The ongoing Israel-Hamas War has taken on a surprising maritime dimension. Unseen since the 1967 Six-Day War, a belligerent in a conflict with Israel has adopted a strategy of attacking commercial shipping and blockading Israeli ports.
In the current conflict, the Yemeni Houthis, sponsored by Iran, have embarked on an aggressive offensive against maritime trade in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Since mid-November, the Houthis have engaged in multiple anti-ship drone and missile attacks and numerous acts of piracy against commercial and military vessels. Yahya Saree, spokesperson for the Houthi movement, threatened that “all ships in the Red Sea headed for Israeli ports, irrespective of the flag they fly, will become a target for our armed forces.” This activity has significant strategic implications, threatening not only Israel’s security but also the entirety of maritime traffic through the Suez Canal.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and former president of the Naval War College, wrote in his acclaimed book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783” that maritime strategy is ultimately about access. This means ensuring that ports are safe from blockades, lines of communication remain open, maritime infrastructure remains unmolested, and command of the sea for fleet positioning, strike, early warning and intelligence gathering remains viable. Most importantly, it’s about secure commerce, a matter of national self-preservation. The Houthis are threatening this access for both Israel and global commerce.
In 2003, the Houthis, an Iran-supported Shi’ite Islamic political and military organization, became radicalized and belligerent, ostensibly in response to a growing U.S. presence in the region. They adopted the slogan “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam,” which is now on their flag. Starting in 2004, the Houthis led a rebellion against the government of Yemen. Saudia Arabia backed the government while rival Iran supported the Houthis. In 2014, the capital, Sanaa, and the main port of Hodeida fell to the Houthis. What’s left of government forces are now centered in Aden, the former capital of South Yemen. The Houthis now act as the de facto government of Yemen.
Emboldened by their success against Saudia Arabia and inspired by ongoing Hamas and Hezbollah campaigns, the Houthis have chosen to enter the Israel-Hamas war. Initially and still ongoing are regular long-range missile and drone attacks aimed at Israel.
The Houthis added a maritime dimension to the hostilities by executing a series of raids composed of missile and UAV attacks on shipping, committing acts of piracy and hijacking and taking hostages. The first incident occurred on Nov. 19, when a Houthi assault team captured the M/V Galaxy Leader. On Dec. 3, three other commercial ships were attacked in the Red Sea at the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The intervention of an American warship, the USS Carney (DDG-64), mitigated what would have been a devastating missile and drone barrage. USCENTCOM characterized the attacks as “a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security.”
Ninety percent of the world’s commerce travels by sea. Today’s global economy is interdependent and wholly reliant on the world’s oceans and waterways. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait marks a critical location for maritime commerce. The strait is a maritime chokepoint between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This narrow pass is just beyond the southern terminus of the Suez Canal. In 2022, more than 23,000 ships (1.4 billion tons) passed through the canal, accounting for nearly 12% of all global maritime trade. In addition to serving Suez traffic, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait is the only access point from the Indian Ocean to the Israeli port of Eilat; Aqaba, Jordan’s only port; and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s biggest port. The Houthi attacks have made the area hazardous for shipping, imperiling the use of the canal itself.
American sea power protects the “maritime global commons.” The commons encompasses the high seas, which cover around 64% of the ocean’s surface, and the seabed beyond national territorial waters. These areas are governed by international law, primarily the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which establishes navigation, fishing, deep-sea mining and environmental protection guidelines.
US Navy Warfare Publication 1-14M, the “Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations,” outlines the legal framework for U.S. naval operations. The U.S. Navy can (but is not obligated to) protect non-U.S. flagged vessels. Section 3.10.2 states that “embodied in the concept of collective self-defense, [it] provides authority for the use of proportionate force necessary for the protection of foreign-flagged vessels and aircraft and foreign nationals and their property from unlawful violence—including terrorist or piratical attacks—at sea.” Generally, the United States would need approval from the flag country of the vessel in distress before acting. However, the United States can act without the foreign state’s permission if lives are in immediate danger.
On Nov. 19, a Houthi assault team, arriving via helicopter, boarded the M/V Galaxy Leader, a roll-on/roll-off vehicle (car) carrier transiting the Red Sea. The team seized control of the vessel and took the crew hostage. Subsequently, they commandeered the ship, rerouting it to Hodeida, where it remains detained. Its crew of 23, including mariners from Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Philippines, Mexico and Romania, remain captive.
The Houthis claim that the vessel was hijacked because of ties to Israel. However, maritime business relationships can be complicated. Galaxy Leader, for example, is a Bahamian-flagged, multinational-crewed, British-operated and Japanese-owned vessel with no apparent ties to Israel.
