January 5, 2024 | Foreign Podicy

Strait Talk on the Houthis



The October 7 attack against Israel was carried out by Hamas with support from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Other Tehran proxies include Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Yemen-based Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthi rebels. Although President Trump designated them as a foreign terrorist organization, President Biden removed them from that blacklist.

Since November, the Houthis have used Tehran-supplied weapons to attack more than 20 commercial vessels traveling through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, gateway to the Red Sea and Suez Canal and therefore one of the most economically and strategically important waterways in the world.

In response to these aggressions, the Pentagon has organized a U.S.-led naval coalition: Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Does the U.S. now have this threat to freedom of the seas under control? If not, what should be the plan? Host Cliff May asks FDD experts RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery and Bradley Bowman.

They discuss coalition’s defense approach, and why it doesn’t appear to be working; why some of the world’s biggest commercial fleets are acquiescing to the Houthi’s stranglehold on the strait; whether the U.S. is more concerned with provoking Iran’s rulers than with enforcing freedom of the seas; why “deterring by denial” rather than “deterring by punishment” encourages escalation; why the Houthis pose a direct threat to core American interests; and why the recent Houthi attacks have little if anything to do with Israel’s war against Hamas and are instead “an attack on the international system.”

RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery

RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery is the senior director of FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation, where he focuses on advancing U.S. prosperity and security through technology innovation and countering cyber threats that seek to diminish them. Mark also directs CSC 2.0, an initiative continuing the work of the congressionally mandated Cyberspace Solarium Commission, where Mark was the executive director. Previously, Mark was policy director for the Senate Armed Services Committee under the leadership of Senator John S. McCain. Mark also served for 32 years in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer, retiring as a rear admiral in 2017.

Bradley Bowman

Bradley Bowman is the senior director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power, where he focuses on U.S. defense strategy and policy. He has served as a national security advisor to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, as well as an active duty U.S. Army officer, Black Hawk pilot, and assistant professor at West Point.



Glad to see you guys. You know what? Before we start, I just want to get your update on Israel’s war in Gaza at this point. How do you evaluate where it’s going? What do you think of the changes? They’re going into a third phase. They’re going to be removing some battalions. What are your impressions? Brad, why don’t you start?


Thanks, Cliff. Pleasure to join you and Mark again. Israel has accomplished many of its objectives in Gaza following the horrific terror attacks of October 7th but by no means all of them. And a lot of people, I think, were under the perception that this might be quick. And anyone who is a student of history or a student of urban warfare understands these things are neither quick nor easy. And so we are going into a new phase, I would say more because of political pressure from the United States than because of the situation on the ground in Gaza. Israel, for its part, needs to let some of its reservists go back to their civilian lives for economic reasons and for political reasons. So, that’s informing some of Israel’s thinking.

But you still have key leaders, Hamas leaders, that have not been killed. You still have significant Hamas combat power, particularly in southern Gaza. And following the psychological, emotional security shock of October 7th, Israel is just not willing to let them remain. And so, we’re going into a new phase where it appears the Biden administration will continue to provide Israel what it needs while issuing statements like it did in recent days, kind of getting involved in Israeli politics.

For my part, I think the Biden administration has done a good job of providing weapons in the early weeks and months, but we have seen political pressure in Washington increase. The bottom line is I think we’re going to be measuring the future in Gaza in years and months, not weeks. This is the long haul. And the Biden administration appears to be doing the right things behind the scenes, while saying things that it needs to say politically, which frankly for the most part is unhelpful.


Mark, I find it surprising– I would think that– I mean, these tunnels are hugely elaborate, hugely expensive. It’s an intelligence failure, I guess, that the Israelis didn’t understand the extent of that. But I would’ve expected them to have contingency plans and that it wouldn’t be as easy as it appears to be to keep these deep tunnels functioning in terms of ventilation, food, waste getting out. I mean, people have problems with their basement flooding, and yet these tunnels still operate over all this time and the Israelis can’t seem to shut them. Does that surprise you?


Thanks for having me. I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised because this was a 20-year endeavor, right?




I mean, the Israelis effectively left in 2005. 20 years of building. 20 years of hundreds of millions of dollars to billions of dollars of foreign assistance coming in that we know had two principal purposes. One was to enrich the senior leadership of Hamas. There’s lots of public reporting now about just how wealthy those leaders are when their people are living in abject poverty. And then second, it funded this kind of construction project. This is a subway system. And it would take about 20 years to build a DC subway system at 80 meters in depth. And that’s what they’ve done.

Now look, this isn’t like taking out Natanz or some Iranian facility that’s bunkered and tunneled in a mountain because there, there’s no urban environment around it. Eventually, there are vent ducts, and there are tunnel openings. Here, I think that probably most vent ducts end up in buildings. We’re seeing them now. Routine reports from the IDF of finding them in mosques, schools, hospitals, and public living areas — the exposure. So there’s very limited ability to hit this from the air effectively with the old Maverick shot-down-the-vent-duct kind of attack.

So it doesn’t surprise me that A) they were able to build it. That was our money and other international organizations’ money spent over the last 20 years, and a very strong pipeline of building supplies coming through the Sinai and in through ports, too. They did get a lot of stuff by sea, as well, that allowed them to do that.

