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The Houthi air strikes aren’t working, by Philip Pilkington


The Houthi air strikes aren’t working, by Philip Pilkington

Over the weekend the United States and United Kingdom launched a fourth round of missile and air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen. In a joint statement it was announced that 18 targets in 8 locations were hit, including “underground weapons storage facilities, missile storage facilities, one-way attack unmanned aerial systems, air defence systems, radars, and a helicopter”.

Yet these strikes come as the crisis in the Red Sea region worsens. Earlier in the week Houthis struck the British freighter Rubymar with an anti-shipping missile, prompting the ship to be abandoned. Photographs show that it is half-submerged in the water, and so will likely have to be sunk. This is the first ship that the Houthis have truly destroyed.

What’s more, the Houthis are now using unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), otherwise known as submarine drones. The UUVs appear to be supplied by Iran, and have wiring attached which allows them to be operated from the shore. They are effectively cheap guided torpedoes and, since they operate underwater, are extremely hard to detect.

It is now increasingly clear that the Red Sea is becoming a testing ground for new Iranian weaponry, and the Houthis have already achieved their goal of imposing an effective naval blockade in the region. Freight container shipping volumes through the region have fallen around 80% since the start of the year, demonstrating that the new weaponry is provoking a response from American and British ships.

China and Iran have ships in the region monitoring the situation and are no doubt collecting invaluable information on Western defence systems that could be used in a future conflict in either the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea. This raises the question of why the Americans and the British are intervening in the way they are. Why would they give their rivals this sort of information? Presumably they justify their presence and the strikes in Yemen because these damage the capacity of the Houthis to harass commercial ships — but the data simply does not show this.

We can look at three broad periods since the attacks started. Between 19 November and 17 December, the Houthis attacked commercial ships without any interference from Western navies. The Western navies then launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, using naval air defence to protect shipping in the region, on 18 December. On 12 January they moved from a defensive to an offensive posture, beginning the missile and air strikes in Yemen.

Notably, when Operation Prosperity Guardian was launched it barely impacted the rate of attacks, with the number per day falling from 0.39 to 0.38, a statistically insignificant decline. But since Britain and America started their strikes in Yemen on 12 January, the number of attacks has increased substantially to 0.53 per day.

Clearly, then, the American and British strikes are proving counterproductive, serving only to stir the hornet’s nest and increase Houthi aggression. Combine this with the fact they are providing adversaries with intelligence on Western naval defensive systems, and it raises serious questions about the wisdom of the military action. Why are Western leaders continuing to undertake these strikes despite all the evidence showing they are having an entirely opposite effect?

The likely reason is due to what we might call “do something-ism”. “Do something-ism” results from a weak leadership class feeling the need to act when an enemy or a rival engages in a provocation, even if such actions are counterproductive. Weak leaders are unable to make difficult decisions based on evidence and logic, and instead lash out — even if ineffectively — so that it looks as if they are addressing a problem. The fish rots from the head down in such situations, and the rotten head is currently sitting in the Oval Office in Washington DC.

Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional, and the author of The Reformation in Economics

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