Red Sea Dangerous As Ever After Strikes, Shipping Industry Warns (Updated)

The Houthis have warned the United States and its allies of “a long-term battle that will change the direction of the region and the world.”

byHoward Altman, Thomas Newdick, Tyler Rogoway|
Super Hornet Yemen
CENTCOM
Share

Overnight strikes on Yemen led by the United States and the United Kingdom will be met by “punishment or retaliation,” the military spokesperson of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels has said. In the meantime, however, the threat to Red Sea shipping from the Houthis — which the group says is in retaliation for Israel’s war in Gaza — shows no sign of abating. Indeed, one shipping industry source told The War Zone “We don’t believe that [the strikes] will help short-term.”

“The Houthis have not been impressed by any military action until now,” the same source contended. “Drones and missiles can be shot easily from any place — so we would not think that the strike has hit all weapons. Nobody will return immediately to the Red Sea as it is not proven yet that as of today the passage is safe.”

There are also growing indications that some kind of Houthi response is now imminent, a threat that has been attributed to the group’s senior political leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi. Whether this is a continuation of the anti-shipping campaign, or something else, is unclear for now.

You can read our coverage of yesterday’s strikes on Yemen, which involved U.S. and British warplanes, warships, and submarines, here.

In the last few hours, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which is managed by the Royal Navy, has relayed reports of a missile having been fired toward a vessel around 90 nautical miles southeast of the Yemeni port of Aden, near the eastern approach to the Red Sea. According to the same source, the missile came down in the water 400-500 meters away from a ship, which did not report any injuries or damage. If this is confirmed, it would appear to be the first attack on a vessel in the region since the strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen.

A U.K. Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 returns to its shelter at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, on January 12, 2024, following a strike mission on Houthi rebels. Photo by MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images

Since the strikes, there has been a slew of threats from Houthi officials.

Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi political bureau, warned that “Yemen is not an easy military opponent that can be subdued quickly. Rather, it is prepared to engage in a long-term battle that will change the direction of the region and the world.”

Hussein al-Azzi, the Houthi Deputy Foreign Minister issued the following statement on X:

“Our country was subjected to a massive aggressive attack by American and British ships, submarines, and warplanes, and America and Britain will undoubtedly have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression.”

Al-Azzi also issued a call for unity among different factions in Yemen, which has been ravaged by a nearly decade-long civil war:

“For every Yemeni in the other camp: We have put our dispute with you and all your past behind us, so do as we did. It is Yemen, the country of all of us, and it is a shame that your hostility and the Zionist invaders continue. Indeed, your blood is part of our blood, so fear God and do not mix it with their blood. It is time for blood to be united in redemption for one religion, one homeland, and one nation.”

Houthi fighters brandish their weapons during a march in solidarity with the Palestinian people in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa on January 11, 2024, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza. Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

Shipping companies and maritime authorities have reacted with caution given the situation.

United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which is managed by the Royal Navy,  today issued a statement saying: “UKMTO is aware of the Joint Statement on strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen, Vessels transiting the area are advised to exercise caution and follow flag state and industry guidance and are requested to report any suspicious activity to UKMTO.”

The Combined Maritime Forces, a 39-nation naval partnership, meanwhile issued a warning to the global shipping industry today, telling ships to stay “well away” from the Bab el-Mandeb, the strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Publicly available ship-tracking data suggest that vessels are heeding that warning.

Maersk, the Danish shipping and logistics company, issued the following statement:

“The escalated security situation in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has evolved on the back of an unfortunate, deeply complex, and longstanding conflict that has no winners.”

“Restoring security for merchant transport in the area is crucial to protect trade as well as avoiding the increasing impact of the crisis on global supply chains. Ultimately, a de-escalation of the conflict level in the region is needed. We welcome the unequivocal signal sent by the 14 signatories of the joint appeal to cease attacks against commercial vessels and appreciate that a growing group of nations aims to form part of the international coalition.”

“We hope that these interventions and a larger naval presence will eventually lead to a lowered threat environment allowing maritime commerce to transit through the Red Sea and once again return to using the Suez Canal as a gateway.”

In the aftermath of the U.S.-led operation, the Houthis claimed that a total of 73 strikes had killed five of their fighters and wounded six more, and said that the the group will continue to block the passage of ships in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.

Photo by Yasin Demirci/Anadolu via Getty Images

Eyewitness accounts from Yemen describe explosions across the country last night. Reports at this stage indicate that targets included a military base adjacent to Sanaa Airport, a military facility near Taiz Airport, a Houthi naval base in Hodeidah, and other military sites in Hajjah governorate. No civilian casualties have so far been reported.

A U.S. official emphasized that the strikes — on 16 different locations — were directed against military targets, to degrade the Houthis’ military capabilities.

“We were going after very specific capability in very specific locations with precision munitions,” the official said. The Pentagon has said that more than 100 precision-guided munitions of various types were used in the strikes.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the strikes targeted locations “associated with the Houthis’ unmanned aerial vehicle, ballistic and cruise missile, and coastal radar and air surveillance capabilities.”

