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US Navy destroyer firing a VLS missile in the Red Sea

The guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) launches Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles in response to increased Iranian-backed Houthi malign behavior in the Red Sea Jan. 12, 2024. (U.S. Navy photo by Jonathan Word)

Stavridis: Red Sea Response Is Anemic And Indecisive

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June 22, 2024

According to Admiral Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, the Western response to the Red Sea conflict has been “anemic, indecisive, and predominantly defensive.” Do we have the will to win, and if so, how do we show it?

by Admiral James Stavridis (Bloomberg Opinion) For more than eight months, the Houthis — an Iranian-backed proxy group based in Yemen — have bedeviled the global shipping industry. The majority of world shipping suppliers, including both container ships and bulk oil carriers, have decided discretion is the better part of valor and are routing traffic away from the Red Sea and Suez canals. This is adding expensive additional days at sea to most routes flowing between Asia, Europe and North America. Kinks are developing in the global supply chains. On Wednesday, a salvage firm reported the sinking of a larger merchant vessel, MV Tutor.

The Houthis say they are part of the “resistance” to Israel and are conducting these attacks — which have sunk at least two ships and killed several seafarers — in solidarity with the people of Gaza. They claim to be specifically targeting Western shipping, particularly ships with any connections to the United States or Israel. They have also deliberately targeted warships from the US and its allies in the Gulf region, nearly hitting several with either land-based ballistic missiles, airborne drones or sea-skimming unmanned craft packed with explosives.

Thus far, the Western response has been anemic, indecisive, and mostly defensive. NATO and Gulf Arab warships have shot down numerous drones, engaged some of the surface craft and launched a handful of strikes ashore at Houthi infrastructure that is directly tied to the attacks. Is it time to increase the level of offensive military firepower directed at the Houthis, or even at their sponsor state Iran? What are the risks and benefits of such a campaign, and what should it look like?

Also read Stavridis: Hit the Houthis And Iran Where It Counts

My own experience in counter-piracy operations runs deep. In addition to a handful of such ops in Asia (notably in the Strait of Malacca), I commanded NATO’s counter-piracy mission for four years in the Red Sea and off the Horn of Africa as Supreme Allied Commander. We tried lots of different techniques against a far less capable force of Somali pirates — mostly teenagers with minimal training and equipment. Over time, we learned that playing defense — convoys, hardening the merchant ships with barbed wire, security details on large merchant ships, shared intelligence — was necessary but not sufficient.

What we learned was that to defeat pirates operating from bases ashore you need to go ashore and neutralize the attacks before they successfully get out to sea. Once the pirates or their weapons — missiles, drones, unmanned high-speed boats — are in the open seaway, the challenges multiply. When we began to strike the pirate bases ashore, capture or kill the pirates and destroy their equipment, the threat gradually reduced. While the Houthis are far better trained, equipped and organized thanks to their masters in Tehran, the same principle applies: Go ashore.

An effective campaign would consist of four phases. The first, as always, is to focus significant intelligence assets on building a coherent picture of exactly where Houthi strike assets and command and control are located. This will require a combination of overhead intelligence (including multi-spectral analysis), offshore communications intercepts, cyber intrusions, and possibly human intelligence gathered on the ground by cooperating agencies (Saudi Arabia, Israel and other local national intelligence services along the Red Sea). US Central Command via the Fifth Fleet Commander in Bahrain should oversee this effort.

The next phase would be strikes with both cruise missiles (e.g., US Tomahawks) against Houthi command and control centers. The Iranian intelligence services are clearly supporting this campaign, and the fused intelligence products are likely being developed in Yemen by the Houthis supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Striking such centers will blind the Houthis and reduce the lethality of their efforts. This should be accompanied by an effective information warfare campaign showing the costs of the strikes to the Houthi Yemenis and Iranians.

The third phase of should consist of strikes conducted against the Houthi physical infrastructure used for the attacks — i.e., coastal radars, manned Houthi maritime craft (especially those with surface radars), land-based ballistic missile launchers, unmanned speed boats, maintenance facilities, ammunition caches and drone construction (and arming) centers.

The Western coalition is finally beginning to conduct such strikes in earnest. Over the past few days at least six such strikes have been conducted against Kamaran Island near the Yemeni port city of Salif. This is the first set of strikes against what is clearly a center of the Houthi anti-ship capacity, a target set that should have been attacked long ago. The Port of Salif has also been implicated in the attacks on commercial shipping and Western naval forces. This is an example of the type of strikes that must be increased and directed not only against Salif and Kamaran Island, but also other Houthis centers ashore.

Fourth and finally, a campaign plan against the Houthis must include severing their supply chain back to Iran. This is challenging but not impossible. Clearly, Iran is providing not only intelligence but also hardware, including components for drones, ballistic missiles and unmanned speed craft. These are being sourced via the Iranian military complex (which is also providing drone support to Russia for its war against Ukraine). This may require striking Iranian assets directly, to include their intelligence-gathering ships in the Red Sea and North Arabian Sea; offshore Iranian intelligence gathering platforms outside the Arabian Gulf; Iranian logistic vessels moving weapons and components to Yemen.

Related Book: Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis

Some may find direct strikes against Iranian sovereign assets too provocative. I’d invite anyone looking at the situation to reflect on the direct attacks thus far — now numbering in the dozens — of ballistic missiles and drones shot down (fortunately) by US warships. If one of those ballistic missiles were to get through and strike a US destroyer with a tightly packed crew of 350 sailors, we would be very close to a war with Iran. Better to send a strong signal now than to have to react with overwhelming firepower against Tehran after US casualties.

There is certainly sufficient firepower in the North Arabian Sea, including the massive US aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower and supporting cruisers and destroyers armed with cruise missiles, to undertake a significant bombing campaign. Our allies, both the Gulf Arabs and NATO partners, are likewise engaged. With the right campaign plan, we can inflict sufficient damage to the Houthis to cause them to cease and desist. We need the will to do so.

Admiral James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is the author most recently of “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision.” 

@stavridisj  on X

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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