Houthi threat in Red Sea persists as strikes ‘fail to dent’ offensive ability

WASHINGTON: The US and UK air strikes Thursday and Friday against sites in Yemen controlled by the Houthi militia damaged or destroyed about 90% of the targets struck, but the group retained about three-quarters of its ability to fire missiles and drones at ships transiting the Red Sea, two US officials said Saturday. The damage estimates are the first detailed assessments of the strikes by American and British attack planes and warships against nearly 30 locations in Yemen, and they reveal the serious challenges facing the Biden administration and its allies as they seek to deter the Iran-backed Houthis from retaliating, secure critical shipping routes between Europe and Asia, and contain the spread of regional conflict.
A top US military officer, Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, the director of the military’s Joint Staff, said Friday that strikes had achieved their objective of damaging the Houthis’ ability to launch the kind of complex drone and missile attack they had conducted. But the two US officials cautioned Saturday that even after hitting more than 60 missile and drone targets with more than 150 precision-guided munitions, the strikes had damaged or destroyed only about 20% to 30% of the Houthis’ offensive capability, much of which is mounted on mobile platforms and can be readily moved or hidden. The two US officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal military assessments.
Finding Houthi targets is proving to be more challenging than anticipated. US and other Western intelligence agencies have not spent significant time or resources in recent years collecting data on the location of Houthi air defences, command hubs, munitions depots and storage and production facilities for drones and missiles, the officials said. That all changed after the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, and the Israeli military’s responding ground campaign in the Gaza Strip. The Houthis have been attacking commercial ships transiting the Red Sea in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, and have said they will continue until Israel withdraws. US analysts have been rushing to catch up and catalog more potential Houthi targets every day, the officials said.
Despite vows of retaliation, the Houthis’ military response to the attack so far has been muted. But General Sims and the two US officials said they were bracing for the Houthis to lash out once they determined how much firepower they had left and settled on an attack plan. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty in this new confrontation is the nature of the Houthis’ partnership with Iran. Since at least 2014, Iran has increased its backing of the Houthis, in part, presumably, because the group gives Iran access to the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait and for the opportunity to project power in the backyard of its rival Saudi Arabia. Iranian money, training and intelligence are believed to have helped enable the group to strike its commercial targets in the Red Sea.
Houthi rebels swept down from their northern stronghold in Yemen and seized the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, launching a grinding war. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore Yemen’s exiled, internationally recognised government to power. Years of bloody, inconclusive fighting against the Saudi-led coalition settled into a stalemated proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, causing widespread hunger and misery. A ceasefire that technically ended over a year ago is still largely being honoured.
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