Houthi Red Sea Attacks Carry Hard Lessons for the West

Houthi Red Sea Attacks Carry Hard Lessons for the West

Counting warships may no longer be the best guide for assessing a country’s ability to halt and control sea lanes.


The U.S. Navy has its hands full in the Red Sea. The Houthis continued to confound and choke maritime traffic through the strategic passageway despite repeated attacks by an array of United States naval powers aimed at eliminating the threat. Since January 2024, the Navy has struck Houthi targets repeatedly with missiles, drones, and F-18 Super Hornets. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the Deputy Commander of U.S. Central Command, noted in February that one would have to return to World War II to find naval battles of comparable size and scope. Over 7,000 sailors have been committed to the fight. As he put it, “they’re getting shot at, we’re getting shot at, and we’re shooting back.” 

Notwithstanding U.S. naval firepower, the Houthis are holding their own, still regularly attacking Red Sea commercial shipping and U.S. warships. In March, the Houthis shot an anti-ship missile at the USS Laboon, an Arleigh Burke-class warship that reportedly cost close to $1 billion to build. Guerilla warfare has spread from land to the seas.


What is happening in the Red Sea shows how the development of mobile, land-based, anti-ship missiles and cheap drones are revolutionizing naval warfare just as aircraft carriers did in the last century. Surface fighting ships, including carriers, can no longer lay absolute claim to ruling the seas. These surface platforms must keep a wary eye on shore-based weapons systems accessible to nation-states and even rebels. Ukraine’s success in beating back the Russian Navy with drones and missiles in the Black Sea has been copied in the Red Sea by the Houthis, something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

The strategic lesson of the Black and Red Seas campaigns is that counting warships may no longer be the best guide for assessing a country’s ability to halt and control sea lanes. Unsinkable, shore-based missiles and drones, capable of hitting targets hundreds or even thousands of miles out to sea, can now carry as much or more threat as surface warships. China has mobile anti-ship missiles and drones arrayed all along its roughly 19,000-mile littoral coastline (including islands). Taking on those unsinkable, land-based Chinese missile and drone systems would be even more challenging for the U.S. Navy than fighting the Houthis. 

Another consequence of the Houthis’ Red Sea attacks is its introduction of what may be a permanent change in global trade and transportation patterns. Traditionally, 40 percent of trade between Asia and Europe has gone through the Red Sea. Maritime commerce has already been forced to reroute much of that traffic because of continued Houthis attacks, taking the longer and more expensive journey around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Egypt’s revenues from Suez Canal traffic moving through the Red Sea have plunged, undermining an ailing economy critical to Middle East stability. 

More ominously, Russia is also profiting from the Red Sea disruption. Houthi attacks against Red Sea shipping have created a growing business for Russian land rail connections between China and Europe. Ironically, Western sanctions against Russia do not bar such rail transshipment business. It is also doubtful that European Union democracies would want to sacrifice business with China by imposing sanctions on that transit traffic, losing the use of the economically efficient Russian rail cargo service.

Western Ukraine sanctions have already compelled Russia to turn away from Europe and engage more with the East. In the two years since NATO allies and the EU imposed sanctions, Russian imports from China have surged to levels that have, astonishingly, turned out to be even greater than EU imports into Russia were before Western sanctions took effect. Russia also pursues more ties with India and the Gulf States by developing new transportation links. Moscow is building a railroad to ports in Iran, cutting shipping time between India and the Persian Gulf states. On top of these trade route transformations, Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping have created new opportunities for Moscow to take advantage of its central land position in Eurasia, grabbing more commercial shipping traffic from ocean corridors.

There is not much likelihood that the U.S. Navy, joined by European allies under Operation Aspides, can devise a definitive military solution to eliminate Houthi missile and drone attacks. A continuing naval stalemate with the Houthis is not a win. Seeing no real military fix, Washington has already begun to cast about for a diplomatic formula, even reaching out to Tehran for help in backchannel negotiations

Ending Houthi strikes may well have to wait for peace in Gaza. Even when that day comes, the long-term repercussions of what has happened in the Red Sea will not end. New commercial transportation arteries in Russia will continue to coalesce, diverting global trade patterns, as will debate over how modern navies can adapt to land-based drones and anti-ship missiles. These challenges for the West will remain well after Houthi attacks have finally stopped once and for all.

Ramon Marks is a retired New York international lawyer and Vice Chair of Business Executives for National Security (BENS).

Image: Shutterstock.com.