To Deter Houthi Strikes in Red Sea, US Must Turn From Defense to Offense

As Israel continues its counter-attack against Hamas in Gaza, Houthi rebels in Yemen have stepped up their aerial assaults on international shipping in the Red Sea. In this op-ed, former vice admirals Mark I. Fox and John W. Miller, who each served in top positions for American forces in the region, and Ari Cicurel of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) argue that the US must do more to make the Houthi’s back off — including direct strikes.

The United States has hardly begun to stick its finger in the dam against the wave of Iranian and Houthi maritime aggression in Middle Eastern waters. On Dec. 18, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the creation of a new multinational task force, Operation Prosperity Guardian, to protect shipping through the Red Sea.

The US must match the announcement of this important measure with substantive action. Deterring and degrading the ability of the Iranian regime and the Houthis to launch these attacks requires consistent and strong military strikes against the Houthi fighters in Yemen responsible for conducting them — something no one has yet been willing to do.

Safeguarding the global freedom of navigation through international waterways, in particular key Middle Eastern maritime chokepoints, is a core US interest as a maritime nation and is vital to the health of the global economy. Approximately 10 percent of global trade transits the Red Sea, and 8.8 million barrels of oil per day travel through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait between Yemen and Djibouti in the Red Sea. Underscoring the importance of these passages, the Ever Given container ship’s blockage of the Suez Canal in 2021 cost an estimated $9.6 billion daily.

Reflecting this importance, a core principle of the 2022 National Security Strategy was to “not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways.” Yet, the United States has not deterred Iran or the Houthis from disrupting global shipping.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the Iranian regime and its Houthi affiliate force in Yemen have purportedly conducted over 33 incidents of maritime aggression involving firing over 100 missiles and drones at commercial vessels, illegally seizing them, and harassing US Navy and coalition ships in Middle Eastern waters. The approximately 27 incidents of Iran-linked maritime aggression in December alone surpassed the 20 incidents throughout the rest of 2023 combined, according to data compiled by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). The Iran-linked maritime aggression indicates that the Houthis and their benefactors in Tehran seek to escalate their pressure not only against Israel but on the entire global economy.

The attacks are already having an economic effect, with some ships avoiding the faster route through Middle Eastern waterways by taking the longer and more costly route around Africa. BP and five major shipping companies, French CMA CGM, Danish Maersk, Hong Kong-based OOCL, German Hapag-Lloyd, and the Italian-Swiss-owned Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s largest shipping company, suspended their travel through the Red Sea. Maersk has announced it will resume shipping through the Red Sea after the announcement of the new maritime task force, but any long-term suspension or decline of transit through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal would be devastating to Egypt’s economy and the ongoing global cost of international maritime commerce.

The Iran and Houthi aggression at sea is the result of a widespread deterioration in deterrence against the Iranian regime. The US has, so far, avoided military force against the Houthis entirely and instead responded with economic sanctions. Elsewhere in the region, Iran-backed groups have also launched at least 105 attacks targeting US forces in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17, but the US has only conducted seven strikes targeting minor elements of those forces. Washington has yet to reach even a limited effort of deterrence toward the Houthis.

While US naval deployments, including the USS Gerald R. Ford and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Groups, have intercepted missiles and drones targeting vessels on several occasions, the reticence to target the Houthis and other Iran-backed groups has not only failed to deter further attacks but also encouraged them.

Contrary to fears from US officials and some regional partners that greater action could expand the Israel-Hamas war to the rest of the region, US restraint encourages the Iranian regime and the Houthis to continue their aggression and further undermines deterrence against the Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.

Saudi Arabia has been reportedly concerned that strikes against the Houthis could reignite its conflict with the terrorist group that sits along its border with Yemen. From 2015 until a ceasefire in April 2022, the Houthis launched over 1,800 projectiles at Saudi targets according to JINSA’s Iran Projectile Tracker. Yet, allowing the Houthis to continue their maritime aggression would encourage the Houthis and the Iranian regime to restart hostilities anyway under the belief that the United States and its partners are unwilling to use force against them.

Deterrence requires a clear US willingness to launch consistent, forceful strikes in Yemen that target the Houthi fighters and Iranian assets there to hold the Iranian regime directly accountable for the aggression it enables.

Securing Middle Eastern waterways is not a task for the United States alone. The creation of Operation Prosperity Guardian to better protect the Red Sea is a valuable step to organize partners around concerted action to deter and counter Iran-backed maritime aggression. The new task force will include 20 nations, with only the United States, the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain willing to publicly signal their involvement. It will operate under the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) Task Force 153 for Red Sea security, but, Spain, Italy, and France have reportedly rejected plans to have their naval assets under US Navy command.

Regardless, US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) can immediately leverage other task forces in the CMF and International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC). The CMF and IMSC already have task forces focused on disrupting threats to international shipping in Middle Eastern waterways that could take more assertive postures through concerted US leadership.

So far, the United States has restricted itself to playing defense against the escalation of Iran-backed attacks. As long as that is the case, Iran and the Houthis will stay on offense.

Retired US VADM Mark I. Fox served as deputy chief of US Central Command. Retired US VADM John W. Miller served as Commander, US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT)/Commander, US Fifth Fleet. Both were participants on JINSA’s 2018 Generals and Admirals Program. Ari Cicurel is the assistant director of foreign policy at JINSA.

Originally published in Breaking Defense.