On Dec. 3, three vessels—the Bahamian-flagged bulk carrier M/V Unity Explorer, the container ship M/V Number 9 and the Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier M/V AOM Sophie II—were targeted by the Houthis in a series of attacks. USCENTCOM reported that “at approximately 9:15 Sanaa time, the Carney detected an anti-ship ballistic missile attack fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen toward the M/V Unity Explorer, impacting in the vicinity of the vessel.” This attack marks the first time a ballistic missile has been used in an attack against a ship. Most anti-ship missiles are cruise missiles that launch more horizontally and fly out at a low altitude, skimming along the water. A ballistic missile is launched high into the air; it then tips over and begins its descent while its seeker finds the target, placing the missile on a rapid trajectory towards it.
Near noon, the Carney shot down a drone headed in its direction, though it is unclear if the Carney was the intended target. At 12:35, another missile was fired at Unity Explorer, and this time, it hit the vessel, causing minor damage. The ship made a distress call and Carney came to assist. While in the area, Carney engaged and destroyed another inbound UAV. At 15:30, the Number 9 was struck by a missile. One hour later, the AOM Sophie II was also hit by a missile. The Carney, while transiting to assist, shot down one more Houthi UAV.
In a clear escalation, on Dec. 10, the Houthis threatened to attack any vessel transiting to Israel from passing through the Red Sea. They said: “If food and medicine do not enter the Gaza Strip according to the requirements, we will attack every ship that passes through regardless of its nationality and origin.” Subsequently, the Houthis targeted a French Navy ship, the FS Languedoc, with two UAVs. This was the first time that a warship was unquestionably the target. The Languedoc successfully intercepted the drones. Then, on Dec. 11, the Houthis fired missiles into the M/T Strinda, a chemical tanker, which caught on fire.
The Unity Explorer is owned by a U.K. company called Unity Group. The CEO of Unity, Danny Unger, is Israeli. Number 9 was once associated with the Israeli company Zim Integrated Shipping Services (ZIM), but not at the time of the attack. Today, Number 9 is owned by OOCL (Orient Overseas Container Line), which in turn is owned by parent company OOIL (Orient Overseas International Limited), a Hong Kong-based Chinese holding company. The Strinda is Norwegian-flagged and owned by the Norwegian company Mowinckel Chemical Tankers. It is managed by Hansa Tankers of Bergen, Norway. It was scheduled to arrive at the port of Ashdod, Israel, on Jan. 4. It’s almost certain that all three ships were targeted because of Israel connections; however, the Houthis have now attacked several other vessels with no connection to Israel. The AOM Sophie II, for example, is Panamanian-flagged and Japanese-owned. As a French warship, the Languedoc is naturally French-flagged, owned and operated.
Suspiciously, the M/V Behshad was in the Red Sea near the vicinity of the attacks. The Behshad is allegedly an Iranian spy ship that is suspected of playing a role in several maritime incidents in the Red Sea, particularly in assisting Houthi forces. The vessel has been positioned in the Red Sea since 2021, replacing a previous Iranian spy ship, the M/V Saviz. Both vessels are reportedly converted cargo vessels used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGC-N) for intelligence collection.
These attacks are now occurring almost daily and have already had an economic impact. Three of the world’s largest shipping companies, MAERSK, Hapag-Lloyd and MSC Mediterranean Shipping, have announced they will reroute their vessels, adding one to two weeks to transit times. Marine insurance rates have risen in response to the threat, from a typical 0.04% of a vessel’s total value to 1% or more. All of this adds to global shipping rates. Egypt’s economy depends on revenue from canal operations and is losing millions of dollars a day as the crisis persists.
One positive development is that Israeli logistics company Trucknet has opened a pilot program moving trucks over 2,550 kilometers (1585 miles) from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to Israel, crossing through Saudi Arabia and Jordan. This initiative provides an alternative to shipping and demonstrates the growing cooperation between Gulf countries and Israel even as the war continues to unfold.
The new maritime dimension to the Israel-Hamas War, launched by the Houthis, poses a direct challenge not only to regional stability but also to the fundamental principles of international maritime law and the security of global commerce. The strategic implications of the Houthis’ actions, particularly in the critical Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, extend far beyond the immediate geopolitical theater, threatening the free flow of global maritime trade and, by extension, the interconnected global economy. The international community, led by the United States, must work collaboratively and expeditiously to ensure maritime security and deter future aggression.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In response to the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, the United States has deployed significant naval forces to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea. This strategic display of sea power aims to deter regional escalation and address unexpected challenges, such as the Yemeni Houthi pirate and missile offensive in the Red Sea. The US Navy presence, which features advanced aircraft, destroyers, and a Marine Expeditionary Unit, demonstrates a commitment to regional stability and the readiness for significant combat operations, if necessary, while also highlighting the need for a more durable solution to the ongoing conflict.
