No Good Option: Why the US Ignores Houthi Attacks on Its Warships

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The United States has for months publicly ignored Houthi attacks against its warships out of fear that it can’t deter the militant group. The Houthis, like all militant groups, use violence as a form of advertisement. It’s their time-tested way of attracting funds and recruits in an environment where both are scarce resources. October 7th and the war it spawned gave the Houthis a special opportunity to rally their “advertising” around pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, and anti-Western sentiments. But the Houthis faced a problem. No matter how many ballistic missiles and drones the group fired at Israel in support of the cause, it would never be able to generate enough exposure compared to the direct fighting that Hamas is engaged in. Instead, coinciding with their campaign on commercial shipping, the Houthis began targeting US warships operating in and around the Red Sea. The aim of this ongoing campaign is simple: by goading the US into a war it doesn’t want, the Houthis can, in theory, pressure Washington to rein in Israeli operations in Gaza and influence postwar planning for Gaza. And through the cynical lens of militant competition, conflict with the United States is how the Houthis can position themselves as a front-line militia in the fight against Israel and the West–potentially gaining money, followers, and increased support from Iran in the process.

Houthis Escalate Attacks For Political and Economic Gain

The start of the Houthis’ campaign of targeting US warships began the day after their announcement that “Israel-affiliated” ships would be attacked. On November 15th, the Houthis targeted the USS Thomas Hudner, an Arleigh Burke class-destroyer, with a drone. The type of drone probably used is effectively a precision-guided munition, meaning the Houthis knew what they were aiming at. It is also easily interceptable, and that was the point of the attack. The attack demonstrated a potential Houthi mindset: “We know you’ll shoot this down, but we want you to know that we’re targeting you specifically and sending it regardless.” The attack was an unambiguous signal, meant not to hit the destroyer but to send a message of Houthi discontent and willingness to escalate if the US continued its defense of commercial ships affiliated with Israel.

On November 27th, the destroyer USS Mason responded to a distress call by a tanker affiliated with an Israeli businessman. After it ignored previous radio calls to divert to a Houthi-controlled port, armed individuals boarded the tanker, and were later captured by a responding US naval helicopter. A little while later, seemingly in response to this capture, the Houthis launched two ballistic missiles that splashed down less than ten nautical miles away from the Mason. This was almost certainly also a signaling-attack meant to demonstrate resolve, not hit the warship. Judging by the weapon used, it is likely that the Houthis aimed to send a more forceful message of discontent than previous attacks that involved only one-way attack (OWA) UAVs.

Any additional escalatory significance depends on two possibilities. If the ballistic missiles used were like other missiles fired by the Houthis around this time—meaning crude missiles, which are hard to accurately aim—then it was meant to signal a degree of risk-tolerance; while the Houthis were probably not intending to hit the warship, there’s always the chance that an old missile goes awry and comes closer than it was intended to, perhaps even striking the warship. On the other hand, if the ballistic missiles were an early variety of the more advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) now hitting commercial ships with remarkable efficiency, then it was meant to serve as a warning that the US should reverse course in its intervention in the Israel-Hamas war; and it showed that the Houthis are capable of seriously endangering US warships should Washington fail to do so. For a time after this, the dynamic remained stable. There were no further Houthi hijackings, and with the US content to continue defensive interceptions of attacks on commercial shipping without any further action, the Houthis were themselves content to only launch OWA UAVs in response.

