UK and US Face Steep Learning Curve Against Yemen’s Battle-Hardened Houthis

Yemen's Houthis Resilient in Face of US and UK Bombardment from Sea and Sky.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The Houthis of Yemen are ready for a protracted confrontation with the “tyrannical forces”—the United States and the United Kingdom—in the Red Sea, according to Ansar Allah’s defence minister Mohammed al-Atifi on January 30. The statement was made after two major assaults on Red Sea lanes.

The Houthis fired a projectile at the US Navy ship Lewis B. Puller in the Gulf of Aden on January 29. The vessel in question supplies logistical support to American forces engaged in airstrikes in Yemen. Ansar Allah attributed the assault on the British-owned oil tanker Marlin Luanda to itself on January 26. It was a direct hit.

Since January 12, the American and British armed forces have been conducting a succession of attacks against Houthi targets in Yemen. The stated objective of the strike targets was to guarantee the integrity of navigation in the Gulf of Aden; however, it is already apparent that this goal still needs to be met despite their technological superiority. It appears the US and the UK cannot currently fully ensure the security of their military and civilian vessels in this area.

Aerial and maritime drones, as well as ballistic and winged anti-ship missiles, are the four hazards emanating from the Houthis in the Red Sea. The backbone of the US military presence in the region is the Arleigh Burke destroyers operating in escort operations. Auxiliary ships can be equipped with aviation, portable air defence systems, and additional forms of armament.

The Arleigh Burke destroyers are outfitted with the highly sophisticated Aegis air defence system. However, their cost renders them unsuitable for downing tiny drones. Additionally, the drone’s girth may prevent the missile from striking. It is considerably more efficient to engage small drones with ship-based artillery. However, due to its restricted range, it cannot cover substantial areas.

The anti-air missiles on US ships can successfully intercept winged missiles, but dealing with ballistic missiles equipped with infrared homing heads is far more difficult. These were the missiles employed in the recent strikes on commercial ships.

To shoot down a missile using Aegis, it must first be within range and then be tracked. And if it manoeuvres, striking it gets considerably more challenging. Most likely, these rockets will go undetected. This is because there aren’t enough American ships present.

Another method for countering Houthi strikes is to locate and destroy the launchers. American destroyers are outfitted with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are effective for this purpose. UK ships don’t have such firepower. To identify targets, the US must maintain constant air patrols or gain control of all Houthi territory.

The US is attempting strikes with F/A-18 fighters, while the UK has Eurofighter Typhoons and facilities in Cyprus from which its jets take off. Strikes against Yemen are also launched from destroyers equipped with Tomahawk missiles. In other words, there is a strong naval and aviation presence there. They intercept some missiles and deliver specific strikes, which is inadequate to stop the Houthis’ attacks.

The Ansar Allah movement has a formidable arsenal. Among them are Soviet-designed anti-ship missiles like the P-15M “Termit,” which has a range of up to 80 km, and their Chinese counterparts, the C-801. Iranian Ghader and Ghadir missiles with 200 km or more range are among their more advanced weaponry.

Self-guided ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 450-500 kilometres, such as the Asef and Tankil, pose an even greater threat to American ships. The Houthis additionally hold long-range cruise missiles based on Iranian designs.

The Houthis have extensive territory to launch strikes, and their rockets have a significant range. The US employs extensive capabilities, including satellite reconnaissance, but cannot identify all launchers and missile storage facilities. Furthermore, the Houthis dominate the most densely populated and mountainous region of Yemen. The mountains are not tall, but tunnels are dug into them.

Under certain scenarios, the Americans may attempt to create a defence, especially if they have enough air assets and Arleigh Burke destroyers. However, the Americans cannot control all of Houthi territory. A certain fraction of missiles will still penetrate such a shield. And the only way for the Americans to combat this is to escalate, which means increasing their forces.

One disadvantage the Americans and their allies face is a lack of prior experience. They have limited practical experience confronting a foe with such an arsenal of anti-ship missiles. They have only encountered them once in the last few decades, during the Iraq War, and not with the same severity.

The Americans will eventually gain experience in their operations against the Houthis. As a result, the operations will most likely last for some time. The US military will examine data, modify tactics, and experiment with different ways of target designation. They may bring in larger drones, as they have a large number. They are not in use right now since the Houthis have a strong air defence. After suppressing it, they will progressively rule the territory using high-altitude strike drones. This is a highly likely possibility. However, until Americans gain experience, they will be less effective.

It should be emphasised that the Houthis have been fighting the Saudi-led coalition for several years, which had air superiority. As a result, the Houthis have always been particular with camouflage.

The state of affairs is such that the US has had no success with its strikes: the Houthis continue to assault ships, and the range of targets only grows. They initially targeted vessels associated with Israel, but now they also target those associated with the UK and the US. Furthermore, the Houthis represent a significant threat to military ships. While the Americans have been able to defend themselves thus far, a missile may break through and strike a destroyer or auxiliary ship in the future.


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