Hitting Houthis

Mina Adel, Wednesday 13 Mar 2024

Al-Ahram Weekly assesses the effects of Poseidon Archer on the Houthis.

Hitting Houthis


On 12 January in the Red Sea, F-18 US planes left the USS Eisenhower while their British allies flew over from Cyprus.

Manned by well-trained pilots who had taken part in the annual Red Flag exercises at the Nellis Air Base, they were waging Operation Poseidon Archer against the Houthis of Yemen. Seven weeks later US Central Command was still reporting intercepting Houthi ballistic missiles and drones — unmanned surface systems (USVs) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS), as they are technically known — targeting the USS Carney, a guided-missile destroyer in the Red Sea.

Along with ongoing attacks on commercial ships, the Houthis also found justification for their military campaign in the Gaza war, targeting the European task force (Aspides operation) that had engaged in combat, evidently without sufficient coordination with US forces. Already they have dragged the UK and the US into a long war in order to further distract US forces in a regional war from different sides.

It looks as if Iran controls mainly the harmony between its militias and the level of escalation, as attested by US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on 11 March: “Houthi and Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq are using the conflict in Gaza to implement their agendas.”

In the last few weeks, the Houthis fortified mountain hideouts for more secure missile launches based on intelligence gathered on the ground. These remote and rugged locations are being used to hide stockpiles of missiles, while mountainous heights of over 6,500 feet (nearly 2,000 metres) allow for the targeting of ships further out in the sea. According to Michael Horton speaking to Forbes, it is challenging to target the Houthis because their forces are mobile and dispersed.

To better understand the Houthi militias, let’s look at their arsenal, which includes ballistic missiles, USVs and UAVs. All of these weapons are unconventional and share the characteristics of being inexpensive to produce, effective in combat, and simple to use. These groups employ swarm tactics and an array of appropriate equipment to apply the strategic concept known as A2/AD, or anti-access/area denial, making it difficult to target them.

According to Fabian Hinz in an Institute of International Studies report, in military parades in 2022 and 2023, the Houthis unveiled two anti-ship versions of the Iranian Quds cruise missile with a range of 800 km. 

The parades also featured a variety of anti-ship ballistic missiles and guided rockets employing Iranian infrared or imaging infrared seeker technology with a range of 450-500 km. What the Houthis lack are intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) tools, with only an Iranian cargo vessel anchored in the Red Sea and perhaps coastal radar to provide them with information.

The British naval expert H I Sutton told the Covert Shores website that Houthis have used upgraded naval drones both above and below water to cut submarine communication cables in increasingly aggressive moves after their aerial missiles and drones were successfully repelled. The new drones could conceivably be launched against moving ships as a form of torpedo with an electro-optical or infrared guiding system, though attacking submarine targets will require better intelligence and planning.

Many experts in ship tracking have noted that Iran demonstrated its presence by smuggling missile parts and intelligence support. Of particular importance is the Behshad, a ship that has been linked to an increase in Houthi attacks in the same area since it moved from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden near Djibouti. The Iranian navy has sent vessels to protect the Behshad, but this did not shield it from British-American cyber attacks.

According to Captain James Huddleston, an air wing deputy commander on the USS Eisenhower speaking to CNN, fighter jets circle the Red Sea daily, ready to strike Houthi targets. An air-sea battle strategy integrating multinational air units to form “composite air operations” using up to 50 aircraft will work in three stages: initial attack with cruise missiles, selective attack with smart bombs, and bomb-damage assessment followed by retargeting with missiles.

This, in addition to continuously tracking, monitoring, and targeting Houthi command, control, and reconnaissance systems, which the Houthis attempt to prevent using defence systems such as Thaqeb, but the US Navy’s aircraft destroyed the systems with a deadly combination of F18 E/F, EA 18 G and MQ9 drones to secure British Typhoon planes while penetrating Yemeni airspace and attacking ground targets with precision bombs.

One relatively invisible party is the Chinese navy, which is represented by an intelligence hub at its own harbour in Djibouti, with the 45th fleet in place and the 46th scheduled to arrive soon, according to Andie Parry speaking to Breaking Defense.

The security expert also said that the Russians and Chinese are watching closely how US and Israeli-made systems intercept the weapons the Houthis are firing — testing them for the benefit of Moscow and Beijing.

On March 11, Russia said a group of its warships, led by the heavy cruiser Varyag, had arrived in Iran to take part in drills with Iran and China in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The joint exercises, called “Maritime Security Belt 2024”, will involve warships and aviation. The practical part of the exercise will take place in the waters of the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea, according to Reuters.

So far Houthi missiles and drones continue to hit targets and strike ships on a daily basis, raising doubts about the Prosperity Guardian operation, which hasn’t received the expected support from European or Arab countries prioritising a political solution.

Airstrikes which continued until the night of 11 March, killing at least 11 people and injuring 14 others, did not succeed as expected.

This places the Americans in an awkward place since what the Red Sea crisis requires is a quick end to Israeli aggression in Gaza. In the meantime, China is gaining combat experience, which it will undoubtedly use when implementing future combat scenarios in the Pacific.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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