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

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,” says Alessio Patalano, a professor specialising in maritime strategy and doctrine at the department of war studies at King’s College London.

US president Joe Biden said on Thursday that airstrikes would continue, even as he acknowledged that 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 along the key maritime trade route in November, 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 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)
Sailors on HMS ‘Diamond’ fire Sea Viper missiles at Houthi drones earlier this month (UK MOD © Crown copyright 2024)

Utilising positions in northwestern Yemen that 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 says the initial strikes on Houthi positions have clearly had an effect. “We went from upwards of 20 missiles and drones per [Houthi] attack to just single shots,” he notes, citing this as evidence of the degradation of the group’s offensive capabilities. But he describes 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, suggests that the US ability to destroy Houthi capabilities longer-term is the issue.

“This is something [the Houthis] are used to,” he says. “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  in Sanaa, Yemen, against the US-led airstrikes (AP)
Houthi supporters attend a protest in Sanaa, Yemen, against the US-led airstrikes (AP)

According to Offshore Energy, a trade publication that specialises in maritime energy, “oil supplies have not been endangered” as companies such as BP and Shell have redirected 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 says, citing the roughly 10 per cent premiums that applied 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 says he believes the US will look to evolve its strategy with this new reality in mind. He says 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 says. “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 has admitted that strikes on Houthi positions have failed to deter further rebel action (EPA)
Joe Biden has admitted that strikes on Houthi positions have failed to deter further rebel action (EPA)

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 to 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 that 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 Shiban, who spent years in the Yemeni government negotiating with the Houthis.

“Many Arab countries have been celebrating what the Houthis are doing as the only group that is trying to push back against Israel,” he says. “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 Shiban, this is something the US has not considered, and it 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 says. “The Houthis are here to stay.”