Attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels against commercial shipping vessels transiting the southern Red Sea have dramatically increased over the past week, prompting military retaliation from an international naval coalition led by the United States. These escalating skirmishes underscore the strategic importance of Red Sea shipping lanes, while heightening tensions between the Houthis and the military coalition supporting the internationally recognized government of Yemen.
Background of the Conflict
Yemen has been embroiled in a complex civil war since 2014, when the Houthis–a Zaidi Shia Muslim rebel movement aligned with Iran–seized control of the capital Sana’a and ousted the government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. In 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a Sunni Arab military coalition to support Hadi’s government, launching an air campaign targeting the Houthi rebels. This sparked one of the worst humanitarian crises of modern times, with close to 400,000 people killed either directly or indirectly from the conflict.
Despite a UN-brokered ceasefire earlier this year that brought a temporary respite to hostilities, the situation remains highly volatile. The Houthis have a long history of attacking vessels around the Bab el-Mandeb strait in the southern Red Sea–a critical chokepoint channeling cargo between Europe and Asia. These ongoing assaults intensify pressures on global supply chains already strained by pandemic disruptions.
Recent Spike in Houthi Red Sea Attacks
According to US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), the frequency of Houthi attacks against commercial vessels in Red Sea shipping lanes has dramatically escalated since December 23rd. The rebels targeted a liquid natural gas tanker near the Yemeni port of Al-Mokha on December 23rd, prompting return fire from an international naval coalition protecting shipping lanes. While no damage or injuries occurred in that incident, it marked the start of an extremely tense week in one of the world’s busiest maritime passages.
Between December 25th-27th, US and allied naval forces intercepted over 30 inbound drones and cruise missiles launched by Houthi forces, mostly targeting vessels transiting the southern Red Sea between Yemen and Eritrea. The drones appear to have been supplied by Iran to its Houthi proxies. US Navy guided missile destroyers and F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier shot down 17 Houthi unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on December 26th alone.
|# of Inbound Drones/Missiles Intercepted
On December 27th, a Houthi projectile struck and damaged the Marshall Island-flagged container vessel MSC United VIII, operated by Swiss-based Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC). The crew enacted emergency procedures and the ship continued on its voyage, sustaining only minor exterior damage above the waterline. The Houthis subsequently claimed responsibility for additional attempted drone and missile strikes against vessels on December 27th.
Why the Red Sea Matters
The recent spike in attacks highlights why the Red Sea and surrounds are so strategically vital. The southern entrance to the Suez Canal lies at the north end of the Red Sea, funnelling more than 10% of global trade between Asia and Europe. Hundreds of commercial ships–including oil tankers and giant container vessels–pass through its waters every day. Bab el-Mandeb also abuts one of the most active global shipping routes, used by tankers carrying Persian Gulf oil exports to European and North American markets. With Russia’s war in Ukraine exacerbating energy supply fears, ensuring crude shipments can transit safely past Yemen takes on heightened importance.
Beyond shipping lanes, the safety of regional allies factors heavily in deliberations over securing Red Sea transit. Bordering countries like Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia rely heavily on free passage through Bab el-Mandeb for both seaborne trade and energy imports. The narrow strait essentially represents an unguarded back door into the Arabian peninsula. If the Houthis managed to blockade or heavily mine the passage, the economic effects would reverberate globally while directly threatening US partners in the region.
International Response to Safeguard Shipping
The recent Houthi attacks have been met with forceful retaliation from the US and allies. At the forefront of efforts to repel Houthi drones and missiles stands the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group, currently on patrol in the northern Arabian Sea near the Gulf of Aden. Supporting the Theodore Roosevelt are several Arleigh Burke-class destroyers like the USS Laboon and USS The Sullivans, which used SM-2 surface-to-air missiles to successfully intercept Houthi projectiles.
To provide further defensive coverage, a multinational naval coalition began joint patrols in the southern Red Sea this week under the banner of Operation Prosperity Guardian. The UK, France, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Jordan, Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen (Hadi government forces) have all contributed assets, including warships and maritime patrol aircraft. This operation will focus on strengthening air defenses around high-risk transit corridors while gathering intelligence on Houthi operations.
So far no US or allied warships have directly engaged Houthi shore positions in retaliation. But one US defense official warned that “all options remain on the table” if attacks continue. Rather than risky offensive action, the priority lies in shielding merchant vessels from harm. However the US military has started repositioning amphibious assault ships and additional fighter squadrons closer to Yemen, signaling readiness to potentially assist coalition partners like Saudi Arabia with strikes against Houthi coastal launch sites.
Escalatory Risks and the Road Ahead
While it remains unlikely that either side wants all-out war, the risks of miscalculation run high. The Houthis so far show no signs of halting or decreasing the tempo of Red Sea attacks; their spokesman recently vowed to “cut off” the vital maritime channel. They may continue attempting sporadic drone or cruise missile strikes to coerce naval forces into withdrawing.
However for the US and allies, acquiescing to Houthi control over Red Sea shipping lanes stands as an non-starter. Letting Iranian proxies threaten access to Suez and Persian Gulf transit corridors would constitute a massive strategic setback. Containing further escalation poses a tricky balancing act–offering too tepid of a response risks emboldening the Houthis, while disproportionate retaliation might draw Iran itself more directly into the conflict.
Most concerning is if the Houthis shift tactics from harassment to actively attempting to sink commercial vessels, as some security experts worry may occur. Houthi missile technology has steadily improved thanks to Iranian assistance, enhancing risks to large tankers or container ships difficult to maneuver away from incoming fire. The economic impacts of a sunken hull blocking shipping lanes could quickly spiral out of control, given the logjam it would create.
While protagonists on both sides have valid reasons to avoid plunging into full-scale war, the ingredients for miscalculation abound. The White House continues publicly urging de-escalation and supporting UN-led peace efforts. Yet with the Houthis so far unresponsive to diplomatic entreaties, naval forces seem braced for the long haul shadowing cargo vessels through precarious Red Sea passages. The economic costs of prolonged insecurity in regional shipping lanes may soon become apparent in higher insurance premiums and fuel prices. For now the Southern Red Sea remains a dangerously volatile flashpoint inurgent need of cooling, before an errant missile or drone strike triggers uncontrolled widening of this complex proxy conflict.
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