Following the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, the United States deployed major naval forces to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea in a strategic show of sea power aimed at deterring regional escalation. At the beginning of the conflict, the US directed the USS GERALD R. FORD Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean. Soon after, two other task forces, the USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER Carrier Strike Group and the USS BATAAN Amphibious Ready Group, were deployed to the region, and a US Ohio-Class guided-missile submarine is also now operating in the area (though these ship movements may have been scheduled before the conflict). France and the UK have also sent warships to the region.
With presumed sea dominance by Israel over Gaza, the US Navy was not expecting to be in the region to ensure control of the seas. The primary mission of the task force is to deter other regional players from participating in the conflict with the threat of air strikes and, if things get “really bad, ” the entry of the Marines.
The conflict took an unexpected turn in the Red Sea with a Yemeni Houthi pirate and missile offensive against commercial shipping. Fortunately, the US Navy presence can address this provocation. Spearheaded by several ARLEIGH BURKE class destroyers normally escorting the carriers, these warships are the perfect platform for addressing this additional threat. However, military action by the Navy, while a viable expedient, would be only temporary. Ultimately, the US must seek a more durable solution.
Three US Navy task groups are operating in the area of the conflict. The USS GERALD R. FORD CARRIER Strike Group is in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER Carrier Strike Group and the USS BATAAN Amphibious Ready Group frequently transit back and forth from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea.
For decades, the US has had a consistent 1.0 policy in the area. That’s Pentagon-speak for at least one aircraft carrier in the area throughout the year. A 1.5 presence would be one carrier in the area and one additional carrier in the area for a total combined time of half the year. A 2.0 presence would mean two carriers and would represent a “plus up” from the current force level. And so on.
Two carrier strike groups (CSG) and an amphibious readiness group (ARG) are more than just a large show of force; a single carrier could be used to show force. There are many costs associated with the operation and sustainment of ships. Logistics and fuel, changing operational schedules, and fees for delaying shipyard arrivals are just some of the expenses incurred by maintaining this force at sea. This is in addition to the personal cost of sailors having to extend their deployments by weeks or months. Clearly, the Biden administration is thinking beyond a “show of force” and has provided enough assets to conduct prolonged combat operations if necessary.
Aboard the carrier is the air wing (CVW, Carrier Air Wing). This is the heart of the offensive power of the task group. A wing has 60-70 aircraft and can conduct several missions. CVW-8 on FORD and CVW-3 on EISENHOWER have nearly the same disposition of aircraft: four squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets and one squadron each of E-2C Hawkeyes, EA-18G Growlers and C-2A Greyhounds. The Super Hornets are multimission-capable. Some of the missions include air superiority (engaging and defeating hostile planes) and strike (bombing runs). The Hawkeyes provide early warning (airborne radars with long-range capability). The Growlers conduct electronic warfare (jamming), and the Greyhounds deliver logistical support. The wing also has MH-60 series helicopters that can engage in anti-submarine warfare and rescue operations, among other missions.
The USS BATAAN is the command ship of an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). An ARG is a task group consisting of amphibious warfare ships primarily designed to support Marine Corps operations at sea and on land. The BATAAN ARG is composed of USS BATAAN (LHD 5), USS CARTER HALL (LSD-50), and USS MESA VERDE (LPD-19). BATAAN is a WASP-class amphibious assault ship and would be classified as an aircraft carrier in any navy other than that of the US. CARTER HALL and MESA VERDE are landing ships, each with a dock and a well deck in which they can sortie landing craft – most notably the fast hovercraft known as the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), which can rapidly move Marines or 60 tons of equipment from ship to shore.
Embarked on the ships throughout the ARG is the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The MEU is a rapid-response force typically composed of about 2,200 personnel. It’s a self-sufficient unit that combines air, ground, and logistical elements. The ground force includes infantry, artillery, and armored vehicles, while the air component is V-22 Ospreys and helicopters for transport and close air support. The logistics group provides support, supply, and medical capabilities.
The 26th MEU is an enhanced MEU with a special operations-capable (SOC) element. While a regular MEU is already a highly capable and versatile force, an MEU(SOC) undergoes specialized training to perform tasks that include direct action, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism, and hostage rescue.
Aircraft carriers and amphibious Marine-carrying ships are considered “high-value” and require escorts to protect them. These three task groups have the Arleigh Burke class of guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) as escorts. The DDG is the perfect platform for an air and missile defense mission. They not only protect the “high value” ships but can also protect commercial shipping, as is now required in the Red Sea due to Houthi provocation.
The DDG employs the advanced Aegis Combat System, which integrates detection systems (like radars) with fire-control systems (like missiles) for rapid and reliable engagements. The primary tool for detection is the SPY-1 radar, which is the foremost air and missile defense radar system employed at sea. It’s a phased radar (i.e., it doesn’t spin) that can simultaneously surveil vast airspace, track multiple suspect targets, and provide fire-control solutions for engagements.
