In harm’s way and on the defensive: US and UK warships in the Red Sea can fight but cannot win (2024)

As all the world now knows, Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond knocked down a Houthi ballistic missile heading for a US merchant ship this week.

Life aboard Diamond just now will be a mix of pride, focus and fatigue. Pride in a job well done exactly as required by the mission. Focus because they are not done yet.

But then fatigue. Running a ‘six hours on, six hours off’ routine and only sleeping for a maximum of five hours at a time is draining enough, even before you are in a high-threat environment. The ship’s companywill be sick of the General Alarm waking them from their precious hours off because there is another missile in the air and they need to go to Action Stations – wondering on the way there ‘Is this one coming for us?’

On the latest occasion two days ago it was not. The Houthi ballistic missile was heading for the US-flagged Maersk Yorktown but was shot down by one of Diamond’s Aster missiles. US and Royal Navy cooperation is still excellent.

But the brilliance of Diamond’s work is covered elsewhere in this paper so I’m going to look at the bigger picture which, sadly, is less rosy. In fact, it might be an example of how you can win a battle but still lose the war.

The Houthi desired end states are to disrupt Freedom of Navigation in the Bab el Mandeb strait and surrounding seas, stretch opposition resources and improve their internal standing. They are achieving all three.

The allied end state is to restore Freedom of Navigation. We are failing.

There are a host of statistics to support this but the main one is that traffic through the strait and on to the Suez Canal is down 50 per cent on ‘normal’ and holding steady – with direct economic effects on us. Generally speaking, the larger and more valuable ships such as box ships and gas carriers are avoiding it in higher numbers and the smaller, easier-to-insure ships such as bulk carriers are still running the gauntlet, in addition to ships from say Russia and China who believe they will not be attacked.

The bottom line is that for Q1 of 2024, a small militia with geographical advantage, just about acceptable levels of intelligence gathering, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of average munitions and a developed sense of how to not escalate too far has choked a strategically important waterway to the tune of 50 per cent – probably more if you look at money rather than numbers of hulls – in defiance of a sizeable coalition.

And nothing is changing for the better. The madness of running two operations side by side, one led by the US, one by the EU, remains. The number of warships deployed hasn’t gone up, in fact, if anything, it’s going down. The rate of counter-strikes on the Houthis remains slow but steady but with only two countries, the US and UK, contributing.

The Houthi rate of fire is at least lower than it was earlier this year but that is probably as much to do with the lack of ships to shoot at than the diminishing effect of the counter-strikes on them. Or it could be because their intelligence gathering and weapons transhipment vessel, the infamous MV Behshad, is currently alongside in Iran. This could be significant or it could just be that the bad guys need a break too. Either way, as the Yorktown was being attacked, US forces engaged a further four drones which the Houthis claimed were fired at ‘Israeli ship’ MSC Veracruz. This is far from over.

For freedom of navigation to be restored the Houthis have to stop firing. This can happen one of three ways. First, because they choose to – they have always claimed that a cease-fire in Gaza would trigger this. Many have their doubts, the more so as the current Houthi missile campaign against shipping is not new. It has actually been underway well back into the teens, but it was much more limited then. It probably won’t just stop.

Second, the Houthis might reduce back to the levels of the past because they are persuaded/told to by diplomatic efforts or by Iran. This still seems the most likely route to success – but clearly not yet.

Finally, the Houthis could be made to cease fire by choking their supply lines (there are dozens, but they all come from one place) and strikes so punitive that they cannot continue. This is harder to do than most people realise and impossible to do without escalating the conflict. This is the reason why the only country that could suppress the Houthis by hard power, the US, has elected not to. You can disagree with this backward-leaning posture as vehemently as you like, but it doesn’t change the picture.

Things can’t go on like this forever. At the moment, the operational basics of sustaining our ships on task are in place – command and control in Bahrain, rotating hulls, replenishing missiles and ammunition, base port support in Gibraltar (showing, as ever, the value of the UK’s overseas network).

But what’s the requirement? Is another Type 45 such as HMS Duncan working up to take over from Diamond this summer or will we send a frigate such as HMS Iron Duke – only partially equipped for anti-air warfare – instead? Or will Diamond leave without replacement as some countries are starting to do?

