December 20, 2023 | The Messenger

Deterring the Houthis Won’t Be Easy for the Red Sea Maritime Task Force

December 20, 2023 | The Messenger

Deterring the Houthis Won’t Be Easy for the Red Sea Maritime Task Force

On Tuesday in Bahrain, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced a new maritime “multinational security initiative” designed to confront continued attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis in the Red Sea. It’s an important decision, reflecting the desire by the United States to do something more concrete after two months of attacks on commercial and naval ships by the Shia Islamist movement in Yemen. 

The Houthis have vowed to attack ships linked to Israel as a way to protest its military action in Gaza and to back Hamas, another of Iran’s proxy armies, following Hamas’s savage Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Using naval drones to attack ships, the Houthis have caused several shipping companies to pause shipping, presenting a clear danger to international trade that must be confronted.

Upon his arrival to the Middle East, Austin visited Kuwait to pay respects to the country’s emir, who died on Dec. 16. But the main purpose of Austin’s trip to the Middle East was to visit Israel, Bahrain and Qatar in an attempt to strengthen regional security. This comes as the U.S. examines how best to defend shipping in the Red Sea. Over the past two weeks, U.S., U.K. and French warships have shot down drone and missile threats launched from Yemen by the Houthis.

The challenge of deterring the Houthis is complex. Naval task forces designed to stop Somali piracy, and to patrol other areas, often take time to make progress, and none of the navies involved appears to want a wider war in Yemen. So, how can countries protect ships if they won’t strike back at the source of the attacks? The Houthis have numerous long-range drones, as well as cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. They also use  small boats to harass ships. Deterring and countering these attacks requires doing more than just shepherding dozens of boats along a shipping lane, and it’s not clear that the countries joining the new initiative will want to fight back against the Houthis.

The Red Sea is an important chokepoint for international shipping. The attempt to protect ships can draw from 39 nations that are part of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) in the region, a grouping that U.S. Central Command describes as “a multi-national naval partnership which exists to promote security, stability and prosperity across approximately 3.2 million square miles of international waters, which encompass some of the world’s most important shipping lanes.”

So far, the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Canada, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, Bahrain and Spain have signed on publicly to the new security initiative. Other navies, including those of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are likely involved quietly because they border the Red Sea. But the fact that several key countries in the region aren’t publicly involved showcases the challenge. Countries that signed on to help aren’t agreeing to fight if a conflict erupts; they want to make sure the seas are safe for navigation, a key issue in international relations going back more than a century.

Even securing the shipping lane is complex, however. The Houthis can choose when and where to strike over a large area of ocean. That’s how this battle began. The resistance movement started targeting Israel with armed drones and missiles in mid-October, and then graduated from this to threats against commercial vessels, even hijacking one vessel in November. The USS Carney, a naval destroyer, has played a key role in shooting down drone threats in the Red Sea and responding to ships that put out distress calls.

As shipping companies avoid the Red Sea, there is increased pressure for countries to do more. The United States has been reluctant to carry out strikes against the Houthis. The Saudis, who intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015, have supported a ceasefire there and appear unwilling to get involved in more tensions. The Houthis, nevertheless, have said they will continue to attack ships heading for Israel, indicating a major headache ahead for the U.S. and its partners. What will bring shipping companies back to the Red Sea? They don’t want to ship amid a naval war zone. Would enough naval ships flooding the zone bring them security?

Around 23,000 ships use the shipping lane in a year’s time, meaning on any one day there may be 60 ships passing through. Defending the passage is a herculean task, and past experiences with navies off the coast of Somalia or in the Gulf in the 1980s show that defending ships against a determined enemy is no easy task. It is made harder because naval patrols without an option to strike at the land-based threats must try to shepherd ships until the Houthis choose to stop their threats or alter their method.

Seth Frantzman is the author of “Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future” (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy