On 07th October 2023 Hamas terrorists raided Israel and killed nearly 1200 Israelis including over 300 military personnels. In retaliation Israel launched a massive offensive on Gaza which now has crossed 100 days and as unauthenticated media reports claim killed over 24000 Palestinians in Gaza and 175 Palestinians in West Bank. Showing solidarity with Hamas Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen have declared war on Israel and have fired several missiles and drones on Israel most of which have been intercepted and destroyed by Israel and its allies.
Despite over 600 coalition strikes per month on them in 2021 Houthis fired over 340 missiles in March 2021 with 70 of them on Saudi Arabia.
Since mid-October2023 Houthis have declared war on all shipping linked to Israel or bound for Israeli ports in Red Sea but in practise are interdicting all commercial shipping in Red Sea thereby forcing commercial ships to go around the Cape of Good Hope which is resulting in an additional 10-12 days journey upsetting the global economy.
Red Sea lies between Egypt Sudan Eritrea and Djibouti in Africa and Saudi Arabi and Yemen in Asia. Suez Canal connects Mediterranean Sea to Indian Ocean via Red Sea –Bab El Mandeb strait – Gulf of Aden. It is approximately 2250 km long and has a depth of 2200m. At its widest it is 355km and is just20km at Straits of Tarin.
Red Sea has been an important trade route from times immemorial connecting Eurasia with Europe via Mediterranean through a land bridge over the Suez Isthmus.
For the erstwhile British Empire it provided the shortest route to its territories in India Singapore and Australia and New Zealand. To secure these strategic lines of communication the British captured Aden in 1839in South of Arabian Peninsula. It entered into security treaties with Sheikhdoms surrounding Aden and created Federation of South Arabia as buffer between Ottoman Empire (which occupied rest of Yemen) and Red Sea. Aden along with British Somaliland on the “Horn of Africa” provided the British control over entry into Red Sea. (Federation of South Arabia gained independence in 1958 and Aden was relinquished by UK in 1967).
With the completion of Suez Canal in 1869 the route to India and to Singapore Australia and New Zealand through Mediterranean Sea- Suez Canal – Red Sea became strategically very important for the British Empire. In 1875 Britain acquired the shares of Suez Canal held by Egypt. In 1882 to secure Suez Canal Britain seized Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. In doing so they secured this route less the Eastern bank of Suez Canal which in First World War was used as a springboard by the Ottoman Empire to launch invasion into Egypt across Suez Canal. To secure the Eastern bank of Suez Canal the British carved out Palestine from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire under the British mandate (1920-48). In 1948 Israel was created.
In 1878 British usurped Cyprus in a security deal with Ottoman Empire and built it into a military garrison to protect its interests in Eastern Mediterranean and to provide security to its vital lines of communication through Suez Canal. This garrison today is known as “British Forces Cyprus” assets of which participated in the 13 January 2024 air raid on Houthis.
Op Prosperity Guardian partners must find a way to coerce Houthis with a compelling threat to make the Houthis back down.
Civil War in Yemen began in 2014 between Iran backed Shia Houthis and Saudi coalition backed Sunnis. In this war Red Sea has been a flash point where Houthi rebels have tried to interdict shipping in Red Sea. Using a series of coastal radars the Houthis have been targeting shipping in Red Sea namely of UAE and US but coordinated strikes by coalition in 2016 destroyed three radars. Since mid-October 2023 the Houthis in Yemen have launched over 29 strikes on commercial shipping and US -UK naval ships bydrones missile suicide boats and also attempted to physically commandeer ships by landing commandoes from helicopters on ships in Red Sea.
To counter the Houthi threat to international shipping and to protect the right of ‘freedom of navigation’ in Red Sea and Gulf of Aden US has launched Operation Prosperity Guardian on 18 Dec 2023. On 13 Jan 2024 UK and US struck Houthi missile facilities and Command and Control centres at numerous locations and on 14 Jan 2024 US destroyed a Houthi radar site.
Besides drones and suicide boats anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) form the main arsenal for Houthis to interdict shipping in Red Sea. Rubezh (Russian P 21-22/ 80km/radar homing) Al Mandab1 (Chinese C 801/40km/ radar homing) Al Mandab 2 (Iranian Ghadir/300km/radar homing) Sayyad (Iranian Paveh 351/800km/ radar homing) Quds ZO (Iranian/ ≥800km/ Electro optical /IR) and Sejil (Iranian/180km) form the major part of its ASCM arsenal most of which is now indigenously produced.
Houthis have also demonstrated attacks by armed UAVs many of which have been shot down in last week by US Naval ships deployed in OP Prosperity Garden. They have armed UAVs like Iranian Sanad 2 and Sanad 3 which are believed to have a range of 1500km.
The main strength of the Houthis is the experience they have gained since 2014. Despite over 600 coalition strikes per month on them in 2021 Houthis fired over 340 missiles in March 2021 with 70 of them on Saudi Arabia. This shows that the Houthis are a force to reckon with and are well conversant in withstanding airborne attacks launched by western powers.
Main drawback in Houthi arsenal is their targeting infrastructure namely radars and dependence on Iran, China and North Korea for vital components of missiles. It is likely that Houthis are provided intelligence about shipping transiting Red Sea from Iran and from gleaning the websites related to shipping.
