How Yemen is blocking US hegemony in West Asia

William Van Wagenen, The Cradle, December 29, 2023 —

The new US-led coalition in the Red Sea will struggle to overcome Yemen’s naval blockade on Israel, as Ansarallah’s domestically-produced and inexpensive drones and missiles have leveled the technological playing field.

Given the renewed focus on Yemen’s de facto government led by Ansarallah and its armed forces, it is time to move beyond the simplistic and dismissive characterization of the Houthis as merely a ‘rebel’ group or a non-state actor.

Since the start of the war by the Saudi-led coalition against Ansarallah in 2015, the Yemeni resistance movement has transformed into a formidable military force that has not only humbled Saudi Arabia but is also now challenging Israel’s genocidal actions in Gaza as well as the superior firepower and resources of the US Navy in the world’s most important waterway.

Economic fallout of Yemens naval operations

In response to Israel unleashing unprecedented violence on Gaza, killing over 20,000 people, predominantly women and children, Yemen’s Ansarallah-led armed forces announced on 14 November their intent to target any Israeli-linked ship passing through the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea. This crucial waterway serves as the gateway to the Suez Canal, through which approximately 10 percent of global trade and 8.8 million barrels of oil travel each day.

On 9 December, Ansarallah announced it would expand its operations further to target any ship in the Red Sea on its way to Israel, regardless of its nationality. “If Gaza does not receive the food and medicine it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces,” an Ansarallah Armed Forces spokesperson said in a statement.

To date, Ansarallah has successfully targeted nine ships using drones and missiles, and managed to seize one Israeli-affiliated ship in the Red Sea, according to their official statements. These operations have prompted the largest international shipping companies, including CMA CGM and MSC, and oil giants BP and Evergreen, to re-route their Europe bound ships around the horn of Africa, adding 13,000km and significant fuel costs to the journey.

Delays, transit times, and insurance fees for commercial shipping have skyrocketed, threatening to spark inflation worldwide. This is especially worrisome for Israel, which is already contending with the economic repercussions of its longest and deadliest conflict with the Palestinian resistance in history.

Additionally, Ansarallah has launched multiple missile and drone attacks on Israel’s southern port city of Eilat, decreasing its commercial shipping traffic by 85 percent.

The disruption in the Red Sea directly undermines a key element of the White House’s 2022 National Security Strategy, which unequivocally states that the US will not permit any nation “to jeopardize freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab.”

Coalition of the unwilling

On 18 December, in response to Sanaa’s operations, Secretary of State Lloyd Austin declared the establishment of a naval coalition named Operation Prosperity Guardian, with some 20 countries called to counter Yemeni attacks and ensure safe passage of ships through the Red Sea.

Austin announced the new maritime coalition would include, among others, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, the Seychelles, and Bahrain.

Map of the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) in West Asia and North Africa. 

In response to the announcement, Ansarallah politburo Mohammed al-Bukhaiti vowed that Yemen’s armed forces would not back down:

Yemen awaits the creation of the filthiest coalition in history to engage in the holiest battle in history. How will the countries that rushed to form an international coalition against Yemen to protect the perpetrators of Israeli genocide be perceived?

The embarrassment for Secretary Austin and White House advisor Jake Sullivan was swift. Shortly after the coalition’s announcement, key US allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt declined participation. European allies Denmark, Holland, and Norway provided minimal support, sending only a handful of naval officers.

France agreed to participate but refused to deploy additional ships to the region or place its existing vessel there under US command. Italy and Spain refuted claims of their participation, and eight countries remained anonymous, casting doubt on their existence.

Ansarallah has therefore destroyed another pillar of the White House National Security Strategy, which seeks “to promote regional integration by building political, economic, and security connections between and among US partners, including through integrated air and maritime defense structures.”

Revolutions in naval warfare

The Pentagon plans to defend commercial ships using missile defense systems on US and allied naval carriers deployed to the region.

But the world’s superpower, now largely on its own, does not have the military capacity to counter attacks from war-torn Yemen, the poorest country in West Asia.

This is because the US relies on expensive and difficult to manufacture interceptor missiles to counter the inexpensive and mass-produced drones and missiles that Ansarallah possesses.

Austin made his announcement shortly after the USS Carney destroyer intercepted 14 one-way attack drones on just one day, the 16th of December.

The operation appeared to be a success, but Politico swiftly reported that according to three US Defense Department officials, the cost of countering such attacks “is a growing concern.”

The SM-2 missiles used by the USS Carney cost roughly $2.1 million each, while Ansarallah’s one-way attack drones cost a mere $2,000 each.

This means that to shoot down the $28,000 worth of drones on 16 December, the US spent at least $28 million in just one day.

Ansarallah has now launched more than 100 drone and missile attacks, targeting ten commercial ships from 35 countries, meaning the cost of US interceptor missiles alone has exceeded $200 million.

But cost is not the only limitation. If Ansarallah persists with this strategy, US forces will quickly deplete their interceptor missile stocks, which are needed not only in West Asia but in East Asia as well.

