Guarding Red Sea traffic isn’t doing the job, so the US must plan for military strikes on land.
A series of brazen attacks in the Red Sea and North Arabian Sea by Yemen’s Houthi rebels against merchant shipping and US Navy warships have roiled global shipping lanes. More than 15% of the world’s trade passes through these vast waters, and many of the major shipping companies — Maersk, MSC, Evergreen — have put voyages through them on pause.
These Houthi pirates are trained, equipped, organized and directed by Iran. Unlike the Somali pirates of a decade ago, with their rusty AK-47s, flip-flops and small speedboats, these Houthis have modern helicopters, SEAL-like armament and skills, ground-based missiles, and are clearly operating with significant intelligence support in finding and fixing their targets.
The mullahs’ latest provocation is to send a warship, the destroyer Alborz, through the Bab el Mandeb Strait and into the Red Sea, ostensibly to protect the Houthis from US defensive military action.
The US has increased the number of warships operating in the region, putting a carrier strike group and a half dozen guided-missile destroyers and cruisers on alert. But given the enormous space of the Red Sea alone, roughly the size of California, that force is not sufficient to thwart the threat. Over the past weeks, since Israel has ramped its counterattack into Gaza, the Houthis have fired scores of drones and cruise and ballistic missiles (some directly at US warships) and attacked more than 30 merchant ships.
Clearly, the Houthis and their masters in Tehran are not getting the cease-and-desist message from Washington. What are the logical next steps that can create deterrence — without leading to a regional war with Iran?
Certainly, strengthening the defensive side of the equation can help. The new Operation Prosperity Guardian is a US-led coalition to defend shipping lanes, with a dozen nations so far joining — albeit not two vital allies: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Using those warships, under the direction of the US Fifth Fleet headquartered in Bahrain, to manage protected convoys through the Red Sea would add to the deterrent effect against the Houthi.
Yet increased defense alone is probably not going to carry the day. The Pentagon needs to provide President Joe Biden with a set of options that use combat power to deter the Houthis and their sponsors in Tehran.
First, US rules of engagement need to be modified to permit offensive action against verified Houthi targets at sea. Last weekend, US helicopters correctly engaged and destroyed several Houthi speedboats, killing crewmembers. This kind of hunt-and-strike activity should continue, and is fully justified under international law permitting preemptive attacks on threats associated with a pirate operation.
A good second step would be strikes ashore at known Houthi infrastructure. These could include fuel depots, ammunition depots, repair facilities, floating and fixed docks, airfields and helicopter maintenance facilities — again, all legitimate targets given their use in piracy. The US needs to stop just defending against the figurative arrows — firing million-dollar cruise missiles at cheap drones is a losing long-term proposition — and stop the archers ashore.
Third, if the Houthis do not cease their operations after proportional attacks against their maritime assets, we may need to up the ante by striking more broadly at their military capability. In their civil war, they have built up considerable combat power to use against the government of Yemen and its Saudi and Emirati allies. Thus there are plenty of ripe Houthi military targets ashore: fuel and ammunition depots, ground-assault vehicles, training facilities, command-and-control nodes. Striking them would do real damage to Houthi efforts to overthrow the Yemeni government. This would likely be done with ship-fired Tomahawk cruise missiles, which have a range of 1,500 miles and pinpoint accuracy.
A fourth, and highly controversial, level of escalation would be to attack Iranian assets directly. This would need to be done with careful justification based on hard, provable intelligence of links between Tehran and the Houthis. Open-source reporting suggests that is eminently available.
Before striking Iranian targets, the US and its partners would need to publicly and privately inform the Iranians that the cease-and-desist order to the Houthis applies to their military support as well — and that unless the attacks stop, significant strikes would be forthcoming.
Any campaign against Iran would need to be a carefully calibrated series of escalating attacks, with built-in pauses allowing Tehran to stop the Houthi piracy. Initial targets could be selected to minimize loss of life, perhaps striking command-and-control facilities on offshore platforms in the Gulf and North Arabian Sea.
A next level of strike could be against ships used to ferry weapons to the Houthis, perhaps while the vessels were in port. US cyberattacks on Iranian military communications are also a possibility.
If the Iranians remained uncompliant, the next series of strikes could be directed against their naval capabilities on land, possibly ammunition depots, repair facilities, and dockyards. At the far end of the spectrum would be direct attacks on Iranian warships – proportional to the attacks being conducted by the Houthis on our Navy vessels. Iran’s naval defenses are hardly the equal of our own.
This fourth level of a campaign would bring serious danger of escalation: a widening of the war in Gaza into a regional conflict and potentially dragging the US back into a high level of combat in the Middle East. It is not a step to be taken lightly.
But in the late 1980s, after Iran mined the Strait of Hormuz and a US frigate struck a mine and nearly sank, the Navy destroyed much of the Iranian naval combat power in Operation Praying Mantis. Iran got the message. Perhaps it is time to send it again.
Stavridis is also vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is on the boards of Fortinet, NFP, Ankura Consulting Group and Neuberger Berman, and has advised Shield Capital, a firm that invests in the cybersecurity sector.