The US has also announced the arrival of a “nuclear submarine” in the Middle East, an Ohio class SSGN. All US submarines are nuclear-powered. The SSGNs are older submarines that were used to carry submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) like the Trident that were mounted with thermonuclear warheads. However, the SSGNs have been refitted to carry (non-nuclear) Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs), not ICBMs. They can hold around 150 TLAMs. The Navy describes the SSGN as “providing the Navy with unprecedented strike and special operation mission capabilities from a stealthy, clandestine platform.”
The extensive deployment of US Navy assets signifies a strategic posture that extends beyond a mere show of force, indicating a preparedness for significant combat operations. This force posture underscores the Biden administration’s commitment to regional stability and the prevention of an escalation.
For now, Washington has chosen a measured response to Houthi maritime aggression. There is little appetite in the Biden administration to enlarge the current conflict. And it’s not only the US administration that is reluctant. Reuters reports that Riyadh has asked the US for “restraint” to avoid “spillover.” The Wall Street Journal is also reporting that Washington has asked Jerusalem not to attack the Houthis and let the US handle that portion of the conflict.
This will be difficult, as American deterrence has already failed. Routinely, ever since the onset of hostilities, Iran’s proxies have been harassing US forces in Syria and Iraq with rocket and drone attacks. Despite US airstrikes against weapons magazines and other facilities operated by these proxies, the attacks continue. Houthi piracy is just another Iranian provocation that Washington has not yet adequately addressed.
The US has put forward the creation of an international task force to counter Houthi piracy. This approach worked to nearly eliminate Somali piracy by 2017. In the early 2000s, local piracy evolved into a lucrative criminal enterprise. Pirates, often heavily armed, targeted commercial vessels for ransom, leading to numerous hijackings. This surge in piracy peaked around 2011, causing international concern and leading to a robust response from the global community. Led by the US, a maritime coalition of 34 states was established, the Combined Task Force (CTF) 150. Headquartered at US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, CTF-150 patrols the Horn of Africa, interdicting attempts and acts of piracy. The Biden administration is proposing a similar coalition effort for the Red Sea.
Additionally, the ships making up this new task force would provide escort protection, as did the US in the 1980s “Tanker War.” The Tanker War was a critical maritime phase of the Iran-Iraq War. Each side targeted the oil tankers and merchant ships of the other, aiming to cripple each other’s economies. Initiated by Iraq in 1984, this strategy was an attempt to cut off Iran’s main source of revenue, its oil exports, by attacking tankers carrying Iranian oil and, later, ships of other nations trading with Iran. Iran responded by targeting the maritime interests of Iraq and its Gulf Arab allies. The conflict escalated, involving hundreds of attacks on civilian shipping. It eventually drew in the US, which launched Operation Earnest Will to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers by flagging them as US ships. This culminated in 1988 with Operation Praying Mantis in which, in retaliation for a mine that damaged the guided missile frigate USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS, the US Navy conducted multiple surface and air strikes against Iranian naval forces and oil platforms that were being used for military purposes.
Outwardly, the Houthi and Somali pirate problems seem comparable enough that a similar solution should work. However, there are crucial differences. Unlike the Somalis, who were individual actors or small criminal organizations seeking ransoms, the Houthis are a proxy, and the motivation for their attacks is ideological as well as patronized. A task force is as unlikely to deter Houthi piracy as the current two US destroyers in the area have been.
Other responses that have been suggested range from moderately to highly aggressive. On the more moderate side, the US could target military sites in Yemen. The US has already used this tactic over 70 times since October in Iraq and Syria in response to attacks by Iranian proxies. A more aggressive option is to target Iran directly. This option could entail a package of limited strikes on, for example, Kharg Island, which is Iran’s main oil export facility, or Iran’s “secret” nuclear weapons development facilities.
As of today, Iran is not deterred, and proxy attacks, like Houthi piracy, continue apace. So far, the situation has not escalated due to a combination of US patience and the extraordinary performance of the crew of the USS CARNEY in limiting the damage of incoming attacks. However, if one of these ongoing attacks breaches the CARNEY’s defense, it will cascade into a calamitous result.
Hostile maritime incidents have a history of raising American ire, with a few leading to major conflicts: the Barbary Corsairs, the 1812 Merchantman Impressment, the USS MAINE explosion, the sinking of the RMS LUSITANIA, and the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, to name a few. That said, not all maritime incidents trigger a militarized US response. The capture of the USS PUEBLO by North Korea and the bombing of the USS COLE incurred only modest responses. Still, the potential for a major US response remains.
Tehran is playing with fire. Top of Form
Source » jns