Over the past two months, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have launched over 20 missile and drone attacks targeting commercial ships in the southern Red Sea and Bab El Mandeb Strait. These attacks have disrupted global trade and challenged the U.S. and its allies to defend one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Missile Strikes Container Ship on New Year’s Eve
The latest attack occurred on December 31 when a missile launched by the Houthis struck a containership operated by Ocean Network Express in international waters in the southern Red Sea. The Marshall Islands-flagged vessel sustained minor damage but no injuries were reported among the crew.
Shortly after, two more anti-ship missiles were detected heading towards a vessel transiting the strait. U.S. Navy guided missile destroyers USS Nitze and USS Mason intercepted the missiles using SM-2 missiles.
This incident comes just days after the Houthis targeted a containership operated by Danish firm AP Moller-Maersk on December 26. The U.S. Navy intercepted five missiles and 12 drones during that attack.
Ongoing Threat Disrupts Key Shipping Lane
The Red Sea is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, carrying approximately 12% of global trade each year. The southern end of the Red Sea and the narrow Bab El Mandeb strait serve as a critical chokepoint through which much of that traffic passes.
|Oil, consumer goods, machinery
|Oil, consumer goods, machinery
|Bab El Mandeb Strait
|4.8 million barrels of oil per day
|Crude oil, refined petroleum
These waters have become increasingly perilous in recent months due to the Houthis’ long-range missile and drone attacks. From late October through December, the U.S. military logged 23 separate attacks targeting commercial vessels transiting the region.
The Houthis say the attacks are retaliatory measures against nations supporting the Saudi-led coalition that has been bombing the rebels since 2015. The rebels threatened further strikes against vessels tied to Israel after alleging one of the recent targets had Israel connections.
While damage has been minimal so far, the repeated attacks are rattling ship owners and insurers. Some vessels have opted to transit much longer alternate routes around the Cape of Good Hope rather than risk the Red Sea, adding greatly to costs and delivery times. But others continue to rely on the strategic waterway.
U.S. and Allies Struggle with Response
The United States and allied naval forces have stepped up defenses in the region but have struggled to deter the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates lead a naval coalition supporting Yemen’s internationally recognized government against the Houthi rebels. The U.S. Navy also routinely stations warships in Middle East waters.
These forces have successfully intercepted numerous Houthi missiles and drones using ship-based defensive weapons. However, they have not curtailed the overall pace of attacks.
“There are no signs that these reckless and dangerous attacks are diminishing,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, who oversees U.S. naval forces in the region. “This activity seriously undermines freedom of navigation through a critical global trade route.”
Limited intelligence on Houthi capabilities and plans has hampered defensive efforts. The U.S. is reluctant to directly strike Houthi missile launch sites within Yemen for fear of escalating its role in the conflict.
Meanwhile, the shipping industry is urging governments to bolster protection for commercial vessels. Further disruptions along the Red Sea corridor could have ripple effects for global supply chains and energy markets in 2023.
Outlook Hinges on Wider Yemen Peace Push
Ultimately, securing the Red Sea will require negotiating an end to Yemen’s 8-year civil war. The U.N. has recently ramped up diplomatic efforts to broker a nationwide ceasefire and transitional government.
Past attempts at peace talks have failed to stem Houthi attacks, but some observers hope the rebels’ benefactor Iran could pressure them to stand down.
“As the Houthis’ main backer, Iran has leverage to influence their strategic calculus,” said Elana DeLozier, a Yemen analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
However, others worry the repeated Red Sea strikes may instead embolden the Houthis by revealing vulnerabilities among their opponents. Much depends on whether the rebels see more strategic value in continuing their campaign targeting regional shipping and energy infrastructure.
Absent a peace deal, the waters off Yemen seem poised for further turbulence in 2023. U.S. commanders expect the Houthis to continue periodic attacks while working to enhance their maritime strike capabilities. That leaves the Navy and allies racing to bolster defenses across a vast, challenging area.