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Will History Repeat Itself in the Red Sea?

US Navy strikes Houthi rebels hard, signaling dramatic strategy change.

Perhaps puffed up with a false sense of invulnerability after 23 attacks on commercial vessels, Iran-backed Houthi terrorists attempted a Red Sea hijacking on Dec. 31. That proved fatal. The US Navy patrolling the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait made short work of the small boats attempting to take down a Maersk-operated merchant vessel.

US Navy Takes Fight to Houthis in the Red Sea

Since the Houthi assaults in the Red Sea began, this was the first time US naval forces have responded forcefully. What is encouraging is that the US Navy’s vigorous action — ten terrorists were killed in the encounter — might indicate the Biden administration is serious about stopping Houthi aggression. In a tweet on X, US Central Command described the naval engagement:

“US helicopters from the USS EISENHOWER and GRAVELY responded to the distress call, and in the process of issuing verbal calls to the small boats, the small boats fired upon the US helicopters with crew-served weapons and small arms. The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats and killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area. There was no damage to US personnel or equipment.”

New Banner Military AffairsAs tensions increase in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait, Iran has sent the 51-year-old Islamic Republic of Iran Alborz, a frigate-size warship, to the contested area. “There were unconfirmed reports on social media it (the Alborz) arrived late on Saturday (Dec. 30),” Reuters reported. The Alborz is a blue-water warship with various offensive and defensive weaponry. Of particular concern to the US Navy are its eight Noor “sea-skimming” anti-ship missiles with a range of 16 to 120 nautical miles, as well as six torpedo tubes. In a full-on sea battle, the Alborz is no match for the US level of firepower, but its presence raises the already high state of alert in the Red Sea.

A student of history might see this move as a repetition of Iran’s disastrous decision to take on the US Navy in the Arabian Gulf in April 1988 during the US operation Praying Mantis. In an act of war, Iran had planted mines in international waters in the Arabian Gulf. During a patrol escorting merchant ships, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, a US guided-missile frigate, struck one of the mines, causing significant damage. Within four days, President Ronald Reagan elected to send Tehran a strong message.

Reagan Understood Deterrence

Commander-in-Chief Reagan grasped the concept of deterrence. In the ensuing naval engagement, the largest since World War II, the US Navy destroyed about half the Iranian navy. As retired US Navy Captain William Luti explained in his insightful article in the Wall Street Journal, “Praying Mantis remains a case study in strengthening deterrence. Our victory kept Iran’s navy at bay for more than two decades and helped change the course of the Iran-Iraq War … Iran never laid mines in the Gulf again.” As Liberty Nation described the Arabian Gulf engagement, “In all, the Iranians lost one frigate (45 crew killed), one gunboat (11 crew killed), and three speedboats, with one frigate damaged and two oil platforms destroyed.”

Reviewing the 1988 Arabian Gulf incident underscores that Iran is unpredictable and motivated by something other than a realistic grasp of its military capabilities. At that time, the Iranian navy never had a chance. And what is problematic today is that the Biden administration seems to have beguiled Tehran into believing the United States was incapable of reacting meaningfully. Up until now, the proxy attacks on American military facilities in Syria and Iraq have earned pinprick responses, with the Biden national security team limiting itself to reactionary tit-for-tat responses, exhibiting a lack of strategic forethought and planning.

Iran putting one of its warships in the Red Sea complicates the US mission to keep Iran-inspired Houthis from attacking merchant shipping there. When the terrorists send their small boats to hijack another cargo ship, and Iran puts the Alborz between the merchant vessel and US protection, how will American forces react? Biden’s team should be thinking about that – ahead of time. Deterrence is less impressive after the fact.

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

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