Then an escalation cycle came, and it upended the situation. On December 18th, Operation Prosperity Guardian began –an ongoing, US-mustered, multinational coalition to protect the Red Sea shipping lanes using defensive interceptions. Undeterred, the Houthis tried on New Year’s Eve to hijack a container ship via several small boats. When the responding US naval helicopters took “crew served and small arms” fire, according to CENTCOM, they sank three of the boats in self-defense, killing 10 Houthis. This marked the first Houthis killed by American forces during the crisis. The Houthis vowed revenge. On January 3rd, the US and 14 other nations issued a joint statement demanding the Houthis cease attacks and release all detained vessels and crew. A January 9th UNSC resolution called for the same. The joint statement warned of unspecified “consequences” should this fail to happen. But the Houthis decided to call the West’s bluff on January 10th, launching their largest and most sophisticated attack yet–involving 18 drones and three missiles–at a fleet of Western warships. Following through with their earlier threat, the US and UK then launched joint strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen on the night of January 11th. The attack, the opening salvo of the ongoing Anglo-American counterforce effort coined Operation Poseidon Archer, involved more than 150 missiles and degraded some 20-30 percent of the Houthis’ offensive capabilities.

This sequence of events–particularly the joint US-UK strikes–changed the situation. The first sign of this change was the Houthis’ January 26th attack on the USS Carney using an ASBM. An anonymous US official told multiple media outlets that this marked the first instance of the Houthis directly targeting a US warship, a significant escalation. Whether this was indeed the first time is unlikely, but it was the first time Washington expressed willingness to acknowledge it publically, even if unofficially. Due to it being unclear what exactly was meant by “directly,” it’s hard to put forward potential explanations as to the exact escalatory significance of the strike. Lethal or non-lethal intent, the type of ASBM used, whether the missile would’ve landed in close vicinity to or directly hit the warship –these are all unknowns, at least publicly. However, a good clue of what the Houthis were trying to do that day (hint: hit the US warship) is evident when looking at what happened on January 30th. That day, a Houthi anti-ship cruise missile came within one mile (1.6 km) of hitting the destroyer USS Gravely, close enough that the Gravely used its CIWS, an automated gun-based close-in weapon system, to intercept it. Whether this represented a failure of the ship’s AEGIS radar to detect the missile (more likely) or the Navy doing a one-time, mid-combat experiment with a cost-efficient interception technique (less likely) is unknown to the public. What is known is that the missile, at such close range, would have been mere seconds away from impact. Thus, the escalatory significance of this attack is clear. Even if the Houthis calculated that the US warship was likely to intercept the missile, this attack showed a degree of risk-tolerance that included the possibility of what had been previously unimaginable escalation as a tolerable–if not welcome–outcome. It’s the epitome of the Houthis’ strategy. With this attack, the Houthis may have aimed to say, “We understand the chance that this provokes war, and we are fine with that.”

Washington has responded with some force to the Houthis, but its actions have fallen short of some expectations about how the US should counter the attacks in the Red Sea. The reason is that the US is currently prioritizing regional stability over having favorable deterrence equations in each mini-theater as it is stretched thin across the regional turmoil in the Middle East. The US is simultaneously seeking a revamping of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, managing an escalation in Iranian-militia activity, deterring Iran’s expanding nuclear ambitions, brokering Saudi-Israeli normalization, and most recently, preparing for the potential entry of Hezbollah–one of the most militarily-capable groups in the region–into the Israeli conflict. This is almost certainly why Washington was happy to flex its muscles early after October 7th to prevent Hezbollah from entering the war; it was worried that Hezbollah’s entrance could drag in regional heavyweights like Iran, thus expanding the conflict, and the US was probably confident that it could deter Hezbollah. It’s because of these same two factors –the risk of wider regional escalation and the US’ confidence (or lack thereof) in its ability to deter militant forces –that the White House has been downplaying the extent of Houthi aggression against its warships. For one, the US is probably betting that the current situation with the Houthis –although not favorable – is stable. And more importantly, it’s worried that any further action with the Houthis will backfire. The Houthis have crossed each red line set by the US during the crisis, even though they have incurred a response every time. The White House is probably cognizant that this pattern will repeat, with perhaps regional ramifications.