And it doesn’t surprise me that it’s really hard to attack. The United States would have trouble with this target set. There are not magic weapons for the use for destruction of 80-meter deep tunnels in a heavily dense urban environment. That weapon does not exist. That weapon ends up being an infantryman that you drop down the top of the tunnel who eventually clears the tunnel, and then you can make decisions about destroying it through flooding or explosions or concreting, your choice. So that doesn’t surprise me.

One other thing, if I could pick up on the question you asked Brad: I’m not surprised on the timeline here. I think there’s always a hope or an anticipation this could be done quickly. But they told us very clearly, the Israelis, their number one goal was destroying the military arm of Hamas completely. That takes three things. One, there’s probably realistically at the start of the conflict, 15-20,000 dedicated Hamas military war fighters. You needed to kill probably 12-15,000 minimum to really knock it off its critical where it couldn’t regenerate as a critical mass. Number two, you had to kill the leadership. Number three, you had to destroy these tunnels and infrastructure that you’ve mentioned.

I don’t have their numbers in front of me, and certainly the Israelis don’t share it, but I imagine they’re 50% along most of those chains. And that means they have a lot more work to do. The last little bit can be done remotely from a distance, but I think 75-85% of their work needs to be done with boots on the ground, so to speak, moving through the different suburbs of Gaza eliminating Hamas’ military fighting strength. So I think we have a ways to go, like Brad said. I think in terms of military occupation of Gaza, you could probably measure it in high numbers or months, but conflict still going on could be a year or more before you’re able to safely get in some kind of international observer force to maintain whatever conditions Israel has finally established.


If you’re going to kill 15,000 fighters and they’re using civilians as human shields and hiding behind them and they have their weapons and their fighters in mosques, in schools, there’s no way to avoid civilian casualties at that point. Now, under international law, those using the human shields are the violators of international law. But from a public relations point of view, people just ignore that and say, “Oh, look. The Israelis are killing innocent civilians. And guess what? We, the Hamas health authorities, we think that most of those killed are women and children.” Women and children… not fighters, they’ll never break that out. From what you can tell, Israeli, the collateral damage, is what you would expect, as good as it could possibly be, or not?


Here’s what I think. I think, as you said, collateral damage is probably inescapable. Excessive, unintended civilian casualties are probably inescapable because of the use of human shields. And some of these shields are physical like, “You’re going to stay in this room with us.” And some of them are, “I have convinced you over time that I am the person who can keep you safe. Against all the logic you’re feeling right now of those thumping weapons, I’m the one that can keep you safe.” So it is both a psychological and a physical encapturement. So there’s part of that.

I will say, look, I’ve been parts of US targeting teams that have made errors. Errors happen in combat. So some of this is the idea of “has made mistakes,” and I think they’d acknowledge that. Certainly, they killed three of their own hostages, but there’ve been other errors besides that. And in any kind of extensive combat like this, that’s going to happen.

Brad and I have talked about this before, but you also have to go back. I tend to hold a state who launches a war accountable for all the planning elements. In other words, if I launch a war, I better have all the right weapon systems. I better have all the right munition systems. I better have you targeted heel to toe throughout the country, know exactly my first 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 targets.

Now, if you start a war with me out of the blue, as happened on October 7th, that transfer of responsibility for the quality of my planning goes on to you. The quality of my munitions stoage goes on to you. Now look, I still am accountable. The IDF is accountable to the Israeli people for not having some of the right systems that they needed, not having sufficient iron Tamir rounds, things like that. Having way too few battalions in the South as opposed to in the West Bank and on the border with Hezbollah and Lebanon and then in the Golan. They clearly were out of sync. They’ve clearly allowed their army to deteriorate as they developed their F-35 based air force over the last decade. That’s an expensive air force on a small country’s GDP.

So there’s errors the IDF has had. But these targeting issues, these weapon selection issues, a lot of the responsibility of that transfers to the aggressor, the belligerent, the person who started a war with a uncontrolled terrorist extended incident into Israeli kibbutzes in southern Israel. So from my point of view, a lot of this responsibility transfers to Hamas.

Now, Israel should still do their best to avoid civilian casualties, but they have a number one military mission. It is destroying the war-fighting capability of Hamas. It’s destroying the leadership of Hamas. It’s just destroying the infrastructure and tunneling system of Hamas. And until that happens, they’re going to continue to press this home.


Hey, Cliff, can I just jump in real quick? On Mark’s great point, I would just say I would agree with what he said, but just three quick points. One is, these numbers are coming from, as Mark Dubowitz and others have said repeatedly, from Hamas-run ministries. So we should bring healthy skepticism to any numbers coming out of Gaza, one. Two, to Mark’s point, none of these Palestinian casualties would be happening if Hamas had not conducted the single largest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, single-day attack on Jews since the Holocaust. And three, the casualty numbers would be much, much lower if it weren’t for Hamas’ systematic use of human shields.

And people from afar, in the comfort of the United States and western Europe, can try to criticize Israel. But unless you’re in that targeting room, looking at the intelligence, looking at all the details that we do not have access to, it is very difficult to credibly criticize most of these attacks. And bottom line is, if you’re not going to use some air-launched or ground-launched munition, as Mark has said, you’re going to have to send in infantrymen. And when you send in infantrymen, including in this next phase we’re moving into, you’re talking about ambushes, snipers, explosively-formed penetrators and IEDs, something the US military knows much about from our experience in Iraq.


And I think it’s important to, at this point, mention the Islamic Republic of Iran again, because this couldn’t have happened probably without the support, the weapons, the financing. And according to The Wall Street Journal report, about 500 of those who attacked on October 7th were actually trained in Iran. People were getting in and out of Gaza to train for this.

