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The Red Sea challenges from Yemeni Houthis

by Adrian David

DUBAI, 4 MARCH – Naval and maritime forces faced further challenges over attacks on shipping off the Red Sea, as they learnt lessons to counter the threats posed by Yemen’s Ansarullah (Houthi) movement.

The confrontation with the insurgents had entered a new phase, commented Nick Childs, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security.

Childs wrote on China’s work on carrier-killer missiles and Ukraine’s efficacy in attacking Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which had given naval planners lots to ponder when thinking about the future of war at sea.

“Attacks by the Ansarullah (Houthi) movement in Yemen against commercial and military vessels have only added to the headaches.

“The Western navies engaged in the stand-off with the Houthis in the southern Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden are receiving a wakeup call concerning their assumptions about future requirements.

“Among them are the need for persistent and comprehensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and the ability to respond quickly with dynamic targeting and multiple strike options to handle the highly mobile and easy-to-hide weapons the Houthis have employed,” said Childs, who previously worked at the BBC for more than three decades, including as its world affairs, defence and Pentagon correspondent.

He pointed out that the crux of the challenge for the United States, which was leading the military response along with the United Kingdom, was how to curb the Houthi attacks that have been unfolding for weeks and involved uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) and missiles.

“The Houthis were not deterred by a naval presence, including a US aircraft carrier strike group, nor US-led public warnings about potential consequences.

“The initial Western military response, including strikes against Houthi targets that commenced on Jan 11 this year, also seemed to have little immediate effect.

“Many navies have underinvested in land-attack capability, including the UK’s Royal Navy.

“Its Type-45 destroyer assigned to the Red Sea, HMS Diamond, is well equipped for air defence, but plans for the class to have a land-attack capability were abandoned. “That forced London to call on Royal Air Force Typhoon combat aircraft based in Cyprus to carry out attacks,” Childs said.

He highlighted how the Royal Navy had acknowledged its deficit in this area and was seeking to improve the lethality of its ships.

“It began an urgent effort in 2022 to equip some ships with the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile, which became operational on the first ship in December 2023.

“The UK and France are also looking to jointly develop an advanced land-attack missile, but that will take time and money,” he said.

Childs commented how the US Navy was reasonably well equipped for land-attack missions with, for instance, submarine- and destroyer-based Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as having an aircraft carrier on scene in this instance.

“Even so, it is seeking to bolster its firepower, including fitting hypersonic Conventional Prompt Strike missiles to its Zumwalt-class cruisers, and recently announced a contract to boost Tomahawk production capacity.

“The French navy ship in the area has land-attack capacities, but Paris has remained on the sidelines in targeting the Houthis,” said Childs.

Another area where navies were having to rethink their assumptions, was in air defence, he said.

“Events in the Red Sea have represented the most intense air defence action that any navy has faced probably since the 1982 Falklands War.

“The Houthis, which so far have not sunk any vessels, may have more to unleash and could challenge current warship defences with more intense attacks.

“Navies also realise that a peer competitor such as China, with its large and diverse arsenal of missiles, would test their air defences far more,” he said.

Childs remarked that the Ukraine war had demonstrated how waves of relatively cheap UAVs could become a problem for the defenders on land, which often had to expend costly missiles to protect cities and installations.

“The Red Sea crisis has made the debate around the trade-offs between countering cheap explosively equipped UAVs with pricey missiles acute also in the maritime domain.

“The costs of naval assets and the value of the cargoes on the merchant ships that are threatened make it somewhat easier to rationalise the use of expensive interceptors against cheaper UAVs, but the debate does not stop there.

“Perhaps more than fretting about costs, navies need to worry they will deplete readily available stockpiles over an extended period of operation.

“The central questions, therefore, really should be about production capacity, magazine sizes and keeping ships on station by reviving the capability to replenish missiles at sea,” Childs opined.

He added that technological progress, such as directed energy weapons and soft-kill systems, including electronic countermeasures, offered a more sustainable solution.

He recounted how the UK recently disclosed a successful trial of its Dragon Fire development laser against a UAV.

“The US Navy is in the process of introducing a variety of directed energy systems, while the latest version of the Northrop Grumman SEWIP ship-protection electronic warfare suite has gone to sea for the first time.

“But these efforts have been slow to materialise,” he said.

Childs lamented that the Red Sea situation had further reignited debate over warship numbers at a time when the mantra had taken hold that technology would allow navies to move away from a ‘platform-centric’ approach.

“The operational reality is that, given their other commitments, the Royal Navy and the US Navy will be hard-pressed to sustain their platform presence indefinitely.

“Burden-sharing with other navies may help sustain the mission, but those services will likely face difficult choices over priorities too.

“Recognising a deficiency in ship numbers is one thing, addressing it is another.

“The problem facing many navies, including the US Navy, is that an ambition to increase fleet size clashes with available resources and industrial capacity, particularly to move quickly,” Childs said.

In many ways, Childs added that the Houthis had shone a spotlight on the importance of the naval domain and amplified many of the arguments navies had made about their importance.

But the crisis, he warned, also had exposed urgent requirements and shortfalls. – airtimes.my

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