Red Sea task force faces $10m missile dilemma

Array of firepower is now on hand to hit Yemen's Houthi rebels with the US and Britain considering how to attack without escalating the region's conflict

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The might of the US-led Red Sea task force is formidable, yet commanders are faced with a dilemma on how it can be effectively used to end the Houthi shipping attacks.

Hundreds of million-dollar missiles are ready to be used in any retaliation and threats from top British and American politicians have intensified, yet still the coalition keeps its finger on the trigger without pulling it.

The Houthis could face a barrage of modern weaponry that would make Russia’s daily assaults on Ukraine look rudimentary.

But the Houthi air defence arsenal does not lack its own teeth – a US Reaper drone was shot down before Christmas – and it has been bolstered by Iran-supplied missiles.

The National has spoken to leading military experts on what the looming strike package might look like, with the weapons used and the challenging strategic options open to the US.

Western leaders are clearly hesitant over what to do next. Any strike against an Arab state could well provoke the escalation that they have been trying to avoid since Israel-Gaza conflict began.

But the Houthis have risen to international prominence, with their missile and drone attacks hindering Red Sea shipping, and they “now very much have a taste for it”, said former Royal Navy commander Tom Sharpe.

Military strategists will be debating hard precisely what the “strike package” will be. There is the “one in, one out” option in which for every Houthi attack there is a similar-scale response.

The greatest opportunity for that came on Tuesday night when 21 drones attacked British and American warships. All were shot down, but there was no further response.

That still remains an option, as does the “full spectrum” assault in which the US and Britain unleash the full might of their power.

Precision strike

Military analysts agree that the Tomahawk cruise missile will likely be the first weapon to enter Yemeni airspace.

With the ability to change objective mid-flight, or even to track a moving target, the Tomahawk offers the highest rewards for the lowest risk.

With a 450kg warhead and range of 900km it can be fired from a distance, although it costs $2 million per warhead.

But America does have lots of them. Every warship either patrolling against Houthi attacks or protecting the aircraft carrier, including a submarine, is Tomahawk equipped.

Furthermore, the Ohio guided missile submarine has an astonishing arsenal of 154 missiles which could keep the Houthi attacks at bay for some time.

It is also possible that Britain might have secretly deployed one of its Tomahawk-equipped Astute-class submarines to the Mediterranean that would have the range to strike Yemen.

Britain’s support

The Americans are anxious to ensure that they are not the sole attacker and US officers regard Britain’s smaller contributions as vital “validation” for Washington’s actions.

Hence it is likely that the RAF will send a handful of its Typhoon fighter bombers the 2,500km from their airbase in Cyprus.

The jets will probably be equipped with the $2.5m Storm Shadow cruise missiles that have proven so effective in Ukraine, with their bunker-busting capabilities used against command and control centres and weapons’ factories.

Their smaller (225kg), highly accurate Paveway IV bombs could also be used for dynamic targeting such as striking mobile missile launchers.

While the two British warships in the Red Sea do not have any offensive capabilities, they do have Wildcat helicopters equipped with lightweight $30,000 Martlet missiles that can sink Houthi fast boats or fishing vessels whose radar are being used for ship tracking.

Air power USA

As president George W Bush summed up doubts over the effectiveness of a sophisticated military launching an all-out assault on a militia. "When I take action, I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent," he said.

The US has the most potent air power in the world, with more than 40 FA-18 Hornets alone stationed on the USS Dwight D Eisenhower currently in the Red Sea.

The battle-hardened Hornets can carry an array of weaponry that would be deployed if the US opted to level Houthi defences.

The 900kg Paveway III can cause substantial damage as can the similar sized JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition).

However, an all-out attack is likely to open with HARM anti-radiation missiles being fired against Houthi radars.

Similarly, the new $3m SLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile) will target key sites while keeping its aircraft out of danger thanks to a range of 270km.

Overkill conundrum

“This almost seems like overkill but I also feel like the Houthis are enjoying the international attention that they've gained as arguably the most active member of the axis of resistance supporting the Palestinians,” said Jeremy Binnie, an expert from Jane's, the defence intelligence company.

“But what can actually dissuade them from continuing to do these attacks? The US would rather not be at this juncture right now, when there's escalatory tensions across the whole region.

“The hope is that an attack deters the Houthis from doing anything in the future rather than sparking another round of retaliation, but where that balance lies is going to be incredibly difficult to find.”

Cdr Sharpe agreed there is a “conundrum” over whether to simply opt for low-level counterstrikes or “go in with all guns blazing and obliterate as much as you can”.

“Escalation is the very thing they'd be trying to avoid all along. The alternative is ‘one out one in’ where you can claim self-defence by hitting back whenever they fire at you.”

Houthi anti-aircraft threat

With experience from the recent conflict with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis are capable of inflicting losses.

With the propaganda value in shooting down an American or British aircraft, they are highly likely to employ their air defences on a large scale.

Their arsenal comes from stockpiles of Yemeni army equipment that they have seized and more modern Iranian-supplied weapons.

While much of the army kit is of Soviet-era manufacture, it could still prove effective, although the SA-6 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) are unlikely to be effective against modern fighters’ defensive capabilities.

The Iran-made Barq-2 SAM might prove more challenging, as well as the short-range, portable SAM systems such as the Strela, which have been effective against low-flying Russian aircraft in Ukraine.

With Tehran's help the Yemenis also converted a number of air-to-air missiles into SAMS including the Russian-made R-27 and R-75

An armament that has already proved its effectiveness is the Saqr 358 loitering drone, which is equipped with a jet engine that can shoot down other drones.

Any air assault over Yemen will therefore not be without risk.

“It can take just one lucky shot and the Americans could have a serious situation on their hands,” said Fabian Hinz of the IISS think tank.

“It will be very interesting to see whether the US intelligence is good enough for strikes. The Houthis will not be able to stop an attack but they might be able to damage it.”

Updated: January 12, 2024, 10:14 AM