Now, Hamas is one of a network of proxies. Hezbollah obviously is probably the most forceful of them up based in Lebanon, and then another war is possible there. There’s also the various Shia militias in Syria and Iraq who have been attacking American outposts in those countries.

And then, we come to the main subject of today’s discussion: the Houthis. Let me start with this. Were the Houthis on your radar screen much over the past few years? Or was it like, “Ah, there’s a civil war in a country called Yemen, which is sort of a backwater at this point in history. And no need to pay much attention.” I think certainly a lot of people who have been hearing about the Houthis in the news over recent weeks were wondering, “Who the hell are the Houthis?”


Both Brad and I worked in the Senate as staffers, which means we were well aware, because there’s been a seven-year ongoing battle between senators over how much support we should have been giving Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and their involvement in the Houthis’ Civil War. And their attempts to kill these exact same terrorists that are attacking our ships and merchant ships out at sea. We provided airborne refueling, we provided air defenses and cruise ballistic missile defense systems. We’ve done a lot of work with them. We, in general train Saudi and UAE pilots and targeting teams in general. So we were providing quite a bit of support. And there’s been an ongoing battle to terminate that support. There was an ongoing battle for about five years. So I would say Brad and I uniquely are well aware of this problem. Brad?


Yeah. From 2017 to 2019, I was National Security Advisor to Senator Todd Young, a Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. He was the most active Republican during those two years on Yemen issues. And his position was often misunderstood. He’s a former Marine, he’s an Iran hawk, and his argument at the time was the Houthis were not yet Hezbollah, but if we didn’t stop Iranian weapons smuggling to the Houthis, over time they would become more like Hezbollah in terms of their capability and become more of a threat to one of the leading maritime choke points, which we’ll be talking about in a moment and more of a problem for the United States and more of a problem for Saudi Arabia.

I’d say that the time that has passed since then have proven him to be correct. He was very concerned, I think admirably, about the humanitarian conditions in Yemen. But his point was one of the leading causes of the humanitarian, horrible humanitarian situation in Yemen was the war. And one of the leading reasons the war continued was continuing Iranian weapons smuggling to the Houthis because the Houthis probably would make peace with the more powerful and wealthy Saudis who are close rather than the less wealthy Iranians, which are farther away. But as long as they could rely on Iranian weapon shipments, they had very little incentive to notion to negotiate in good faith with the Saudis. And so that was his point at the time. And so I was aware of the Houthis as Mark was, and they’re becoming more and more a problem.

I’ll end with this, the big picture is this– and I’m so glad you brought up Iran, Cliff, because as Mark says, October 7th was horrible, but it really is– as Mark Dubowitz says– is a weapon of mass distraction from Iran’s weapon of mass destruction. Here we are talking about Hamas in Gaza, we’re talking about Hezbollah in Lebanon. We’re talking about the Houthis in Yemen. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to inch toward a nuclear weapon.


–am I incorrect? Let me just ask, am I incorrect in thinking that there was sort of a partisan split where Democrats tended to be more supportive– well, to blame the Saudis more for what was going on rather than the Iranians and vice versa. And you saw it in a lot of the media too, that the Saudis were being blamed for the war more than the Iranians.


Yes, I would say. Generally. There were exceptions. You had the Mike Lees and the Rand Pauls and the Senator Morans and others that you could talk about. But generally speaking, when something bad happens in one’s personal life or in one’s business or in foreign policy, you want to blame someone. And generally speaking, Democrats in the Senate during that time period wanted to blame Saudi Arabia, and I think a lot of Republicans wanted to blame Iran. There were criticisms that could be leveled in my opinion on both parties, but you had to really clearly understand what was going on here. Saudi Arabia’s position was essentially, “Hey, we don’t like our cities and airports being attacked.” That’s a position I’m fairly sympathetic to. To be precise from 2015 to 2021, according to our research and the Riyadh-led coalition at the time, the Houthis had fired over 400 missiles and 850 drones on Saudi Arabia.

So that’s not particularly helpful to MBS’s Saudi 2030, right? If you’re trying to encourage tourists and investment in Saudi Arabia, having things getting blown up is not particularly helpful. Well, what are they getting blown up by? They’re getting blown up by weapons that are funded or provided by Iran, and you have Iranians helping to train Houthis. And so as I said, starting over time to become more like Hezbollah. And now we see that that terror proxy puppet being wielded by the puppet master in Tehran, whereas before Iran could focus on threatening the strait of Hormuz, now they’re threatening the Bab al-Mandab, two of the world’s most important maritime chokeholds.


But before we jump into the Red Sea issues, I do think it’s worth reaffirming what Brad’s saying, which is that the actual, the bad actor here is Iran. The focus needs to be Iran is the puppet master of these issues whether it’s Hezbollah. They control the villages of the Golan Heights now–


The Syrian Golan Heights we’re talking about here, and not the Israeli Golan Heights.


The Syrian Golan Heights, yeah. And then they’ve pushed the Druze families away that the Israelis had reasonable relations with. They’ve armed Hamas. And I think one of the things that’s going to come, in the end, there’s going to be a reckoning in Israel over the strategic and tactical failure of intelligence. I imagine like Golda Meir, eventually Netanyahu will walk the plank for this. But you set a good point there. 500 of these terrorists went to Iran. Now, whereas Jake Sullivan has done a pretty good job of moving his hands fast and saying we didn’t have an intel failure. If 500 people left Gaza and went to Iran for training and then came back. We had a strategic intel failure. We are responsible for watching that and seeing what they’re doing for our own security, but for those of our allies and partners as well. So I think that’s going to end up coming back a little bit on us as well. We didn’t have a tactical failure — I think that’s all on the Israelis — but we did have a strategic failure here.