In a separate statement, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) added that the targets included “command and control nodes, munitions depots, launching systems, production facilities, and air defense radar systems.”

A U.S. defense official told The War Zone that bomb damage assessment “is still ongoing, however, the initial assessment the strikes were extremely successful, but no further details as of right now. We were very intentional, we are seeing the strikes were successful.”

The same official continued: “There is a ton of disinformation going about Houthi retaliation right now. There has not been any retaliation on our troops, in the Red Sea, Iraq, or Syria.”

James Heappey, a British politician serving as Minister of State for the Armed Forces, said that initial bomb damage assessments indicated that “the Houthis’ ability to threaten merchant shipping has taken a blow.” Heappey added that no further military action was planned for now.

While we previously knew that logistical and intelligence support for the strikes was provided by Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Bahrain, a joint statement from the White House confirms that other nations were involved, too, although in what capacity is not immediately clear. The additional countries are Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, and South Korea.

Australia has provided more details, albeit limited, of its contribution to the strikes.

Australian Minister of Defense Richard Marles told reporters today that his country’s involvement was not a decision “taken lightly.”

“Australia’s support of these actions came in the form of personnel in the operational headquarters,” Marles said, adding that the action taken was about “maintaining freedom of navigation on the high seas.”

One country that seems to have decided not to take part in the strikes is Italy.

An Italian government source said that the country preferred to pursue a “calming” policy in the Red Sea, Reuters reported.

Italy announced last month that it would send a naval vessel to the area to help protect maritime traffic, but it has not formally joined the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian mission, which The War Zone was the first to report about.

Elsewhere, there are signs that other nations are poised to join the maritime security mission in the Red Sea.

Danish Minister of Defense Troels Lund Poulsen said today that the country’s government “supports the American-led action that took place in Yemen last night.” He added: “Free navigation is of crucial importance and therefore the government is putting forward a motion to send a frigate to the area.”

Iran, which supports the Houthis, condemned the U.S. and British attacks.

“We strongly condemn the military attacks carried out this morning by the United States and the United Kingdom on several cities in Yemen,” said Nasser Kannani, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

“These attacks are a clear violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and a breach of international laws,” he added.

Recognizing what it says is Iran’s key role in the Houthi-prosecuted anti-shipping campaign, the U.S. government has said it will put additional sanctions on Tehran.

Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, today issued the following statement:

“Iran’s financial support to the Houthis has fueled their unrelenting attacks on global commerce in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The United States is today designating two additional companies that have been involved in the shipment of Iranian commodities in support of the Iran-based, Houthi financial facilitator Sa’id al-Jamal and his network. We are also identifying four vessels as blocked property in which these companies have an interest.”

Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been strongly critical of Israel for its actions in Gaza, today accused the United States and the United Kingdom of trying to turn the Red Sea into a “sea of blood.” Erdogan added that the Houthis are mounting a “successful defense, response against the United States”.

Russia, too, has denounced the attacks, reflecting its expanding relationship with Iran, which also plays into the conflict in Ukraine.

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry also pointed to Moscow’s efforts to build a partnership with Saudi Arabia, since the war in Gaza began, saying: “We share the concerns of our regional partners, in particular Saudi Arabia, and call for intensifying international efforts to prevent a further escalation.”

Saudi Arabia, which has been waging its own war against the Houthis for almost a decade, called for restraint and “avoiding escalation.”

While it appears that the U.S.-led strikes against the Houthis are on hold, for now, there remains a big question about what happens next, as well as fears of a potential escalation.

Based on their statements, it seems that the Houthis will retaliate for the strikes or at least continue to attack shipping transiting the Red Sea.

The U.S. and U.K. strikes come amid U.N.-backed peace negotiations in Yemen. Late last month, the U.N. Special Envoy welcomed steps toward a ceasefire in the war-torn country, between the Saudi-backed government forces and the Houthi rebels.

While the strikes on Yemen are the most significant military offshoot of the Gaza war, there is also scope for a further expansion of the conflict. As well as the Houthis, Iran-backed militant groups in Iraq and Syria could also become more deeply involved, including stepping up their attacks on U.S. troops and military installations in both those countries.

The United States has not ruled out further strikes on the Houthis. Should the group’s attacks on Red Sea shipping continue, as promised, it’s hard to see how follow-on strikes could be avoided. If the Houthis manage to step up their attacks on maritime trade, the situation becomes more complex, with the prospect of a larger campaign of strikes directed against a wider assortment of targets.

