Yemen’s Houthis al-Ḥūthīyūn) have undoubtedly achieved one operational goal in recent days, which was to show the whole world their capabilities in paralyzing maritime transport. This situation, in turn, focused attention on Yemen worldwide and introduced many doubts regarding the development of the regional and global concern. Unfortunately, we must add that in recent years, Yemen has been „rediscovered” and repeatedly forgotten in several security debates. At the expense of subsequent „surprises” in the form of the strong position of Al-Qaeda (AQAP); the specificity of the mentioned revolution of 2011-2014; as well as the outbreak of the internationalized civil war after 2015; and, most importantly, the survival of the Houthis in their stronger version in terms of military and political-military agenda. However, with broader strategic reflection, it is possible to notice the dependence of the international economy on one of the poorest countries in the world, mired in a humanitarian tragedy and struggling with the effects of civil war. For this purpose, it is necessary to point out several premises that determine the importance of the problem we all currently face as an international community. At the same time, it emphasizes that there is no clear way to solve Yemen’s problems, and it will certainly not be through targeted air strikes against Houthi targets (which also appeared in some discussions in the media).
The Houthis can destabilize more than just regional shipping lanes
Let’s start with the most visible geographical premise, which everyone can conventionally check by looking at a map. The coast of Yemen guarantees an excellent position for planned and coordinated impact on strategic sea routes in the Red Sea and the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait. Both cases are crucial for Europe, but of course, not only for this continent - hence, we are talking about a global problem. Let us note that the Panama Canal is struggling with water level problems, which generally cause turbulence in terms of maritime transport on a worldwide scale. The Houthis also have access to this type of data and are fully aware of the importance of their actions.Paralyzing or even just raising shipping and insurance prices is something much more substantial than even the giant Iranian missile that is in the arsenal of this Yemeni political and military structure. Let us also note that the distance from the coast of Yemen controlled by the Houthi (north-western and western part of the country) and Eritrea, also a country not belonging to a stable democracy (diplomatically speaking), is approximately 100 km. Therefore, the area is complicated for international transport and, more broadly, countries where approximately 350 km of the Yemeni coast on one side are at paramilitary structures« disposal.
Moreover, there is port infrastructure on the coast controlled by the Houthi, where the case of the port in Hodeidah is most often highlighted, but at the same time, we must remember the port of Saleef / Salif. We should recall that at the beginning of 2022, the Saudi coalition, supporting the legal government of Yemen residing in Aden, emphasized that both locations could be considered military targets due to their use to influence shipping routes by the Houthis. However, in the West, this thread has always been relegated to internal struggles on the Arabian Peninsula and mostly ignored. It is worth mentioning that the 2018 agreements included ports as a space that must be protected in Yemen due to the tragic humanitarian conditions in that country. Hence, the need to provide aid was intended to make the parties to the civil war more cautious in their actions on the coasts. In the case of the Houthis, this turned out to be fiction, and the once famous case of lifting the blockade of the Hodeidah port can be treated as a ploy against the countries fighting against them.
The second premise, complicating the issue of Yemen’s Houthis, has also become visible recently, although it has been more or less hidden in recent years. It concerns the paramilitary equipment, or better military structures, at the disposal of the de facto rulers in Sana’a’s capital. Iran has not only created new opportunities for the Houthis by thinking about surviving civil war and foreign intervention but simultaneously has created a notional „Middle Eastern” (non-state) anti-access bubble A2/AD by preparing the Houthis for long-term campaigns against land and sea targets, even against countries with technological advantages. The first country to feel the effects of the new quality of the Houthi side was, of course, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which was attacked time and time again with missiles and unmanned systems.
Moreover, the mentioned Houthi-Iran tandem, in the course of shelling Saudi territory, somehow increased the scale of their military experiments - from the distance to the attacked locations to the strength of the warheads used, and ending with various attacks (UAVs or missiles) aimed at reducing the chances of Saudi air defense. Let us recall here that before the civil war, Yemen was a poor country (the poorest country on the entire Arabian Peninsula), underdeveloped, and without extensive arms production capabilities. Hence, the appearance of more or less complex weapons systems in this country, used on the Houthi side, undoubtedly leads to Iranian resources (primarily the Revolutionary Guards and the Ghods Forces). The Iranians smuggle construction elements to Yemen and assemble them there. There was a lot of evidence of this action, such as numerous interceptions of contraband by Western navy vessels. Unfortunately, due to the current media surprise with the Houthi case, the most famous in the Western media were thwarted the smuggling of small arms (carbines, rifles, or anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers), and not, for example, parts of anti-ship missiles.
Armed and determined to confront the West
But the most important thing was the fact that with the Saudi-Iranian agreements on Yemen, the military pressure on the Houthis disappeared. This new regional situation likely allowed Huthi to use 2023 to gather and expand resources without problems. The Israeli specialist think-tank ALMA emphasized that the Houthis did not even hide this fact and carried out a military parade in Sana’a on September 21 last year. Obsolete F-5 planes appear there, but it is challenging to consider this to be the result of the ” made in Yemen ” aviation industry restoration. Therefore, we must assume that the Iranians supported this process, not to mention the possibility of sending their own crews and ground staff there. These planes may be useless for attacking Navy vessels, but when it comes to merchant ships, the question arises about using them as scaremongers. However, the Houthi helicopter has already contributed to the campaign by landing a commando aboard the Galaxy Leader car carrier. Therefore, if there were an opportunity to use planes or helicopters for other attacks and a need for it, the Houthis would have no objections.
