12 January 2024

2 min read

US-led airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen – the only available option?

Geopolitical analysis
Rough sea waves

Overnight, the US, together with UK and other allies, launched a series of targeted airstrikes against Houthi positions in Yemen.

The attacks are in response to the persistent threat posed by the Houthis on maritime routes through the Red Sea and the series of recent attacks against merchant vessels transiting the region. Both the UK and US had previously warned the Houthi group of direct action should attacks in the Red Sea continue. Specifically, in late December, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps stated that the UK would not hesitate to take “direct action” to prevent further Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, while in a statement on 3 January, the US and its coalition partners issued a final warning to the Houthis that they would “bear the responsibility of the consequences” should they continue attacks on container ships transiting the maritime route. With attacks continuing since the warnings were issued, the latest response by the US and UK, in hindsight, seems inevitable.

The only option?

The decision to conduct the airstrikes is unlikely to have been an easy one. Since the outbreak on the Israel / Hamas conflict, the US, and its allies have fervently sought to prevent regional escalation in the conflict. Yet, with the spate of Houthi attacks forcing global shipping companies to suspend operations through the critical maritime corridor, the associated increase in freight rates and the impact on global supply chain assurance, a continued disruption to regional maritime traffic and the free flow of international commerce could not be tolerated indefinitely.

While the December deployment of Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) - a US-led international maritime security force designed to protect shipping operations in the Red Sea – had been somewhat effective in responding to attempted attacks, the continuation of Houthi aggression in the Red Sea has highlighted that the operation failed to serve as a sufficient deterrent. And, as such, further action was required. Targeted airstrikes on key positions to degrade Houthi capabilities  – with reports indicating the targets included radar sites, drone launchers and drone storage sites – provided an appropriate and proportionate next step. The question now will be whether, and to what scale, the Houthis are likely to respond.

What’s next?

The Houthi group have demonstrated a high resilience to persistent airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition during the height of the Yemen civil war and it is unlikely that the recent US-led strikes will have, in isolation, significantly decreased the group’s capabilities or discouraged the group from conducting further attacks in the Red Sea. That said, with the US having been so measured and targeted in its response, an immediate regional escalation may still be avoided. In essence, while the attacks have not necessarily moved the needle to a more secure Red Sea maritime passage, they may as yet not have encouraged a greater response by the Houthi’s regional backers. Yet, with the US having now played this card, regional and international watchers will be concerned not only with how the Houthi’s will respond – a response likely to be defiant, but also, what the US and its allies are willing to do next to counter a persistent Houthi threat in the Red Sea without risking further escalation.

Subscribe to our insights

Get industry news and expert insights straight to your inbox.