Final thing I’ll say is the biggest beneficiary right now of all of this instability is Iran. They have knocked Saudi-Israeli normalization off track. They’ve knocked US-Saudi restoration of cooperation off track. I think those things will get back on track. I think the Saudis are playing this pretty carefully so that both of those can rapidly return over time. But first Israel is going to have to destroy the military capability of Hamas, and we’re going to have to control this issue with the Houthis and get things back to its normal unstable self, not this current very unstable self. And then we can get back on track with Saudi Arabia.


All right, we’ve mentioned the Bab al-Mandeb. It’s a strait that separates Yemen from Africa. It’s the gateway up into the Red Sea, to the Suez Canal. Essentially, what the Houthis have been doing since November 19th is shutting this down by attacking ships that go through. It’s one of the most important shipping routes in the world. You mentioned one of the others, the Strait of Hormuz. A lot of the energy comes out of the Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf. And by the way, the third one would be the South China Sea, in that area. And I don’t know, let me start with this.

Freedom of the seas is perhaps the oldest of international laws. It’s the idea that this is a global commons and commerce gets to move freely through the seas. I mean it goes back really to the 1600s. And Hugo Grotius, and I think it’s called Mare Liberum, I remember this from an international law course back in college somehow.

And it’s certainly very much part of the international order the US constructed after World War II. If there’s anything with international law, it’s freedom of the seas. If the US doesn’t act as the cop, the main cop that enforces freedom of the seas, well then who does? Well then I’ll tell you who does, the Houthis do in the Bab al-Mandeb, the Iranians do in the Strait of Hormuz, and the Chinese communists do in the South China Sea. So it seems to me essential that the Houthis not prevail here. Now the US appears to know that. So you got Operation Prosperity Guardian.

This is theoretically, Mark, an international armada, although I assume that it’s mostly responsibility of the US. Kind of interesting how you organize and coordinate among all these different ships. But so far, it’s been almost entirely defensive. They shoot down missiles, they shoot back at vessels trying to hijack ships. And it doesn’t appear to me, tell me if I’m wrong, to be working, for example, one of the big commercial fleets in the world, Maersk, they’re going around Africa, they’re not going through because they don’t feel safe. And so does Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, does he recognize, “Okay, I tried to do this through the nice way, the soft way, by deterring them, by showing them we’ll be there, but I’ve got to go to the next step.” Do you think he must be having that discussion?


Yeah, so great points. First, I’ll say you’re absolutely right. I think protection of international trade and sea lanes of communication has been a principle US Navy responsibility probably since the 1890s. But globally, we’ve been the protector of them since the late 1940s. And in fact, if you go back to our founding fathers, they recognize the importance of having a navy for this. But they actually differentiated from the navy and the army, and said, “you maintain a navy, you raise an army.” In other words, you need to be out there all the time with your navy. So I think we understand that and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that, maintaining this flow of international trade. As you know, international trade, depending on what type of trade it is, it’s between 90 and 100% of world trade, usually low 90s as an overall percentage. But for things like oil and natural gas, it’s 100% of shipping. It’s 100% of transit.

So I think we’ve done a good job with this. Brad will talk in a minute, but he wrote pretty extensively on the need for something called CTF 153, which is the backbone of this operation, a coalition task force to protect shipping in the Red Sea or to go after security challenges in the Red Sea. Look, the US is having trouble with this because we’re taking a very deterrence-by-denial-only approach, which is to say we’re only working on the defensive end of this, which is convoying, protecting, shooting down drones and missiles when they come at that, which by the way is an insanely bad return on investment. Our outbound missiles are $1.2 to $2.2 million a piece. Their inbound drones and cruise missiles are between $10,000.00 and $40,000.00 or $50,000.00. Maybe their ballistic missiles are $100,000.00. I mean, that’s just a bad trade space. But we’re doing the defensive part.

But people at Maersk and MSC, the big shipping companies, fully understand that there’s still risk in that. What we’re missing, and look, I’ve been critical of Secretary Austin on occasion, this is not Secretary Austin’s fault, this is Jake Sullivan and the President and maybe Secretary Blinken, drive our Iranian policy. We are more scared of escalating with Iran than we are of taking care of the Houthis problem. And the problem is sometimes when you don’t practice good deterrence, when you don’t do deterrence by punishment, which is striking those sites, the cruise and ballistic missiles are launched from, you, in fact encourage an adversary to escalate. So in their fear of being escalatory, they’re actually creating conditions where the Houthis can continue to escalate and Iran can continue to escalate.

And I really think it’s time for our very senior leadership, Biden, Blinken and Sullivan, to tell General– Secretary Austin, “Okay, it’s time to execute strikes against.” There is extremely limited risk. You could use B-2 bombers and land attack cruise missiles and with almost no risk to US personnel, aggressively target and strike the cruise and ballistic missile launch points, maybe not the drone launch points. Those will be a little more temporal and hard, but we could do this. So you need to do deterrence by denial plus deterrence by punishment to have an effective deterrence policy that prevents your adversary from taking further action and convinces Maersk and MSC to not do the extra week around Africa, but instead continue to come through the Red Sea and keep maritime shipping costs and insurance costs low.


