Questions raised over UK's long-term plan amid continuing air strikes against Houthis

Defence minister calls Yemeni militia 'opportunistic pirates' but there are calls for a proper plan of action

An RAF Typhoon aircraft conducting air strikes against targets in Yemen. The UK's defence secretary warned that attacks would continue against Houthi 'opportunistic pirates'. Photo: MOD
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Britain’s Defence Secretary has stated that air strikes against Houthi “opportunistic pirates” will continue but questions have been raised by military experts on long-term aims of the campaign.

Following multiple US and UK attacks in Yemen over the weekend, Grant Shapps told parliament that “we will not hesitate to respond again in self-defence” if Red Sea shipping was attacked.

But military analysts have told The National that without a clear plan there was a “spiral of escalation” risk in the region and the Houthis will continue their attacks with whatever weapons they have.

The weekend has seen a spike in strikes against targets in Iraq, Syria and Yemen but the western powers seem to have no considered plan beyond pressuring Israel to commit to a ceasefire in Gaza.

Mr Shapps said the RAF had struck three military facilities including two ground stations used to control shipping attacks and reconnaissance drones.

“The Houthis are opportunist pirates who are using the situation to their benefit,” he said.

“We urge the Houthis to stop these illegal and unacceptable attacks but if necessary we will not hesitate to respond again in self-defence.”

The shadow defence secretary John Healey raised concerns that with three weeks of strikes on Yemen it was now becoming “a sustained campaign” and a “continuing military action” on which Parliament should vote.

Further action without a clear plan also risked escalating the conflict, said Brig Ben Barry, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

“As these strikes continue the chances of accidents or miscalculation increase because it only requires one missile to accidentally hit a wedding party or a crowded marketplace to cause big civilian casualties for us to see more escalation,” he said. “So escalation could cause the current plan to spiral out of control and reverberate in unexpected ways.”

There was also a question mark over the military impact of the attacks on Houthi arms sites as “they've hit quite a few things in the last month yet still the missiles and drones keep coming”, said military analyst Tim Ripley.

“The plan will likely be that this just goes for on for several weeks or months until the Gaza situation is resolved.”

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Brig Barry agreed that even if “we destroyed all their missile facilities, they’d probably keep attacking shipping until the war in Gaza ended”.

The rebels would also carry on strikes using artillery, mortars, rockets, sea mines and home-made kamikaze sea drones, he said. The attacks also “bolstered the Houthi’s internal position and their credentials in the eyes of Iran”.

Sam Cranny-Evans, an associate at the RUSI think tank, said that the continued air strikes signalled that Britain and America had to expand their campaign as the Houthis were still able to mount attacks.

“The trick here for the UK and the US is that these operations aren't going to stop the shipping strikes but they are going to make it more difficult for the Houthis to conduct successful strikes.”

Military estimates suggest the attack degraded the Houthi military stockpile by a third, which would have an effect, he added.

“The anti-ship missiles are like a boutique handbag rather than a massed-produced iPhone and even the Russian are only producing 100 missiles a month,” he said. “So this is degrading the Houthi ability to strike.”

Updated: February 06, 2024, 6:22 AM