I don’t know but I do know that the cost, in every sense, is climbing.

We can’t just walk away either. Shipping would eventually adjust (albeit at higher freight and insurance rates) but from a messaging perspective, it would be a disaster: the combined might of the world’s finest navies couldn’t defeat a rag-tag militia and when it got tough, they gave up. Ignoring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 to now is a clear indication of where that sort of policy leads you.

The Houthis stopping on their own seems as unlikely as ever and we can’t whack them as it will escalate. So the only real solution is to turn up the heat on Iran through diplomatic channels, a lot if necessary. This doesn’t mean striking them by the way – the portion of my military career spent in Middle East plans convinced me that this is a bad idea. It’s impossible to know what is going on in those channels but it’s clear that at the moment it isn’t working. In fact, Iran’s missile and drone strike into Israel shows the arrow going the wrong way.

It’s conceivable (likely if you’re a pessimist) given the general situation, and with Iran getting ever closer to having a nuclear weapon, that events ashore will force an escalation, either calculated or by miscalculation, at which point the tolerance for more aggressive measures by the US and its allies will go up.

But for now, the strategy in the Southern Red Sea seems to be one of hope and that is never a good thing. HMS Diamond and the other ships there are doing an excellent job, but they will also be looking at their watches wondering how long they will be asked to stay in harm’s way, fighting hard without any chance to win.

In harm’s way and on the defensive: US and UK warships in the Red Sea can fight but cannot win (2024)


Do attacks on US warships justify self defense against Houthis forces ashore? ›

Attacks on U.S. Warships Justify Self-Defense Against Houthi Forces Ashore. The international law on the use of force in self-defense authorizes U.S. strikes against Houthi missile and drone bases in Yemen to protect American warships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

How much does a sea viper missile cost? ›

The destroyer HMS Diamond began shooting down Houthi drones on 16 December using Sea Viper missiles that cost at least £1m each.

What type of warship is used to defend battle group against small attacks? ›

Destroyers: A destroyer is a fast, manoeuvrable, long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against powerful short range attackers.

What does the Navy protect U.S. from? ›

The role of America's Navy is both vast and dependent upon circ*mstance. It involves everything from engaging in combat and warfare support, to keeping waterways safe and open for global commerce, to deterring sea piracy and drug trafficking.

Can Trident missiles be shot down? ›

It is important to note that in the first-boost- phase after firing Trident missiles travel comparatively slowly and are thus easier to shoot down.

How good is the Sea Viper missile? ›

In service for more than a decade, Sea Viper – the name covers the entire weapons system, including two radars, the command system and the Aster missile which is Viper's 'bite' – can currently track hundreds of potential threats to an individual ship or task group at ranges up to 250 miles, and eliminate them when they ...

How many tomahawks does the UK have? ›

Royal Navy

In 1995, the US agreed to sell 65 Tomahawks to the UK for torpedo-launch from their nuclear attack submarines. The first missiles were acquired and test-fired in November 1998; all Royal Navy fleet submarines are now Tomahawk capable, including the Astute-class.

How do U.S. destroyers keep shooting down Houthi missiles? ›

Since then, American guided-missile destroyers have swatted down numerous drones and missiles using radar and missile systems designed to protect aircraft carriers from sophisticated mass attacks—and the fight isn't even close.

Have the Houthis targeted U.S. ships? ›

Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi armed group says it attacked US and Israeli vessels, with a Western coalition of warships defending amid the continuing fallout from the war on Gaza.

Why are the Houthis shooting at ships? ›

Why are the Houthis attacking Red Sea ships? In response to the war in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis started firing drones and missiles towards Israel. Most have been intercepted. On 19 November, the Houthis hijacked a commercial ship in the Red Sea.

Are the Houthis still attacking ships? ›

The Houthis have been conducting near daily attacks on commercial and military ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, launching drones and missiles from rebel-held areas of Yemen. The attacks -- which are often unsuccessful but at times have struck the ships — have disrupted a crucial shipping route.

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