Drones are probably hard, but missiles must be stored in a warehouse somewhere. I would think you could have the intelligence to know where and get rid of them. You could hit radar, you could hit command and control, and you’d be making a very strong point to the Houthis if you started to do this and said, “As long as you are launching against commercial ships, we’re going to be launching not against your rockets and drones, but against you.” Right, Brad?


Yeah, no, absolutely. And there’s so much great stuff in your question there, Cliff. I’ll try to be really quick. Obviously, the Admiral is a great authority on the importance of sea power in American interest, but I just remind students of history of Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates, going back to the early 1800s. America is a trading nation, and we are a seafaring nation and gosh darn, we’re proud of it. And 95% of consumers are outside the United States. So if we want to sell our wares, we got to be able to get it to them. And most of that goes via sea. And if we want to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to import stuff from overseas. And that depends on freedom of navigation and freedom of trade. And here we have an Iranian proxy threatening one of the most important vital maritime choking points, which is a direct threat, I would say, to core American and international interests.

And that’s a key point to highlight is that the Houthis, this Iranian terror proxy, are trying to make these attacks all about Israel. But if you look at the 24 attacks in the southern Red Sea since November 19th, almost none of them have anything to do with Israel. You have Bulgarians, Filipinos, the ships are built here, they have this flag on it, they’re registered here, they’re owned by this country. This is truly an attack on the international state system, an idea… And people’s eyes roll when you hear a comment like that. I go back to see previous comment about how our prosperity of our way of life, our economy, and therefore our national security, depend on these things.

And so, in response, Jake Sullivan made an errant comment, where he said, “We’re going to stand up a new task force.” And a lot of people have been confused. At our Center for Military and Political Power, Cliff, we dug hard into this. There’s something called the Combined Maritime Forces, this is a US-led coalition of 39 or so nations, there’s four or five task forces within that, one of them is Combined Task Force 153, which is responsible for the Red Sea. The Egyptians led it for about six months, ending last year. So what’s happened here is you have this new operation, this Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is being run by the pre-existing Combined Task Force 153. You’ve got, as of yesterday, about 22 countries involved, you’ve got the US, United Kingdom, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka involved. Many more are participating, but don’t want to do so publicly, and we could talk about that, about eight countries.

And so, what does that mean? Some are sending ships, some are sending staff officers or are participating in various ways. And you also see the term “escorting.” The ships are not being escorted, because there’s far too many ships going through to be escorted. So people who play basketball, think of it as zone defense, or think of it as a cop on the block. So if you’re walking down a street, and you’ve got thugs throwing rocks, you don’t really care who they’re throwing the rocks at, you realize one of those rocks could hit you in the head. So you want to put enough naval persistence, ships in general areas, to try to play a zone defense to prevent these attacks from being successful.

And in an event over the weekend, you literally had these four Houthi boats that were attacking a vessel. They asked for help, the US came, these Houthi boats started firing on American helicopters, something I don’t appreciate as a former army helicopter pilot, and we sunk three of the boats and killed 10 of the Houthis. But Mark’s point is fundamental, is that it’s starting to feel like a shooting gallery, and sooner or later, some Americans and others are going to get killed here. And all defenses, no matter how effective, all zone defenses, whatever you want to call it, sooner or later, one of those rocks are going to hit you in the head.

And so, not as a matter of starting some major new war in Yemen, but as a matter of force protection and deterrence, we have to start taking out some of these launch sites for the missiles, these cruise missiles and the ballistic missiles, and some of the infrastructure that supports them, and where they’re launching these boats from. We know where these boats are coming from, some of them are coming from the Port of Hudaydah. We know these launch sites, and we have the capability to do it, and the only reason we’re not, I think you’ve got to go right back to the White House, it’s a problem we’ve seen with the more than 100 attacks on our forces in Iraq and Syria. This administration doesn’t want a regional war, I don’t either, but the danger right now is in American weakness.


They’re using helicopters. That means they have helicopter maintenance, it means they have fuel for the helicopters, and those helicopters can’t be so difficult to take out. That would stop them from being able to use helicopters to hijack ships, in that way. I mean, you can’t hide a helicopter so easily, if we want to destroy them.


No. And they are easy take down, I regret to say as a former helicopter pilot.


Or do it on the ground.


Yeah, absolutely. No, like Mark’s point, we can continue to take these things out of the air, the cruise missiles, the ballistic missiles, we have the naval capability and then some to do that. But we’re on the wrong side of the cost curve, as Mark said. And sooner or later, defenses fail. And so, just like anyone who’s spent any time in the playground, if there’s no cost for the bully throwing punches, the bully is going to continue to throw punches. You have to shift the cost benefit calculation, and you do that by hitting the launch sites and the associated infrastructure that are making these missile, drone, and small boat attacks possible.


The Houthis, yes, they want to show solidarity with Hamas. Because Hamas, like the Houthis, are proteges and foreign legions of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And they’ve lobbed some missiles at Israel, they haven’t hit. I think, and tell me if you think I’m wrong, more importantly, what the Houthis are trying to demonstrate, not least for their patrons in Tehran, is that, at the end of the day, the US is a weak horse, that the US is frightened, and it’s feckless, and it’s unwilling even to acknowledge that most of the conflicts in the Middle East right now have their roots in Tehran, and they want to show that the US is incapable of containing Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the building of a new Islamic Empire in Tehran that breaks the US international order. If you can break the international order in terms of freedom of the seas, you can do it anywhere. And they’re doing this with the absolute approval of their partners in Beijing and Moscow who have the same goal overall over time, which is to break US dominance and influence in the world. Do you disagree with that, Mark?


