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Houthis Expand Attacks on Merchant Shipping

The tit-for-tat daily actions between the Houthis and the United States are going nowhere.

So far this month, Iran-backed Houthis have launched more than 55 individual antiballistic missile and aerial drone attacks against civilian merchant vessels and US Navy and Allied warships in the international waters around Yemen. During the same time, US and Allied forces have destroyed more than 70 assorted anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, along with aerial and surface drones, inside Yemen. There is no end in sight to the daily strike-and-response assaults.

The Houthi raids on international shipping turned deadly on March 6 when three crewmen on the M/V True Confidence were killed and four seriously injured. To date, the Houthis have attacked vessels in the Red Sea, the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, and the Gulf of Aden. However, recently, the terrorists have threatened to attack ships in the Indian Ocean, far from Yemen’s territory.

Houthis Expand the Threat

Targeting commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean would put at risk merchant vessels that have elected to avoid the belligerence in the Red Sea. Heather Mongilio, reporting in the US Naval Institute News, explained:

“Two Houthi spokesmen – Brig. Gen. Yahya Sare’e and Mohammed Abdulsalam – each took to X to post that the Houthis will now target ships linked to Israel traveling in the Indian Ocean on the way to the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of South Africa. Commercial vessels have been traversing around the Cape of Good Hope instead of going through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea due to Houthi attacks on ships.”

Though the terrorists claim to attack shipping destined only to provide support for Israel, the reality is the assaults have been indiscriminate since the Houthis have little capability to know what is in the holds of the commercial ships they’ve been striking. The M/V Rubymar, a UK-owned, Belize-flagged cargo ship sunk by a Houthi missile, was carrying fertilizer with no link to Israel.

If disrupting commerce transiting the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean is the objective, Iran-supplied weapons do have the range to jeopardize maritime commerce. The anti-ship ballistic missiles Houthis have been launching — called Khalij Fars — have a range of about 250 miles, according to a recently declassified Defense Intelligence Agency document. Some unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) used by the Houthis have a range of more than 1,000 miles; others can cover up to 1,500 miles.

Hypersonic Weapons Mean Greater Peril

Russian state media has reported that the Houthis now have a hypersonic missile to deploy in the Red Sea. “[T]he Houthis have for weeks hinted about ‘surprises’ they plan for the battles at sea to counter the United States and its allies, which have so far been able to down any missile or bomb-carrying drone that comes near their warships in Mideast waters,” the Associated Press wrote. Russia claimed to have used its Kinzhal hypersonic weapon in its invasion of Ukraine. If true, it’s been with only modest success since Ukrainian air defense defeated the missiles on most occasions.

However, the Houthis employing such weapons would raise the stakes considerably and cast blame on Moscow for supplying them through Iran. Possessing a hypersonic missile is one thing; maintaining the infrastructure and command and control to make one operational is another. Although having the missiles in numbers to overwhelm US shipborne air defense is unlikely, the threat should not be dismissed.

The daily barrage from the terrorists is likely to continue until Iran is held accountable. The Biden administration seems to have no stomach for doing what needs to be done. Attacking shipping in the Indian Ocean would be an expansion of the Houthi war on the West that might finally move the White House to effective action.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

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