The 11/12 January joint US-UK bombardment of rebel Houthi positions in the Yemen was extremely welcome despite its glaring shortcomings.
As was observed in these pages just hours before the joint US and UK operation, “refraining from striking the Houthis” had become “simply irresponsible” by that point. The Iran-backed Ansar Allah jihadis had been disrupting one of the world’s main seaborne trade arteries for months, with impunity.
This festering security issue had to be dealt with by those who took de facto responsibility for securing the oceans – and world order more broadly – after 1945: primarily the Americans, but the British as well.
As for “Europe” (the French included), no one takes it seriously or expects anything from it anymore when it comes to risky geopolitical action. With the single notable example of the secondary support role played by the Netherlands – which is the most British-like continental nation and has a great trading and naval tradition – the Europeans were missing from the field of battle.
The problem with these strikes, however, is that they failed to actually deal with the problem. The initial operation on the night of 11/12 January involved more than 100 missiles and bombs launched against over 60 Houthi targets – command posts, depots, launchers, “production facilities” and radars – at 16 locations from a variety of platforms.
Not since the heydays of the Syrian war has such a complex, multinational strike, of such size, taken place. The last time Western powers put together something similar was in April 2018 when the US, UK and France – back when La Republique still had some fight left in it – also launched about 100 missiles from a variety of platforms against some of Assad’s chemical weapons facilities.
But in the Houthi case, unlike with Assad’s fixed buildings, the mission is much more difficult because the Yemeni enemy is more elusive.
Drones and anti-ship missiles, the Houthis’ key weapons that the Western coalition is trying to destroy, are small and highly mobile items: they can be dispersed and evacuated rather quickly to safe locations. And the US-UK strikes came with ample advance warning, including an official White House ultimatum as well as apparent leaks from the UK side.
Even the Wall Street Journal noted the next day that “In anticipation of a U.S. response, Houthi forces had relocated some weapons and equipment and fortified others, and stockpiled missiles in bunkers in the densely populated city of San’a”.
It has now become clear that these initial strikes – including a follow-up barrage the next day that included a further 50 munitions and some 15 extra sites – had limited impact.
The press has quoted official US sources acknowledging that “less than a third” of the Houthi anti-shipping attack capability was destroyed. Even this is an optimistic assessment given the operational challenge of dynamically targeting a mobile enemy in this kind of environment with relatively few airborne assets on hand for the job.
The fact that the Houthis were quick to resume their attacks on cargo vessels proves the US-UK strikes, welcome and necessary as they were, primarily from a political standpoint, were much too weak and therefore missed the strategic mark.
Instead of this feeble pinprick we should have seen a major, multi-day air offensive with dozens of aircraft and hundreds of munitions seriously degrading Houthi capability, perhaps in conjunction with special operations forces raids onshore to go after the most sensitive targets.
Read the rest at Brussels Signal.
Gabriel Elefteriu is a fellow at Yorktown Institute.