A search for deterrence in the Red Sea

The Houthis appear to be taking advantage of the lack of a coordinated response in ensuring maritime security

January 18, 2024 12:08 am | Updated 01:45 am IST

A U.S. Navy ship responding to a combination of Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea

A U.S. Navy ship responding to a combination of Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea | Photo Credit: AFP

Houthi rebels based in Yemen, in response to Israeli attacks and the bombing of Gaza, have been attacking merchant shipping using the Red Sea route. With attacks that began in mid-November, the Houthis, using drones and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMS), have tried to board or boarded ships. There has even been an instance of the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader, using a helicopter.

The various methods and choice of weaponry are an indication of the type of assets available to the rebels and the type of training they are receiving. The United States had removed the Houthis from its terror listing even though Saudi Arabia had warned of the danger of Houthi attacks. But in a new development, the U.S., from mid-February, “will consider the Houthis a specially designated global terrorist” group, which could block its access to the global financial system, among other measures.

Trade disruptions a worry

The situation in the Red Sea is growing in complexity. While the impact on stability is immense, the impact on trade is a growing concern. What is of greater concern is the modern weaponry being used and the inability of nations, both allies and strategic partners, to work together as a team, despite the substantial presence of maritime forces. This also raises questions about the claim of a high degree of interoperability after years of joint defence exercises. It is wise to recall that the efforts to combat piracy took years to take effect even as the adversary was supposed to be a rag tag collection of pirates operating as non-state actors, with any connection to terrorist groups or state actors remaining unproven.

The delayed international response had provided the pirates with time to adapt to modern technologies and adopt tactics such as hijacking ships and using them as mother ships. This has facilitated mid-ocean attacks, which in turn has increased the ‘High-Risk Area’, with attendant multi-impacts on maritime trade such as rerouting and insurance costs.

The same impacts are re-emerging with similar operational limitations, as hijacked ships that could be used by the Houthis as mother ships to launch attacks and the presence of hostages onboard would limit any hard power response to neutralise the threat.

The present scenario, with Houthi rebels using drones and ASBMS is of great concern. State support to Houthis makes things more complicated, which in this case points to Iran, and perhaps China. The supply of ASBMS, directly or indirectly, points to China, which also raises the issue of missile technology proliferation.

Tepid response from allies

Operation Prosperity Guardian launched by the U.S. which was intended to operate under the Combined Maritime Force’s (CMF) Combined Task Force 153 has seen a lacklustre response from allies and strategic partners. This does not instil much confidence in the ability of the U.S. to drive international cooperative mechanisms to address situations that demand the use of hard power.

Out of the nine nations mentioned initially as part of the operation, three North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies of the U.S., i.e., France, Italy, and Spain, declined to be part of the operation, and are operating independently. Bahrain, which houses the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters, is the only West Asian nation to be a part of the operation.

Saudi Arabia has not joined the operation, perhaps to avoid negative impacts on the Saudi-led negotiations on ending the ongoing war in Yemen, and the recent endeavours to improve relations with Iran. Another major reason could be to avoid being seen as supporting Israel, an aspect which perhaps has also limited the United Arab Emirates from joining the operation.

India, which had joined the CMF as associate partner in 2022 and was upgraded to full member in November 2023, is also operating independently. This could be due to India-Iran relations despite the stoppage of oil imports based on U.S. insistence. Even the U.S.’s allies, Japan and Australia, are yet to join the operation. The apparent inability of Operation Prosperity Guardian to work as a coalition of willing nations indicates the divisions within like-minded nations that support the freedom of navigation and endorse maritime security as a major convergence factor.

Need for calibrated actions

The Houthis are clearly taking advantage of this division and seem to be questioning the status of the U.S. as a global dominant nation. Like piracy, the solution lies on the ground, and the attacks carried out by the U.S. and the U.K. are testament to this approach. Therefore, while combat operational and tactical philosophies dictate that it is more prudent to take out the launchers, there is a need to stop the supply of weaponry. However, Yemen is not Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan, and, globally, there is a lot more at stake.

The situation does not appear to be under any modicum of control and could deteriorate further. The need for an accepted end state that is achievable in quick time is the essence of the hour. Further actions need to be assessed to avoid a state-on-state confrontation as well as lending legitimacy to the Houthis being seen as a state actor. Most importantly, turning Yemen into a battleground like Lebanon must be avoided.

Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, a retired captain, is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Military History and Conflict Studies, United Service Institution of India (USI), and the Council for Strategic and Defence Research

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