

Joe Biden admitted that strikes on Houthi positions had failed to deter further rebel action


There has been some acknowledgement from officials, that there is a need for longer-term planning. The Royal Navy missiles that have been used to shoot down Houthi drones in the Red Sea will be upgraded, the UK government has said.

The Sea Viper air defence system will get more effective missiles featuring a new warhead and a software update that will enable it to defeat ballistic missile threats. It will help protect the navy’s Carrier Strike group and allow tracking, targeting and destruction of a variety of air threats more than 70 miles away. The £405m upgrade will be completed by 2032. It is hoped the upgrade will help navy ships to better deal with more complex threats in the future.

The defence secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “As the situation in the Middle East worsens, it is vital that we adapt to keep the UK, our allies and partners safe. Sea Viper has been at the forefront of this, being the navy’s weapon of choice in the first shooting down of an aerial threat in more than 30 years.

“Our strong and enduring relationship with British industry has ensured we can deploy the latest technological capabilities wherever they are required while supporting hundreds of jobs across the country and bolstering UK prosperity.”

In the meantime, however, the US runs the risk of the Houthis improving their reputation in the region, says Mr Shiban, who spent years in the Yemeni government negotiating with the Houthis before they forced him into exile for criticising their human rights record.

“Many Arab countries have been celebrating what the Houthis are doing as the only group that is trying to push back against Israel,” he said. “Maybe they are doing it for other reasons, to try to deflect from internal issues, but that is not what [many] Arab people see.”

For Mr Shiban, this was something the US had not considered, and which risks serious adverse consequences. US hopes that attacks will cease if the war in Gaza ends are also misplaced, he believes.

“The Houthis want to have long-term leverage on the international community and now they have demonstrated that they have got that leverage,” he said. “The Houthis are here to stay.”

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