But we should move on to more critical threats than manned aircraft, which are few and can be relatively well intercepted over the Red Sea. Let’s start with the fact that at the parade mentioned above, the Houthis also presented small surface vessels from the Aseef-1, Aseef-2, and Aseef-3 families, as well as Tufan-2, Al-Malah, Shark-33 and Blowfish. There is a collection consisting of several pre-2014 modifications of equipment from Yemen’s armed forces and other security forces, as well as equipment smuggled from Iran and local (Iran-backed) modifications of civilian units confiscated by the Houthis.
We had a foretaste of their use recently when American helicopters had to repel an attack by them on one of the civilian units (attack on Maersk Hangzhou and the response of the US Navy using the resources of USS Eisenhower and USS Gravely). However, we should mention here that the Houthis can supplement manned boat attacks with attacks by naval surface units equipped with explosives and remotely controlled by operators. Interestingly, the Yemeni lesson about what the consequences may be goes back far into the past, i.e., to 2000. At that time, an American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, USS Cole, docked in the port of Aden and was attacked by terrorists.
Today, the scale of attacks can be increased quantitatively and qualitatively, and what is more, being a derivative of the Iranian and Ukrainian experiences. The exchange of Russian know-how and experience from the Black Sea with the Iranians should be considered (e.g., in the form of payment for Iranian military assistance to Russian armed forces). Hence, known for their local modifications and foreign equipment, the Iranians may sooner or later introduce their „own” naval unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), resembling the Ukrainian solutions intercepted by the Russians. Their natural environment for combat testing will be the waters of the Red Sea.
It has also been known for a long time that the Houthis have numerous naval mines with which they have harassed the Saudis and other members of the coalition since the beginning of the struggle after 2015. However, the Houthi parade in 2023 shows the scale of this type for both shipping and navy vessels operating as part of the „Prosperity Guardian” operation.
The Houthis are to have at their disposal Al-Mandab-1 (C-801), Al-Mandab-2 ( Noor missile family, including the Qader / Ghadir variant ), Saeed / Quds / Soumar anti-ship missiles GLCMs, various Robeige (P-15 Termit, but also Rubezh P-20 P-22). The Houthis make no secret of their possession of Quds Z-0, Quds-4, or Quds-2 cruise missiles. To complete this picture, we should recall the development of ballistic missile resources, e.g., Badr-2, Fateh-110, Borkan 3, Shahab 3, etc. Another essential element threatening to ship from the Houthis is their extensive arsenal of unmanned aerial systems, from Shahid 136, via Qasef 2k, Mesad-2, or Shihab. The mentioned Israeli think-tank ALMA suggests that this allows it to hit surface targets up to 200 or even 300 km away. Other estimates say it is possible to hit targets even 400 km away.
Houthis, not the first time, have threatened shipping lanes
It is not a new threat, even to the US Navy. An example is the incident with the USS Mason in October 2016, when the ship fired two Standard Missile-2 and one Evolved missile, Seasparrow Missile (ESSM), for self-defense against Yemeni anti-ship missiles. It is also worth recalling the incident with the HSV-2 Swift ship (also in 2016) belonging to the UAE Navy (United Arab Emirates). An attack was then carried out near the port of Mokha, according to media reports, using a C-802 Noor anti-ship missile supported by the Houthis. Of course, the number of missiles, drones, etc., remains an open question. Resources available for the Houthi arsenal are difficult to estimate precisely. However, we should assume that the Houthis, in cooperation with the Iranians, understand the relationship between quantity and quality, which they will use in the future, for example, by increasing the costs of replenishing interceptors on navy vessels belonging to the op. „Prosperity Guardian”. At this point, we encourage you to read the analysis by Defence24 titled: „Can the United States afford war with Iran?”, which explains several doubts in this regard.
The military parade in Sana’a allowed us to notice that the Houthis are not without advantages when it comes to radar technologies, and we should recognize that some of them might be currently located on the Yemeni coast. Moreover, the ISTAR complex is highly probably supplemented by the Iranians themselves, who were and are present in these waters through camouflaged civilian units and vessels of their navy. This combination further complicates the matter and makes treating the Houthis as a marginal threat impossible. Where the only challenge is to knock down more primitive UAVs. Now, we should recognize that the Houthis will test (depending on time and place) Western forces taking part in op. „Prosperity Guardian”.
And most importantly, they can also threaten to attack sea and land targets. Therefore, it increases the catalog of threats to various cities and critical infrastructure across the region. We must not forget that regardless of the show of force on parade, it was the Houthis (under pressure from foreign intervention) who not only survived but also skillfully conducted a long-term campaign of missile and drone attacks on targets in Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that there is no analysis and assessment of their command and control system about the current behavior towards shipping lanes.