Oh, no, I agree. I’d go so far as to say that I think the Houthis have a marginal understanding of US foreign policy and national security decision-making. The Iranians have a very nuanced understanding, and they know exactly what they’re doing here. They’re pushing us in a way that causes us to want to be careful, to be de-escalatory, to make sure things don’t get out of control. You know, to be the adult in the room. Now, the problem with this, of course, is there’s a limit to that. As Brad said, you can’t continue to get bullied around and then turn to your allies and partners and say, “Don’t worry, trust us to come to your support later on,” when we won’t even support our own ships and troops.

Because I’ll tell you, I don’t worry so much about casualties at sea, I just don’t think these systems are really in a good position to hit US ships, but when you combine this with the attacks against US ground forces in Iraq and Syria, we’re extremely lucky. Look, we’ve had good missile defense and good luck, and they’ve combined to prevent military service member combat deaths to date. There’ve been some serious injuries, there’s been a contractor death, but there’s not been military service members killed. They’re really setting themselves up for a problem here if a significant number, say, five, seven, American service members are killed in a drone attack, or a cruise missile attack on a US facility in Iraq or Syria, they’re going to have to overreact.

What they should do right now is do a planned strike against the Houthis that hits everything we’ve said — storage sites, helicopter bases, maritime ports, known cruise and ballistic missile launch sites — hit them all simultaneously, with almost no risk to US forces, in a way that says, “Knock this off.” And that will be a message that reverberates through the Iranian proxy market, through all their proxy terrorist organizations, that the United States is willing to conduct deterrence by punishment. If we do that, we’ll have the proper effect. If we don’t, we’re going to just stagger down this road until a significant American casualty. Maybe it will be a ship, but I think very likely, we’re eventually going to not be lucky. Even a cruise missile we hit could kill our people, you know what I mean? The debris falling could kill our people. So I’m very worried about the path we’re on.


I think you’re making a great point there, Mark. I believe, and hope you’re correct, that the danger for US casualties is not on these vessels. I have such great respect for the officers and sailors on them and the technological capabilities. I can just put a slightly finer point on what I was trying to say earlier is, as you know well from your experience, Mark, and Cliff, you know this too, deterrence is not isolated to a particular domain of combat or a particular region.

That’s why I think we can argue that what we do in Afghanistan may have affected Putin’s thinking in Ukraine. That’s why I’ve argued what we do or don’t do in Ukraine is going to affect Beijing’s thinking in Taiwan. So what we do or don’t do in the Red Sea is going to affect what Iraqi militias do in Iraq, and what the IRGC does in Syria, right? Because they’re looking. It’s not reality, it’s not how powerful we really are, it’s not what we think. I say it over and over again: it’s the perceptions of our adversaries. And if our adversaries believe that they’ve got a shooting gallery in the Red Sea, where you can take as many cheap shots at the American’s and international shipping community as they want, and we respond with kid gloves, then you’re going to get more bad things, there and elsewhere, because deterrence transcends domains — by domains, I mean air, land, sea, space, cyberspace — and regions — and by regions, I mean Red Sea, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.


Here’s a new development that puzzles me: An Iranian frigate, or warship — you’ll correct me on what you should call it, Mark — evidently with eight cruise missiles on it, has just I think on Tuesday night sailed into the Red Sea. What’s its mission?


Well, I think it’s twofold. One is to demonstrate Iran’s ownership of this issue, which I think is just to make sure, “Hey, I know you guys are saying the word ‘Houthi’ a lot, remember, we’re the puppet master.” And so, a little bit’s that. But I think the bigger issue is that it could be used– right now, they’re trying to launch ballistic and cruise missiles at ships at sea, which is harder than it sounds, particularly ballistic missiles, to get a good targeting solution. As it passes shipping convoys, including warships, it could pass highly valuable targeting data to those.

I don’t think it’s to get in a fight, that would be– I haven’t heard of kamikaze frigates yet, because that would not go well for that ship. They might get off a few rounds, but then they would be hit pretty hard. I’m confident that, if I was the strike group commander there, again, I would have a constant targeting solution on that Iranian ship, so that if it took an action, it would immediately get counter fire. So I really think it’s about number two, it’s about quality targeting data to the Houthis. The Houthis just can’t get– their small boats that come out can’t really do that targeting data.

I don’t think the Iranians are trying to start that broader regional war just yet, I don’t think they’re in the right position for it. I don’t think them instigating it with that frigate would do them well in Europe, things like that, you know what I mean? So I think that’s not what this is. I think it’s about targeting, and I think it’s about taking credit for the general malaise that’s going on in the Red Sea. And so, I think those are the two reasons, and I hope I’m right about number three, that they’re not really trying to attack us, because that would be bad for everybody.


Right. And keep in mind, people should recognize that there is another Iranian ship we believe has been providing targeting information to the Houthis in the past, and that one ship near the Indian Ocean, I believe, was actually hit from Iranian territory itself. But if they’re sending another frigate in to provide more targeting information, that does imply that they want the attacks on international shipping to continue, that they’re not backing down, and that more will absolutely need to be done.