Why the US Can’t Deter the Houthis

The first few reasons for why the US has extremely limited options for deterrence against Houthi aggression fit broadly into a category called “strong Houthi incentive.” This, as the name suggests, involves the incentive factors that make the Houthis unusually resistant to the United States’ deterrence efforts. One part of this strength has to do with the Houthis’ incentive to continue causing chaos as part of the Axis of Resistance. To summarize, as it relates to the theory of militant competition, fighting allows the Houthis to bolster their pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, and anti-Western credentials, which come with recruiting and financial benefits. As it relates to the Houthis’ relationship with Iran, escalating with the US is a great way to demonstrate value to their patron. Throughout the Middle East, Iran has built and seeks to expand a network of proxy states and groups that it can use for deterrent or coercive purposes with plausible deniability. The largest proxies receive substantial investment from Iran, with Hezbollah receiving at least $700 million in 2020 alone. With its successes, the Houthis aim to show Tehran that the group is worthy of increased cash and arms flow, previously receiving little. This represents a large prize for the Houthis, and it is therefore a powerful incentive. Short of an existential or near-existential threat to the group, there aren’t many things that can make the Houthis willingly step off the path toward becoming a tier-one militia.

Another powerful incentive has to do with the Houthis’ objectives domestically, where it is seeking to increase the scope of its rule. Politically, this conflict stands to strengthen their base for three reasons. First, the Palestinian cause is incredibly popular in Yemen. By fighting on behalf of this cause, the Houthis position themselves as the most pro-Palestinian actor among the several major groups vying for control of Yemen, increasing their legitimacy and gaining the recruiting and financial benefits outlined previously. Second, fighting with the US allows the Houthis to quiet domestic criticism. No local group wants to be seen as opposing the Houthis during their fight for the Palestinians against the Americans. For that matter, not even the major groups want this perception; after nearly a decade of non-stop civil war, a tentative ceasefire in the civil war began in December once the Houthis began targeting Red Sea shipping. Third, fighting with the US allows the Houthis to bolster their support by activating a rally-around-the-flag effect, a move they used to their advantage during the early years of the Saudi-led intervention in the civil war.

Last in the incentive category is an underappreciated aspect of the Houthis’ calculations, and it might be the most important –the domestic economic angle. The Houthis control the highlands and much of Yemen’s population. But they do not have a sustainable economic base that would allow the group to rule in a non-militant capacity in the future. The country’s main economic base, currently controlled by the Yemini government, is the “Triangle of Power,” the oil- and gas-producing areas in the Ma’rib, Shabwah, and Hadramaut Governorates. The Houthis know that they can’t rule without control of one, perhaps even two, of these governorates. This is why the group has been trying to take Ma’rib for years, but they have been repulsed by local forces and Saudi air power each time. With the Saudis now in the process of detaching from the war, the Houthis worry that a peace may soon be established without them having any sustainable economic base, spelling long-term Houthi defeat.

Conflict in Yemen, at least until the Houthis take part of the Triangle of Power, is the Houthis’ lifeblood. They are betting that, by extending the conflict, this time against the United States, they can gain the time and support needed to take part of the Triangle of Power and expand their domestic political power. In this light, the Houthis probably view their conflict with the US as part of a larger political-economic effort that stretches back decades. This incentive to continue fighting is at the core of who the Houthis are today and makes any US effort to deter the Houthis from acting in ways generated by that incentive highly unlikely to succeed. The Houthis want everything but total war. They may even want war, seeing how foreign occupation tends to generate intense support for local resistance groups. Unless the US is able to show the Houthis that it has both the ability to win such a war and the will to fight it, the US will struggle to deter the Houthis from causing chaos in the Red Sea.

The second category of factors that make deterring the Houthis a challenge is the broad category of “weak US deterrence.” As the name suggests, this involves the present realities that leave the US with no magic fix for deterring the Houthis. As said by seasoned Middle East analyst and negotiator Aaron David Miller, when it comes to the Houthis, the US is “between a bad option and one that’s worse.” One aspect of this weakness has to do with American resolve, or a lack thereof. As said above, if the US really wants to deter the Houthis from pursuing a deep interest, it needs to be willing to not only go to war, but have the resolve to finish one. The Houthis may be reactionary fundamentalists, but they read the headlines. The group looks at the US and sees a population and political class sick of “forever wars,” record low military enlistment numbers, and growing neo-isolationist sentiment, or at least the idea that some problems–like a militant group halfway across the world–are not American problems.  In addition, post-October 7th surveys show that the main concern of American citizens is the fear that the US will be drawn into another grinding, costly, potentially decades-long Middle Eastern military conflict as a result. The Houthis want war, know America doesn’t, and lesser options have failed to deter them. As long as this dynamic remains, the Houthis will continue to escalate, confident that the US will blink first in the event the escalation ladder is climbed to the top.

