This weekend saw yet another escalation in the battle of the Red Sea. The Iranian-backed terrorist organisation, the Houthis, currently squatting in Northwest Yemen, started the battle shortly after 7 October by firing four missiles and fifteen drones up the Red Sea towards Israel. Fortunately, the US destroyer Carney was on patrol there and, in what can only be described as ‘a good day at the office’, successfully shot them all down.
Not long after that another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, USS Thomas Hudner, stepped into the breech whilst Carney was reloading and engaged drone attacks on two separate occasions.
The Houthis then diversified and boarded a merchant ship, MV Galaxy Leader, by helicopter, taking the crew hostage. This was followed two days later by a long-range drone attack on another merchantman, CMA CGM Symi, and then an aborted traditional piracy attempt using small boats on the MV Central Park in the Gulf of Aden. When this failed, the Houthis fired one or two (reports vary) ballistic missiles towards the USS Mason – another destroyer which had captured the Central Park attackers – which fell short.
Up until this point, all these merchant vessels had a connection with Israel, even if it was a distant one. As a result, the Israeli shipping line Zim Integrated Shipping Services rerouted all its vessels away from the area. Larger carriers such as Maersk followed suit.
And then came Sunday. Four different attacks on three different ships, two of whom seemingly have no connection with Israel. The MV Unity Explorer was fired at twice, the second strike hitting and causing minor damage, though no casualties. Either side of this second strike, two drones were launched into the area. These were likely sent in after the missiles to conduct damage assessment. This doesn’t mean they weren’t a threat though, so the Carney dealt with both.
By mid-afternoon MV Number 9 had been hit by a missile, again causing damage but no casualties. An hour later MV Sophie II was hit without casualties. The follow-up drone after the Sophie strike was also destroyed by the Carney. In total, there were four missile attacks of which three hit and three drone follow-ups, all in the space of seven hours. How long can this be allowed to go on for?
I have written up the situation in the region five times now since 7 October and each time have been increasingly confident that the US was about to take punitive action for the ongoing attacks. This is based on many years operating alongside them at sea and also the fact that in 2016, missiles were fired at USS Mason and this was met almost immediately with Tomahawk counter-strikes on key Houthi radar sites. This used to be the way, and all the US destroyers in the area will have Tomahawks aboard.
Clearly it isn’t the way now, although there are plenty who would agree with Obama-era CIA Director and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta who stated over the weekend: “I would be much more aggressive. I want to go after those who are firing missiles at our troops and make sure they understand that when they fire a missile – they are going to die.”
The US Navy has many options apart from its Arleigh Burke destroyers and their land-attack Tomahawks. The Dwight D Eisenhower carrier strike group passed through the Red Sea during the early exchanges as did the USS Florida, an Ohio class nuclear-powered submarine armed with up to 154 Tomahawks and probably carrying a force of Navy SEAL special forces. Two ships of the Bataan amphibious ready group, carrying elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26 MEU) are still in the Red Sea. All of these could conduct either kinetic or surgical strikes in retaliation.
But still, nothing. The Pentagon seems to be going the other way and is at pains to say ‘nothing was aimed directly at us’ on each occasion. This may or may not be true but if you were to flip it and wanted an excuse to strike, there have now been plenty.
This feels very much like the US mantra in the Gulf during recent years of ‘disciplined restraint’. In other words, ‘be ready, but don’t be the one that starts it’. This makes a lot of sense when operating in a delicately balanced environment. Does it make the same amount of sense in the Red Sea given how unbalanced things are becoming there?
It is worth remembering at this stage that this is not something happening ‘over there’. This is an important international choke point through which billions of dollars of goods and hydrocarbons pass, some en route to your house. Shipping companies who service this route require insurance which will now increase, possibly to the point where it becomes cheaper to go round the Cape of Good Hope. The situation is complicated further by the fact that many of the rules governing international behaviour at sea are configured for state actors, not non-state militias such as the Houthis. Egypt is dependent on the Suez Canal for income and would certainly have a view if this carries on and too many start taking the long way around.
