Houthi Threat: Assessing the Impact and Formulating Responses

Iran’s Houthi militia, its Yemeni proxy, is threatening global supply chains and maritime security through attacks in the Bab al-Mandab, a critical chokepoint connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The multinational effort, Operation Prosperity Guardian, has failed to establish credible deterrence in the Red Sea, as Houthi attacks have led to shipping companies suspending operations. The presence of an Iranian spy vessel in the region suggests an intensifying campaign. To safeguard maritime security and global trade, the United States and its allies should target the Houthi forces’ critical capabilities and deter Iran from escalation. In mid-December 2023, a US-led multinational coalition launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, with Bahrain as the sole Gulf country supporting the effort.

Operation Prosperity Guardian has been unable to stop the Houthi attacks, which pose a serious threat to maritime shipping and trade. The Houthi leadership has made threats against US Navy assets in the region, emboldening Iran. The Houthi aggression marks the most serious threat to maritime shipping and trade in decades, with between seven to nine million barrels of oil navigating the Bab al-Mandab daily and the Suez Canal being a major trade route. The Houthi attacks have caused major companies to halt their operations in the Red Sea, leading to delayed arrival times as container ships navigate longer routes around the Cape of Good Hope.

The security situation in the region has led to a surge in insurance costs, putting additional strain on maritime trade and threatening global supply lines. The Iran-backed Houthi aggression could lead to catastrophic consequences, as seen in the 2021 incident where the Ever Given cargo vessel lost $10 billion daily. The US and its allies must maintain free maritime navigation, as Houthi information suggests the militia, in coordination with Iran, is the most dangerous member of the Axis of Resistance.

The Houthi militia launched a campaign of attacks in November 2023, capturing the Galaxy Leader cargo ship near Yemen’s port city of Hodeida. Between November 19 and December 31, 2023, the Houthis conducted 23 major attacks on global trade and shipping activity, demonstrating Iran-backed long-range strike capabilities. One notable offensive asset used by the Houthi forces is the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), acquired via Iranian know-how derived from illegal military transfers. Open-source intelligence assessments suggest that the Houthis operate two principal ASBM systems: the Asef, an anti-ship derivative of Iran’s Fateh-313 tactical ballistic missile, and the Tankel, an anti-ship variant of Iran’s Raad-500 Zohair tactical ballistic missile.

Iran-sponsored ASBM systems, with 280 and 310 miles of range, pose a significant threat to the US and its allies. These missiles, while lacking the maneuverability and sea-skimming of high-end cruise missiles, can travel at high speeds and attack targets with overwhelming velocity. A kill chain, including drone surveillance and signals intelligence, is essential for successful hits. The Hormuz-1 and Hormuz-2 baseline, anti-radiation ASBM assets, are worth monitoring for potential transfers to Yemen.

In late 2023, Houthi forces launched ASBMs against a Maersk Hangzhou container vessel, leading to the destruction of at least three Houthi platforms and ten militia fighters. Iran, the supplier of drone and missile warfare capabilities, is also providing key intelligence to the militia. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has been passing critical intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) data to its Yemeni proxy, the Iranian vessel Behshad. This high-end intelligence asset, which replaced another Iranian ship, the Saviz, several years ago, is crucial for the success of Houthi raiding parties and long-range strike capabilities.

Tehran has also sent the IRIS Alborz to the Red Sea, an Alvand-class frigate equipped with Noor anti-ship missiles and other weapons systems. If the Alborz actively assists Houthi piracy activity, she could find herself a legitimate target for the US-led coalition patrolling the waters. Stabilizing global shipping lanes in the Bab al-Mandab will require the United States to take several important steps to stabilize global shipping lanes and prevent further attacks on Houthi forces.

Operation Prosperity Guardian requires new rules of engagement to effectively combat the Houthi militia. The US-led effort should focus on offensive action and preventive military measures against the Houthis’ critical capabilities, rather than a naval air and missile defense campaign. Open-source defense intelligence suggests that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been more effective in equipping the Houthis over the last two years, allowing them to launch medium-range ballistic missiles at Israel. If unchecked, Iran can use the Houthis’ position as a critical maritime chokepoint to threaten global trade and security.

The Biden administration should redesignate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) to signal Washington’s seriousness about fighting the militia. This would send a strong signal to regional allies and foes alike that Washington is serious about fighting the militia. Addressing the security concerns of its Gulf partners and allies, such as Saudi Arabia, is crucial. The Biden administration should supply allies and partners in the Gulf with adequate military capabilities, including offensive countermeasures, while signaling that any hostile proxy campaigns by Iran in the region would not go unpunished. Addressing the concerns of its regional partners would help counter Chinese influence in the region while striking the Houthi militia and its backers in Tehran.

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