If lack of will is one aspect of the US’ weakness vis-à-vis the Houthis, lack of capability is the other. Coercion and deterrence are factors of both a state’s ability to inflict harm and the political will to do so. The US–while unenthusiastic about fighting an all-out war–clearly does not lack the political will to expend lesser options against the Houthis. The problem is that these lesser options don’t have the deterrent potential to get the job done. Put simply, where the US has the will, it doesn’t have the capability. There are two general issues here. First, the US right now lacks the ability, short of war, to sufficiently erode the present Houthi arsenal such that the group can no longer threaten global shipping. Much of the Houthis’ resilience in this category boils down to the fact that they successfully weathered nearly a decade of US-supported Saudi aerial intervention, and the Houthis have learned how to withstand a bombing campaign accordingly. The group’s units are mobile and dispersed, with many embedded in mountainous or civilian areas. As a result, the US would be unable to locate, much less destroy, a substantial portion of the Houthi arsenal in one fell swoop. And if the US tried –and failed –to launch a decisive counterforce attack, Houthi retaliation would be substantially stronger than anything witnessed to date, and it’s unclear whether the US could endure that event unscathed.

Second, the US has only limited resources right now to prevent further growth of the Houthis’ arsenal. While the Houthis sit on a respectably-large stockpile of Soviet-era weaponry they nabbed during their 2014-2015 coup, most of their more potent weapons are smuggled from Iran by sea. For many reasons –the Pentagon doesn’t want to allocate additional Special Operations forces for quiet interdiction missions; the Navy is short on the amphibious ships needed to carry the Marines that could conduct large-scale interdiction operations; the drones and other surveillance assets needed to monitor known smuggling routes and uncover new ones are in high demand by US military leaders in other theaters, and it doesn’t help that the Houthis have shot down several US surveillance drones already –the US is struggling to prevent Iran from delivering new weapons to the Houthis. This inability to prevent incoming shipments is perhaps more significant than the US’ inability to completely eradicate present Houthi arsenals in a counterforce strike. This is because even a moderately-effective aerial bombing campaign could exert significant deterrence pressure if coupled with what would effectively be a blockade on the Houthis’ ability to replenish weapons stocks. The Houthis do have a degree of domestic weapons-manufacturing capability, but it is not enough to offset the loss of Iranian arms imports should the US initiate a quarantine while slowly degrading present Houthi stocks.

Strategic Stalemate an Ongoing Dilemma

Where there’s a will, there’s not a way. And where there’s a way, there’s not a will. This is the predicament the US currently finds itself in when dealing with the Houthis campaign of deliberate chaos. With more prized strategic considerations in mind, Washington responded to this predicament by embarking on a concerted, ongoing effort to downplay the extent of Houthi aggression against its warships, lest unfavorable headlines pressure the US into escalatory action. Whether the US will free up the capacity at some point in the future to put real pressure on the Houthis will only be known if and when the conflict in Gaza and its peripheral effects calm down. But with the world gearing up for a northward expansion of the conflict – rather than a contraction of the war – the Houthis will remain a problem for which the United States has no good remedy.

Henry Smith
Henry Smith
Henry is a Political Science undergraduate at the University of Chicago with a passion for international relations, national security, and foreign policy. He has studied under renowned professors such as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, and Paul Poast. As an intern intelligence analyst for Atlas News, Henry specializes in Middle East Affairs and US foreign policy.