The capabilities of the Houthis and their resilience since 2014 has been highlighted above to demonstrate that the attacks on Houthis under Op Prosperity Guardian too are likely to have very little effect on determination and capabilities of Houthis to strike shipping in Red Sea. Securing shipping against such an enemy who is in near proximity of Red Sea is a very resource intensive operation as was illustrated in the Tanker Wars of 1980s between West and Iran. The coalition in Op Prosperity Guardian including US are already stretched having deployed their resources in the Mediterranean to safeguard Israel against Somali pirates and in South China Sea.
Globally the end of 2023 was witnessing economic recovery and cost of inflation reducing to pre pandemic levels. This disruption in global shipping is likely to spike inflation and affect the common citizens…
Op Prosperity Guardian partners must find a way to coerce Houthis with a compelling threat to make the Houthis back down. But this must take care to prevent civilian casualties and the conflict from enlarging into a larger conflict engulfing the entire region.
If threat of coercion is not a viable option presently the coalition can opt to create pressure on Houthis to back out by repeatedly destroying their missile and radar sites. This option has been taken in Yemen War since 2014 but has not deterred the Houthis or their backers. The UK and US strikes of 13-14 January 2024 has not deterred the Houthis as in retaliation they launched an ASCM on USS Laboon on 15thJanuary2024. However if this option encompasses with destruction of Houthi missile production facilities along with credible posturing with sufficient forces it may prove effective but possibly only till the threatening force is maintained in and around Red Sea.
The last option and possibly the only one which will create lasting peace for freedom of navigation rights through Red Sea will be to create a buffer zone between the Houthi held areas and Red Sea a roll back to the days of Federation of South Arabia. This will entail invasion of Houthi held Yemen or a negotiated settlement with not only the Houthis but also Iran.
In the meantime the additional 5000 shipping miles or so and the resulting additional 10-12 days transit time being encountered by global shipping transiting from Middle East/ Asia to Europe and US via Cape of Good Hope is creating global contagion of ill effects of Red Sea blockade. Supply chain disruptions for Tesla has forced it to shut production in Germany. The availability of ships and crew is acutely affected. The shipping companies are also facing rising cost of operations for fuel maintenance and for additional sea time payment to the crew.
Trade between Asia and Europe is most affected as Suez Canal is a crucial gateway for both the regions. Since the outbreak of war in October 2023 container prices between Europe and Asia have shot up 600 percent. From Asia to East coast of US the cost of containers have increased by 137 percent.
The cost of shipping insurance too has seen a significant jump as ships going around Cape of Good Hope are exposed to threats from Somali pirates and vagaries of nature around Cape of Good Hope.
Adding to the woes of the global maritime trade is the restricted daily passage at Panama Canal due to drought. Many global shippers such as Hapag-Lloyd have re-routed ships from East Asia to US East coast via Suez Canal due to Panama Canal crisis and now are forced to take the Cape of Good Hope route.
Global shipping companies have been given permission to levy heavy surcharge to overcome the disruption of Red Sea and if this crisis persists the shipping rates are likely to touch the 2021 pandemic rates of $21000 per container.
Houthis are a determined force to reckon with and to force them to the negotiating table without widening the conflict will require constant degradation of their capabilities…
Globally the end of 2023 was witnessing economic recovery and cost of inflation reducing to pre pandemic levels. This disruption in global shipping is likely to spike inflation and affect the common citizens hurting their consumption capabilities. Fall in demand and increase in cost of inputs in production will further slowdown global economy. The Central Banks which had hiked Interest rates to tame inflation and were now in the process of reducing them will have to weigh their options in the face of rising inflation caused by the Red Sea crisis. This will hurt common man in repayment of mortgage for house and the business houses as loans to conduct business will remain costly.
Indian trade and shipping too have been hit by denial of Red Sea route. 10000 nautical miles (18500 km)/25.5 days trip to Rotterdam through Suez Canal from ports in west coast will now entail a journey of 13500 nautical miles (25002km) /34 days. 90 percent of Indian shipping is now taking Cape of Good Hope route. This has seen six-fold increase in freight and insurance charges and have upset contractual obligations. Indian imports too have become costlier and cost of fuel fertilisers engineering goods and medicines are seeing an upward trend.
To safeguard passage of international shipping in Arabian Sea namely from rogue drones and pirates India has deployed ten of its naval ships in Arabian Sea.
Houthis are a determined force to reckon with and to force them to the negotiating table without widening the conflict will require constant degradation of their capabilities to interdict maritime shipping in Red Sea or on Israel with minimum loss of innocent civilian lives.
The earliest end to the war in Gaza is possibly the best solution to end the Red Sea crisis as then the Houthis will too declare cease fire The world powers must strive to bring pressure on Israel to halt its Gaza hostilities at the earliest and to come to the negotiating table with the Palestinians to find permanent solution for peaceful co-existence. If this conflict prolongs not only will maritime shipping in Red Sea be restricted adversely affecting global economy but offensive actions on Houthis on Hezbollah and on Shia militant groups in Syria and Iraq and on Iran may snowball into a full-fledged regional conflict the course of which is very unpredictable given the fractured geo strategic conditions of the world.
As this article goes into press it is reported that Houthis have hit a US commercial ship in Red Sea and that Iran has launched air attacks on Israeli monitoring stations in Syria and Iraq making the possibility of this entire region sliding into conflict a reality. In addition the bilateral meeting of the Indian External Affairs Minister and his Iranian counterpart on 16 January where the dangerous situation in the Red Sea would have been discussed may bring down the temperatures.