There are a range of solutions to this current situation. None of them are clean, most need to be done concurrently and all of them attract a resource bill.
First are ongoing diplomatic discussions. Channels will be open with Tehran right now to make it clear that they need to bring the Houthis to heel. Whatever was said to them to keep Hezbollah from bursting into action post 7 October needs to be repeated. However, despite supplying the weapons, intelligence and master plans, Iran might not have the level of day to day control over the Houthis that people assume. Either way, the Dwight D Eisenhower group sitting in the central Gulf just now is the physical manifestation of these discussions.
Second is the measures ships themselves can take to protect themselves against further acts of piracy. Many of these were considered ‘normal’ during the quite recent heyday of Somali piracy off the Horn of Africa and should be reinstated. Basic measures such as barbed wire and fixed fire hoses need to be in place, escalating to hiring armed guards where appropriate. Governments get uncomfortable with this measure as they don’t like armed groups operating up-threat under a different set of Rules of Engagement, but there is no doubt that a small team of armed guards on the deck of the MV Galaxy Leader could have prevented the helicopter boarding.
As an aside, it was only on 20 July this year that US Marines were set to be put on tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz in the face of the increasing Iranian threat there. These marines were to come from the 26 MEU who are now in the Red Sea. Could they be used in the manner outlined for The Gulf? That threat was piracy though, this one is piracy and missile attack which could complicate things if a vessel with US Marines onboard is then hit. Practically, you also have to get them on and off which requires ships stationed at either end with associated resource and logistics bill.
Third is escorting. This has been done many times over the years and there are people drawing parallels with what’s happening here and the Tanker Wars of the 1980s. One look at how many warships contributed to that task and you quickly realise that it is not repeatable now, in that form at least. The odd ship, maybe, but no more. And like the armed guard scenario above, who do you choose to protect? In the 80s, tankers flew a US flag to assure protection but that wouldn’t work now given the Houthis’ indifference to the flags being flown so far. The US Navy is stretched thin right now – this is not a task America will want to take on alone. There would need to be commitment by other nations as was the case with the anti-piracy patrols in the late noughties and early teens, but there is little evidence of that today.
However the US ships in the region will be pleased to be joined by HMS Diamond, currently approaching Suez from the North. She can’t deal with ballistic missiles like her US siblings (both Carney and Thomas Hudner are equipped for ballistic defence) but in all other respects will add a great deal to the safety of ships trying to pass through there.
Fourth, and not least, is counter-strikes. The US has many options here, from Tomahawk strikes as seen in 2016, to Special Forces insertions to rendering intelligence and targeting information to Saudi forces. The Saudis have been locked in a battle with the Houthis since late 2014 but it was abating this year and so it’s possible that, with one eye on their improving relations with Iran, they don’t want to take this option.
To know if strikes of this sort work, one only has to look to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to see the effect a well-aimed set of land strikes can have on fighting effectiveness and morale. The Houthis would be similarly demotivated if every time they approach a launch site they wonder if it is to be their last.
The problem with allowing the Houthis free rein is that sooner or later there will be a miscalculation. Yesterday at around the time the Houthis were getting trigger happy, a 114,000-ton liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier was passing through the Bab el Mandeb carrying its explosive cargo northbound. What if that had been hit by mistake? Or what if the Houthis strike or board a vessel with a largely American crew, or Chinese?
Or, what if they get lucky and one of their missiles hits a US warship? There is no such thing as a 100 per cent probability of getting a kill when shooting at an incoming missile. Without layered defence, eventually, something gets through. The best layer is the one where the weapons system is taken out before it gets airborne.
All of this points to taking short, sharp action now alongside the diplomatic and protection suggestions above. This isn’t to warmonger, it’s to stop things from getting worse. Influencing Hamas, the Houthis and Hezbollah, the three H’s of Iranian-sponsored malfeasance, whilst hostage negotiations continue, and then determining what Russia and China make of it all is being done by people paid more than me. They believe that for now, ‘disciplined restraint’ is the order of the day.
I hope they’re right.
Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and warship captain