The War of Attrition in the Red Sea
The stage of confrontation between the U.S.-UK-led multinational coalition forces and the Iran-backed Ansar Allah (Houthi) group witnessed an attrition war without achieving goals. While the international forces have continued airstrikes to degrade the Houthi military capabilities, the Houthi group did not stop targeting ships in the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden.
At this stage, the coalition focused on targeting radars, maritime telecommunication systems, missile launchers, and drones in addition to intercepting Houthi missiles and drones. U.S. media outlets quoted American military officials saying that the coalition forces destroyed about 25% of the Houthis' stock of ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, coastal radar systems, and suicide drones.
Sheba Intelligence has analyzed the results of the most critical raids that began targeting the Houthi group on January 12, 2024. The following table presents details about the air strikes that hit the Houthi sites over the past nine days.
Hitting 90 targets
From the table, we find that the strikes in seven days targeted nearly ninety targets and that the operations focused on destroying air defense systems, radar, anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, and suicide drones, all of which were equipped to be launched against targets in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. This means the strikes did not hit camps, weapons depots, or operations rooms.
The U.S. and the U.K. bombed some military sites that were previously targeted by the Arab coalition during Operation Decisive Storm which began in March 2015. After the end of the Decisive Storm, the Houthis began using some of the military facilities that did not sustain massive destruction for storing and launching drones and missiles. A military expert said that the Houthis tend to use the military sites that the Arab Coalition bombed as part of their camouflage and deception plans.
The multinational coalition forces launched expensive missiles worth millions of dollars to target or intercept cheap Houthi missiles and drones worth thousands of dollars. This is a major attrition of the international coalition's military resources.
The Iranian support
Information shows that Iran has provided support to the Houthis in attacking ships in the Red and Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Advisors from the Revolutionary Guard provided the Houthis with ship identification data guidance on carrying out the attacks. Iran has also provided the Houthis with advanced drone, anti-ship missiles, sea mines, and booby-trapped boats. A command center has been established in Sanaa to coordinate attacks on ships, manage the battle, and choose the type of weapons and how to use them.
This Iranian support has increased the complexity of the scene, posing a formidable challenge for the international forces as the conflict keeps escalating.
Though the strikes have destroyed some of the Houthi missiles and drones, the destruction of the Houthi missiles, drones, ammunition, radar systems, and operations and control rooms will take several months and perhaps more than a year. It will take more time if the smuggled Iranian weapons keep reaching Houthi-controlled ports.
The war with the Houthis in an environment like Yemen, with a complex society and terrain, is costly, and it will reduce the possibility of the Houthis accepting the cessation of attacks, which makes the Houthi group appear as if it is the one managing and controlling the war of attrition.
This reality may push the anti-Houthi multinational coalition forces to adopt a new strategy, such as launching an advanced offensive on weapons and missile depots, mobilization and training camps, targeting commanders, and causing material and human losses to the Houthis to force them to stop attacking ships in international shipping lanes.
If the Houthi attacks continue to disrupt the shipping lanes in the Red Sea, there will likely be ground operations of the multinational coalition forces to counter the Houthi threats. The fears of the Americans and the British about long attrition have pushed them to carry out expensive and urgent military operations as part of the strategy to stop the threat to international shipping lanes.