Foreign Policy: The US Navy and its allies are unable to stop the Houthis, and we must adapt to the new situation

Foreign Policy magazine has affirmed that the US and its Western allies have failed, after months of intensive operations, to restore stability in the Red Sea, global shipping has had to come to terms with a new normal where delays, derangements, and higher costs are only getting worse.

Follow ups – Al-Khabar Al-Yemeni:

According to a report by the magazine translated by Al-Khabar Al-Yemeni, that the world’s premier navies appear to be struggling to subdue a band of insurgents raises painful questions about both the utility of sea power and the proficiency of the Western navies that are meant to carry the burden in any future showdown with a major rival such as China. The U.S. Navy admits that it has been in the sharpest fight it has faced since World War II.

The magazine in its report sought to answer the question of why America and the West can’t stop the Houthis in the Red Sea. “The Houthis have proven to be quite the formidable force. This is a nonstate actor that fields a larger arsenal and is really able to give a headache to the Western coalition,” said Sebastian Bruns, a naval expert at the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security and the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. “This is as high-end as it gets for now, and when navies are having a problem with sustainment at this level, it is really worrisome.”

The magazine explained that disruptions in shipping in the Red Sea were not expected to last long, especially after the arrival on the scene of Western navies to restore security; insurance premiums for shippers actually fell slightly when the joint U.S.-British deployment was announced. And costs for shipping settled down in the spring, despite the ongoing campaign, but after eight months, the disruption to shipping has suddenly gotten a lot worse. In late June, Houthi attacks sank a ship—the second since they began their attacks—and damaged another. The list of attempted and successful attacks is a year-to-date litany; U.S. Central Command’s public messaging is a near-daily drumbeat of reports of U.S. vessels swatting away drones, missiles, and uncrewed surface vessels. The Houthis, who’ve used anti-ship missiles to great effect, are now increasingly resorting to those surface drones, including the so-called Houthi’s Blowfish.

Not all the impacts are quite as visible as the explosions that damaged the Transworld Navigator late last month, but they are painful all the same. Traffic through the Suez Canal, an important source of earnings for Egypt, is down by at least half, with tonnage down even more. Ships going the long way around the canal add time and money, resulting in everyone incurring the costs of tying ship hulls at the same time. As a result, the costs for a shipping container have soared from around $1,600 or so on average to well over $5,000, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights. Prices are now higher than they were at the peak of the Red Sea panic earlier this year.

When a container ship diverts around Africa, it increases the direct cost of shipping by adding 10 days, a lot of miles, and a lot of fuel to the trip, said Chris Rogers, the head of supply chain research at S&P Global Market Intelligence. “But the big issue is that it effectively reduces the available capacity on the entire system” by about 6%, he added.

According to the magazine report, “the Houthis” in the small, impoverished country of Yemen have managed to cause panic in the global economy and disrupt some of the world’s most powerful naval forces. The report highlights the lack of significant success by American and British forces and a rotating group of European ships in restoring shipping conditions. Evidence of this is the fact that war risk insurance rates for ships risking passage through the dangerous strait are still around 1000% higher than pre-conflict levels. One insurance company even launched a special, first-of-its-kind war insurance policy this spring for shippers that were unable to obtain coverage otherwise, which is a clear indication that the Western naval presence has not brought calm to the markets.

According to the report, those higher premiums add up to about 1% of the value of the huge cargo ships on this perilous journey, said Audun Halvorsen, the director of security and contingency planning for the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association and a former deputy foreign minister of Norway. However, the ships that are already being targeted are those linked to Israel, the US, or other countries seen as supporting Israel. “What we’re seeing is that shipping associated with China, Iran, Russia, and India to a much lesser extent has been targeted,” Halvorsen added.

The report states that the efforts of the U.S. and U.K. to “degrade” the Houthi ability to target ships have turned into a costly game. The Houthis have proved to be more mobile and better supplied than initially expected, making incidental wins by the U.S. Navy—such as the destruction of a Houthi radar site last week—a drop in the sea.

The report quotes naval expert Bronze as saying, “The Houthis have a truly astonishing level of depth in their stocks of missiles, shells, and ballistic anti-ship missiles. It’s truly astonishing.” As long as the Israel-Hamas war continues, “the Houthis have a reason and an opportunity to be a nuisance.”

On the other hand, the report confirms that the deployments and constant interceptions are causing erosion in the capabilities of the US Navy, pointing out that congressional aides said the US isn’t producing enough of the standard air defense missiles used by U.S. escort ships in the Red Sea to shoot down Houthi drones and missiles.

“As long as the burn rate remains as precipitously high as it’s been over there, we’re in a more dangerous position,” one aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about U.S. munitions shortfalls.

Furthermore, the cost of these missiles is expensive, too. The Navy and suppliers, such as Raytheon, are looking for older, cheaper substitutes to use against the Houthis’ low-tech weapons while keeping the high-end missiles for use in a possible future war with China.

“With some of the ballistic missiles or hypersonic missiles, you’re going to need sophisticated capabilities,” said Seth Jones, a senior vice president and the director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But for drones, you’re not going to want to waste a million-plus-dollar U.S. munition on it.”

If we judge based on the results, where ships continue to change their course and insurance premiums remain high—the U.S. approach has not achieved what it set out to do. “After months of doing that, if the Houthis haven’t changed their behavior and their stockpiles are still there and they’re mobile, it is time to ask, ‘Should we really be doing this?’” said Alessio Patalano, a naval expert at King’s College London.

“Insisting on a mission we can’t define; how does that justify pulling out an aircraft carrier from an area experiencing real maritime tensions?” Patalano added.

Ensuring security, Bruns said, comes at a clear cost in higher defense budgets. The same applies to the alternative, if situations like the months-long disruption in the Red Sea become the new normal. “We have to ask ourselves: What level of maritime insecurity can we live with, and who is going to pick up the cost?”

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