As Fortis Analysis observed, the US has eight guided missile cruisers and destroyers operating in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, with a total of 800 SM-2 and SM-6 interceptor missiles for ship defense between them. Fortis Analysis further notes that production of these missiles is slow, meaning any ongoing campaign to counter Ansarallah will quickly deplete US interceptor missile stocks to dangerously low levels. Meanwhile, the US weapons manufacturer Raytheon can produce less than 50 SM-2 and fewer than 200 SM-6 missiles annually.

If these stocks are diminished, this leaves the US Navy vulnerable not only in the Red Sea and Mediterranean, where Russia is also active, but also in the Pacific Ocean, where China poses a significant threat with its hypersonic and ballistic missiles.

Fortis Analysis concludes by observing that the longer Ansarallah continues “throwing potshots” at commercial, US Navy, and allied maritime assets, “the worse the calculus gets. Supply chains win wars – and we are losing this critical domain.”

And Ansarallah has not yet tried a drone swarm attack, which would force US ships to counter dozens of incoming threats at one time.

“A swarm could tax the capabilities of a single warship but more importantly, it could mean weapons get past them to hit commercial ships,” Salvatore Mercogliano, a naval expert and professor at Campbell University in North Carolina observed.

Moreover, US warships would also face the question of how to replenish their missile inventory.

USS John Finn and USS Porter missiles capacity

“The only site to reload weapons is at Djibouti (a US base on the Horn of Africa) and that is close to the action,” he said.

Other experts suggest that the ships would either sail to the Mediterranean Sea to reload from US bases in Italy and Greece, or to the Gulf island of Bahrain which holds the Naval Support Activity and is home to US Naval Forces Central Command and United States Fifth Fleet.

The great equalizer

As a result, Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, described the situation in Yemen as a case where technology acts as a “great equalizer.”

“Your F-15 that costs millions of dollars means nothing because I have my drone that cost a few thousand dollars that will do just as much damage,” he told the New York Times.

While the US military is successful at producing expensive, technologically complex weapons systems that provide excellent profits for the arms industry, such as the F-15 warplanes, it is not capable of producing enough of the weapons needed to actually fight and win real wars on the other side of the world, where supply chains become even more critical.

In Yemen, the US is heavily challenged by the same problem it faced while fighting a proxy war in Ukraine against Russia, which after almost two years, US officials acknowledge is all but lost.

Moscow has the industrial base and the supply chains in place to produce hundreds of thousands of the low-cost, rudimentary 152mm artillery shells – two million annually – needed for success in a multi-year war of attrition fought largely in trenches. The US, quite simply, does not. Washington’s war industrial complex is currently, at best, manufacturing 288,000 shells annually and seeks to manufacture one million shells by the year 2028, still only half of the Russian manufacturing ability.

Additionally, one Russian 152mm artillery round costs $600 dollars according to western experts, whereas it costs a western country $5,000 to $6,000 to produce a comparable 155mm artillery shell.

Enter Iran

The security situation will only get worse for the US should Iran enter the conflict in support of Ansarallah, the signs of which are emerging already.

On 23 December, the US openly accused Iran of targeting commercial vessels for the first time since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza, claiming a Japanese-owned chemical tanker off the coast of India was targeted by a drone “fired from Iran.”

The same day, Tehran denied the allegations but threatened the forced closure of other crucial maritime shipping lanes unless Israel halts its war crimes in Gaza.

“With the continuation of these crimes, America and its allies should expect the emergence of new resistance forces and the closure of other waterways,” Mohammad Reza Naqdi, an official in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), warned.

As a reminder, Iran possesses the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in West Asia, with thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles, some capable of striking Israel.

On 24 December, Iran announced its navy had added “fully smart” cruise missiles, including one with a 1,000km range that can change targets during travel, and another with a range of 100km which can be installed on warships.

With US and Israeli forces already under pressure from the Axis of Resistance forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and now Yemen, the possible entry of Iran in the conflict is even more ominous for Washington, especially in an election year.

Genocide as a foreign policy

So, how far are President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Jake Sullivan willing to go to facilitate Israel’s ongoing carnage in the Gaza Strip?

The trio’s commitment to military aid packages for Israel and Ukraine, despite looming debt concerns, raises questions about their priorities.

The potential risk to the security of the US Navy in the Pacific Ocean may force a re-evaluation of the situation soon. This leaves the US with the option of direct military intervention in Yemen, a course of action with its own ethical and geopolitical consequences.

Recognizing the difficulty of countering Ansarallah from a defensive posture, at least some in the US national security establishment are demanding US forces go on the offensive and strike Yemen directly.

On 28 December, former vice admirals Mark I. Fox and John W. Miller argued that “deterring and degrading” Iran and Ansarallah’s ability to launch these attacks requires striking the forces in Yemen responsible for conducting them, “something no one has yet been willing to do.”

Yemen itself has just emerged from an eight-year, US-backed Saudi and UAE war that led to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Both Persian Gulf nations used US bombs to kill tens of thousands of Yemenis, while imposing a blockade and siege that led to hundreds of thousands of additional deaths from hunger and disease.

According to Jeffrey Bachman of the American University, Saudi Arabia and the UAE carried out a “campaign of genocide by a synchronized attack on all aspects of life in Yemen,” which was “only possible with the complicity of the United States and United Kingdom.” And yet Ansarallah emerged stronger militarily from that conflict.

If US support for two genocides in the Arab world are not enough, maybe the third will be the charm.

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