Cliff, I think there’s a grand strategic point here, largely similar to what Mark said, just I use a slightly different way to say, there’s a grand strategic and a tactical point. The grand strategic point is, I keep using the puppet master-puppet, others have used that point. The idea there is that Iran tries to do things surreptitiously where they get the foreign policy gain while avoiding the consequences, and displacing those consequences. That’s been the essential Iranian grand strategy since 1979.

What we’re seeing, I think, increasingly, at least for now, is an Iranian willingness to have these proxy attacks attributed to them. Why is that? I think it’s because they’re more confident. Why are they more confident? I think they are more confident because they believe the United States of America wants to leave the Middle East, and wants to avoid conflict at any cost. And again, any student of history would say, if you have a nation state that is perceived as wanting to avoid conflict at any cost, you’re more likely to get a conflict.

So I think we’ve gone from a period where they want to hide their hand, to they want credit, to Mark’s point, so that’s the grand strategic point. The tactical point, and with deference to the Admiral here is, let’s be clear, we’re talking about the Alborz, that’s the Iranian naval vessel that’s entered the Red Sea, this is a decades-old vessel. I’m sure they’ve modernized it maybe in some way, but this is a decades-old vessel, it’s not exactly the most formidable ship on the high seas here, and if they’re in the mood for a test of strength, it’s not going to go well for that ship.


I think what’s not necessarily recognized is that the US continually says, “We do not seek to expand the conflict.” That’s the kind of diplomatic language they use. I think that’s heard as, “Oh, you want to avoid an expansion of conflict.” What does that make you think? “Okay, if you want to avoid an expansion of the conflict, we don’t really care so much, you can. But here’s how you do it: you back down, you retreat, we’re going to escalate, and you’ll deescalate because you want to avoid a conflict. Because that’s what you keep telling us.” That’s neither good messaging nor good strategy. And then we have the US saying, “Well, don’t.” No, “Don’t” doesn’t mean don’t unless you say, “We’re going to cause you some serious pain.”

I would also make this argument and question: Hitting the Houthis directly can end this crisis in this strategic shipping lane. But it’s tactical, because if you understand that Iran is behind it, at some point you have to cause pain to Iran itself. And shouldn’t you be doing that now at a time when they are, as you pointed out Mark, hitting our outposts with their Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, using the Houthis to shut down shipping? They’ve supported Hamas, made a major war. They’re supporting Hezbollah, threatening another war in Lebanon and Israel. And by the way, we now have, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, reports that Iran’s rulers have increased their production of enriched uranium and may have enough for three nuclear bombs. Wouldn’t you rather take them on now, rather when they’re nuclear armed? Isn’t that just better timing?


First, what I would say is I agree. I’m okay with saying we don’t want to continue to fight this, but the way we should do it is terminate it. In other words, by doing this as aggressive strikes against Houthis. If we did those aggressive strikes, and really when I’m talking about 3-400 target points really hit them hard, destroy their ability to even regenerate cruiser ballistic missile for years, that would be a significant bit of damage. That’s a strong signal to Hezbollah, “Hey, look, the United States apparently is willing to strike things.” And that gets us your “Don’t.” A lot of us are worried about what’s behind “Don’t.” When the President says to Hezbollah “Don’t.” in northern Israel-Lebanon border, what’s that mean? Well, you can get a taste of that down with the Houthis 300 strike points. No Americans hurt. We can reload and come again in about six hours.

Just give us a call. That’s how I would take a look at that. I would also consider striking all the proxy sites that we can identify in Iraq and Syria, and I would probably do it simultaneously and there’s another strong signal or you say, “Look, in one week we’re going to do something else.” And then a week later you hit those, something like that. You do strong signaling that says, “Look, we are willing to clear the table.” I would not go at Iran’s mainland because I really do believe that starts a long-term– I mean, what’s our goal there? We have desires for regime change. We have no desire to execute a regime change in Iran. So I would be very hesitant to do something against Iran proper.

What I would do is I would take a lot of their chess pieces off the table and I would send a signal to Hezbollah that says, “This is not a fight you want. You may think that a fight with Israel is kind of a toe-to-toe. A fight with Israel, the United States together against you is a massacre.” And that’s how I would handle this. But it starts with a hard strike against the Houthis that isn’t peaceful. That isn’t like, “Well, we’re just going to hit your cruiser ballistic missiles.” No, I would hit everything simultaneously on one night, send a signal. We mean business. And every one of those is a legitimate target for all the reasons, Brad, you and I have laid out for the last 15 minutes.


Brad, in terms of what Mark’s saying about the US saying to Hezbollah, “You don’t want to fight Israel because you may also have to fight us.” You tweeted today, this is Wednesday, that the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier is departing the Eastern Mediterranean, where it’s been since after the October 7th attack. I mean, what does that mean? Is that not telling Hezbollah, “Well, we’re not going to be part of a war if one starts”?


Yeah, no, it’s something we’ve tracked closely as our Center on Military and Political Power, US military posture in the Middle East following the October 7th terror attacks. And one of the first things we did after October 7th was we repositioned the Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group from the other part of the Mediterranean into the Eastern Mediterranean to get it closer to Israel. The primary purpose from Washington for that was to try to deter Hezbollah from opening a major war in Israel’s north. But that Ford Carrier Strike Group had been there for quite some time, and just Wednesday it was announced that it’s going to be heading back to Norfolk, Virginia. But the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, a very capable naval formation with a couple of thousand Marines on board now is in the Eastern Mediterranean, and will be able to replace some of those capabilities with the Ford departing.