Still, it must be highlighted that attempting to directly stop the Houthi missile and drone attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden military would be extremely resource intensive. While space-based infrared warning satellites would have detected the locations of anti-ship ballistic and most cruise missile launches — with many other intelligence capabilities gaining valuable information on these operations in recent weeks, as well — and documenting these patterns of operations would be critical to stopping launches before they occur, actually doing this would be a huge challenge. It would require a far more elaborate surveillance and reconnaissance enterprise to be persistently deployed over large swathes of Yemeni coastline and inland areas. This would need to be paired with assets at the ready capable of time-sensitive strikes. They would need to hit the launchers before firing. Considering the Houthis have years of experience fighting against Saudi Arabia and their Arab coalition, they have dispersed their capabilities so they cannot be easily destroyed and know that firing from unpredictable locations and moving the weapons themselves around constantly is key to surviving. This makes eliminating them very challenging.

That being said, degrading the Houthis ability to target ships in other ways, like striking known radar systems and command and control nodes, could help reduce their ability to launch attacks but it will not eliminate it. Not even close.

With all this in mind, should the attacks continue or even increase, the big question becomes how much is the U.S. and its allies willing to invest to see that they stop, or at least reduced significantly. And how effective would those efforts even be? Also, a prolonged shooting war in this region puts other U.S. facilities nearby at risk of attack and it comes at a time when there are huge demands for military presence and capabilities elsewhere. Local players like Saudi Arabia want their conflict in Yemen to be over, so getting help from them will be a major hurdle.

One thing is for certain, the ball is now in the Houthis’ court as far as what comes next.

This is a developing story. Stay with The War Zone for updates.

UPDATE: 5:10 PM EST—

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Doug Sims, Director of Operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, provided additional details about last night's strikes on Yemen during a call today with reporters from The War Zone and other outlets. He disclosed that targets spread across a total of 28 different were struck by U.S. and British forces. He also said that just over 150 munitions of various types had been used in the strikes.

An earlier statement from U.S. Air Forces Central Command had only mentioned "over 100 precision-guided munitions" being employed against "over 60 targets at 16 Iranian-backed Houthi militant locations." Sims initially described the additional 12 locations as being hit in a "subsequent" strike, but then clarified that it was more about the specific timing of certain assets arriving on their targets.

Sims also re-confirmed earlier statements that U.S. and British aircraft, as well as various U.S. naval assets, had taken part in the operation. The naval assets included Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower and elements of its associated strike group, including its air wing, the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Philippine Sea, and the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Gravely. The USS Mason, another Arleigh Burke, and an Ohio class guided missile submarine (which Sims did not identify, but which has been previously reported to have been the USS Florida) were also involved.

Sims added that a full damage assessment is still ongoing.

"The number of casualties we don't expect would be very high. In fact, the majority of the locations that we hit were in areas that were not built up, at all. So, think ballistic missile launchers that were in mountain areas or very lowly populated areas," Sims said. "So, the number of casualties will likely not be very high. I would say in the end ... this was not necessarily about casualties as much as it was about degrading capability."

"I know we have degraded [Houthi] capability. I don't believe that they would be able to execute the same way they did the other day. But we will see," Sims added.

"I can't really speak to what was going on on the ground. ... I can't tell you what the Houthi did or didn't move," the Pentagon's top spokesperson said when asked about whether or not reports of high-level meetings in the United Kingdom ahead of the strikes may have tipped off the Yemeni militants. "I think our continued battle damage assessment will give us an idea of that. And then we'll make decisions based on that" going forward.

Sims did say that he didn't think the Houthis wanted the U.S. and its allies and partners to strike to precipitate a larger conflict. He also said it was unclear still what steps the group might actually take next.

"So we did see one anti-ship ballistic missile that was fired today that did not hit any ships of any kind. ... so we know that they have fired at least one missile in retaliation," Sims said. "My guess is that the Houthis are trying to figure things out on the ground and trying to determine what capabilities still exist for them. But ... I would expect that they will attempt some sort of retaliation."

"Quite honestly, I would hope they wouldn't [retaliate], and what I mean by that is, there are a number of actors here [including Iran] who have the ability and have influence with the Houthis who recognize that continued conflict is not ... advantageous to them," he continued. "So the hope would be that any real thought of retaliation is based on a clear understanding that we simply are not going to be messed with here. This is all about creating freedom of navigation for international shipping."

U.S. President Joe Biden has since reiterated himself that more strikes on Yemen could come if the Houthis continue targeting ships in and around the Red Sea.

Other new details about the strikes on Yemen overnight continue to emerge. Military.com's Konstantin Toropin has reported that a total of 22 aircraft from USS Eisenhower's air wing took part in the operation and that a total of 80 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at targets in Yemen.

There are now multiple reports that the ship that the Houthis appeared to target with the anti-ship ballistic missile earlier today was the Panama-flagged Aframax tanker Khalissa. This ship has also been previously identified as part of a "dark fleet" of tankers the Russian government has been using to help move its oil around the world and evade sanctions from various countries.

UKMTO has also put out another alert about a reported "suspicious approach" by two small craft toward an unspecified merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden. The pair of boats, crewed by unknown individuals who did not appear to have weapons, reportedly followed the merchant ship for over an hour.

The War Zone deputy editor Joseph Trevithick contributed to this report.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

stripe