Does any country have an idea of how to solve the Houthi problem?
The third premise refers to the minimal ability of countries interested in the safety of navigation in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait waters to counteract the Houthis. Operation „Prosperity Guardian” can only be seen as a temporary solution, formulated ad hoc but without the possibility of extending it indefinitely. Without actions on land (Somali authorities, including the establishment of new coast guard structures), as well as a combination of naval actions and private protection of PMCs (Private Military Companies or PSC Private Security Companies), it was challenging to stop ordinary pirates from Somalia. The Houthis are a parastatal structure that controls approximately 35 percent of the country’s population. It has access to the repeatedly mentioned cooperation with Iran and, therefore, has military resources at its disposal (some of the equipment is the remains of the Yemeni army, but we can assume that most of it is weaponry coming from new acquisitions). Again, we must underline that they have access to, or relatively complete control of, a long coastline, including ports. Therefore, the Houthis are a very dangerous opponent and perhaps a much more difficult one for Israel than Hamas.
Air operations (using unmanned and manned systems) and/or cruise missile strikes against targets in Yemen will also not be fully effective if they were to occur. The condition of Yemen’s air defense may be a problem, especially against targets such as drones (the American military UAV fell victim to them ). Above all, appropriate targeting is based on intelligence and other means of various sources. There may also be doubts about the subsequent assessment of the strikes. Of course, it would be possible to strengthen this effect by adding a special operations forces component. Still, in the current electoral situation in the US, it is difficult to assume that the presidential administration would agree to the risk of losses, for instance, SEALs or other SOF operators in Yemen. However, American commandos have hunted terrorists there many times in the past (some of the operations were probably successful and secret, but we also know about operations that resulted in American losses, e.g. in 2017).
It is also impossible to rely on the Navy and PMCs tandem, known from Somalia. It is difficult to assume that countries would agree to allow private contractors access to, for example, MANPADs (for fear of their proliferation and of damaging civilian aircraft). Here, unlike the Somali pirates, small groups of contractors equipped with carbines/rifles and non-lethal systems (during the counterpiracy operations, experiments being made with the use of, e.g., long-range acoustic device) will have no chances to secure merchant ships fully. Moreover, the account of the creators of the operation „Prosperity Guardian” with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates still raises many doubts. These countries are necessary for the conflict in Yemen to be resolved, apart from Iran, which is not interested in security in the region. For the Saudis and Emiratis, rekindling their actions against the Houthis without certainty of victory is a threat to their immediate defense. Both countries suffered military and non-military losses in actions against the Houthis. Their inclusion in BRICS together with Iran is also not optimistic, even realizing all the limitations of this structure led by Russia, China, and India (deliberately omitting Brazil and South Africa).
Only pessimistic scenarios for the future
Ultimately, it isn’t easy to expect that the authors of op. „Prosperity Guardian” would decide on a combination of attacks (a series of strikes) against the Houthis and a strict naval blockade and destruction of infrastructure on the coast of Yemen. They fear the natural humanitarian consequences, which the Houthis use so well, e.g., regarding the functioning of the Al-Hudaidah port.
There is no good solution to the problem of the threat from Yemen’s Houthis, and it will not be possible to present one shortly. Even if we optimistically assumed de-escalation on Israel’s borders with Gaza and Lebanon. The Houthis and the Iranians would not have to give up their activities attacking the West at the same time. The scale of demands towards the US and the West would likely increase, including those that could be impossible to meet by their nature. Especially since Sanaa and Tehran know best what an election year in the US is, and the Iranians, having held American hostages from a seized embassy in the 20th century, remember the opportunity to put pressure on the electoral process.
Unfortunately, against this background, all military and political actions are attempts to save the situation. However, it shows the importance of maritime capabilities in Europe and other (e.g., Indo-Pacific) Western countries to conduct naval activities in our region (North Sea, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, critical infrastructure in Europe undersea) and beyond. By strengthening Western naval resources, we might reduce the burden on the US Navy and a few selected countries of the world because we cannot win with geography for now, especially regarding the importance of shipping routes in the Red Sea.
And finally, a quote from 2016 and analysis by Defence24: „This does not change the fact that Yemen and its problems will be remembered by the international community sooner or later. Strikes on American warships are the first important warning. After all, civilian units moving in the waters in the area of the strategic route with Bab el-Mandeb in the center are not immune to even primitive attacks - especially if there were attempts at a massive campaign aimed at maritime navigation in this area, especially with the use of more effective missile systems, not, for example, boats filled with explosives. It is enough to recall the case of the MV Limburg tanker, which was the victim of a terrorist attack in 2002, and also point to the event in recent weeks when the HSV-2 Swift ship belonging to the UAE Navy was attacked. The attack near the port of Mokha was carried out, according to media reports, using the C-802 Noor anti-ship missile. That is why we now need to think even more about the problem of establishing a coherent strategy towards the Houthis and Yemen, as well as our approach to the so-called „frozen” and „peripheral” armed conflicts.