You still have the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group in the US Central Command area of operations. So, what does all that mean? What that means is yes, there is a slight reduction in American combat power as a result of the Ford aircraft carrier returning to home port, but we still have a much greater force posture there than we normally do, and more than enough to handle most everything we need to be doing at this point. But really, all that doesn’t matter if our adversaries believe we’ll never throw a punch, right? As we say over and over again, it’s about what we’re capable of doing and what we are perceived to have the political will to do. So you could have 10 carrier strike groups there, but if they don’t believe we’re going to actually use them, it doesn’t really achieve the desired effect.


One other thing that troubles me is in this Operation Prosperity Guardian, we don’t have any Arab allies in that, with the exception of Bahrain. The Saudis don’t want to be involved in it, even though it’s very much their direct interest. I think that’s because it’s been a ceasefire in effect, which means the divided country in Yemen for a couple of years, and they want to keep it that way. And they’re not looking for any further tension with Iran because the Chinese have brokered a– I wouldn’t call it a détente, but I’d call it a sort of hence truce. But I think it’s troubling that some of the countries in that region that most profit from America’s enforcing freedom of the seas don’t want to be part of this coalition, this naval coalition.


I agree with you, Cliff, and to me, this goes right to the heart of the strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Anytime you’re about to see a big normalization agreement or big progress between Israelis and Arabs, the Iranians are going to want to do something like they did on October 7th. It’s very disappointing that in my opinion, the Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of them have vital interest in Red Sea maritime security, of course, if you look at a map, are reluctant to participate in this publicly. And why is that? It’s because of domestic and regional politics. They’re playing right into the Iranian playbook and dividing Americans and Israelis and Arabs. Keep us divided just like that bully on the playground. And it’s disappointing. And Saudi Arabia is the elephant in the room here, this whole conversation. It’s my understanding that Saudi Arabia is pressuring Washington to not do what Mark and I are suggesting in terms of the Houthis because they want to keep the status quo without Houthis the attacks coming into Saudi Arabia.

But I think that’s very shortsighted on Riyadh’s part because of their interests in Red Sea maritime security and because their interests in normalization and regional security to create a more unified and comprehensive coalition to counter the Islamic Republic of Iran. And you mentioned the big Beijing broker deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I have an idea. “Hey Riyadh, why don’t you call Beijing and say, ‘Hey, Beijing, why don’t you use your hotline in Tehran and tell them to knock it off because those crazy Americans are going to start blowing up the Houthis in Yemen, and we don’t want that?’” I don’t know if that call has happened yet. If it hasn’t, it should.


I’ll say this, that I’m confident that Chinese would take no action upon receiving that call, but yeah.


Exactly, right. And that’s the point. That’s the point. China has neither the political will or the capability to exercise coercion over Iran, and the Saudis know it. So I’m actually calling their bluff.


And by the way, two other things on this, 153, Cliff. First is, China has a port right off the Bab-al Mandeb, right off the Strait there.


In Djibouti, and so do we. We have one next to it. Both of us have it.


We have a much smaller one next to it, yes. And they are–


Yeah, and our pier is falling into the water while the Chinese are preparing theirs to receive an aircraft carrier.


The Chinese have been completely unhelpful. In fact, in violation of custom maritime law, have ignored distress calls from merchant ships, and I don’t know who pisses me off more, the Chinese or our European allies who’ve been fairly feckless. Many of our allies have in feckless in their 153 and subsequent operation support. They’ve either said no, several of them, or have said, I think the French have said, “We’re just going to protect our French assets.” That’s completely unhelpful. And for them it’s about domestic politics, but not about Iran — it’s about Israel. That somehow in their domestic politics, this has been tied to support of Israel, which it’s not– Look, do I think the October 7th kicked this off? Yes. Do I think Israel’s at all responsible for the Houthis’ actions in the Red Sea? No. Iran is. And it just shows that our European allies are… When there is a path of least resistance, they will undoubtedly take it.

And they’ve been very unhelpful here. And this is just a reminder to us that one of the reasons we have an agile capable maritime force, which is both air and ship and aircraft assets, is because we are the protectors of world trade at this point. We’re also the biggest beneficiaries of world trade. We have to remind ourselves that every time two countries trade, but maybe even North Korea and Iran, who knows, an American company makes some money either on finances or insurance or shipping. So we are the biggest beneficiaries of world trade. We are the defenders of world trade, and it’s a good reminder to us sometimes in anything like this to see how the Europeans are fairly feckless, and some of our Arab allies have been unhelpful, and the Chinese are completely useless throughout this event.


And I think one of the reasons for that is when you’re seen as weak or weakening, people will abandon you. And when you’re seen as strong or strengthening, people will follow behind you. A winning general has no problem getting recruits. A general who’s losing has great difficulty getting recruits. And this also feeds into isolationism, because then people say, “Well, our Arab allies, our European allies aren’t helping. Why don’t we just abandon all of them?” But that’s abandoning the world to enemies of the United States, people who agree with the Houthis that death to America should be the goal.

Thanks very much, Mark Montgomery. Thanks very much, Bradley Bowman. Great to have you as colleagues. My honor. My privilege. I’m not checking my privilege at the door. Thanks for all of you who have been with us for this conversation today, here on Foreign Podicy.

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