A Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 takes off to carry out air strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen. Picture Credit: MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images

Britain’s twilight war

The UK is fighting an unwinnable conflict in a world that it doesn’t understand, without plan or purpose

Artillery Row

On the 12th of January 2024 at approximately 2.30am local time a large contingent of warplanes took off from regional bases in the Middle East and from the American aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. In addition to these aircraft, two destroyers, a cruiser, and a cruise missile submarine unleashed a massive volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles. Britain tagged along for the ride with four RAF Typhoon jets taking part in the attack.

The military goals seem absurd

The operation itself was motivated by attacks by the Houthi rebels on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, specifically around the Bal ad-Mandeb chokepoint which allows ships access to the Red Sea and from there to the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean Sea. The Houthi attacks were motivated by Israel’s war in Gaza, with the rebels insisting that the Israelis stop the war. In the weeks before the attack, the United States had attempted to solve the problem through an ill-fated convoying operation called Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Operation Prosperity Guardian aimed to use naval air defence and quick response teams to prevent Houthi harassment of commercial vessels. But soon it became clear that such an operation can only be effective some of the time, with one in every few attacks slipping through the net. Since shipping companies and their insurers need iron-clad guarantees the convoying operation ran aground. This led to the United States and Britain ramping up and aiming to hit the Houthis in Yemen.

In reality, the new, more aggressive operation was less well-defined than Operation Prosperity Guardian which despite its shortcomings had the clear goal of protecting commercial shipping. It is still not clear what the goal of the attacks in Yemen was. Some in the British government said that the goal was to “send a message” to the Houthis. Others in the American military said that the goal was to “degrade” the Houthi capabilities to strike commercial vessels by destroying their missile and drone strikes sites.


The military goals seem absurd. The technology that the Houthis use — which mainly consists of Iranian rocketry and drone technology — is highly mobile and easy to disguise. Locating it before it is fired is a fool’s errand. As far as sending a message goes, the Houthis shrugged off the attacks. None of this is surprising because a Saudi UAE-led alliance had been at war with the group until recently for nearly a decade, fielding an army of over 180,000 soldiers and over 130 warplanes, many of which were American-made. In terms of sending a message the only group with which it registered were commercial shipping insurance companies who, after the Houthis vowed to target American and British ships in response, moved to pull insurance contracts for ships from these countries — a geopolitical own goal if there ever was one.

The strike on the 12th of January was ultimately an expensive fireworks show, the result of a desperate and weak president in the United States lashing out at an unsolvable problem. How expensive? The monetary terms barely matter anymore, with the American government running a budget deficit of well over five per cent of GDP without the economy being in recession. Since Biden took office the United States government has stopped caring about overspending or overborrowing.

The world is now clearly drifting away from the unipolar-led global order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union

But the materiel costs were significant. Money can be printed — until it can’t, of course — but producing more weaponry requires actual planning and effort. Since the 12th of January the United States has fired 94 Tomahawk missiles. For context, that is nearly 12 per cent of the total Tomahawks fired in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and 33 per cent the number fired in the First Gulf War. The United States has a total stockpile of anywhere between 3,500 and 4,000 Tomahawks, meaning that they have fired off 2-3 per cent of their total in just a few days. Meanwhile, in 2023 they ordered an additional 23 meaning they fired four years’ worth of additional orders.

It is not so much that the United States has fired so many cruise missiles in the region — after all, these missiles are made to be fired — rather it is the fact that they have fired them when it is so obvious that they will have no effect. Whatever one thinks of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is clear — and it always was clear — that the American-led forces would defeat Saddam Hussein’s army. Every munition used in the pursuit of that goal was a munition used with a clear purpose. The Tomahawks fired into Yemen in recent days, on the other hand, may scare a few camels but they are unlikely to make any real difference to Houthi capabilities. Since the strikes the Houthis seem to have increased, not decreased the pace of their strikes. They have also made good on their threat to focus on American-owned commercial ships. All the Americans have done is burned through their limited supply of munitions and painted a target on the backs of their commercial ships.


All of this speaks to broader issues. The world is now clearly drifting away from the unipolar-led global order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and toward a multipolar world in which alliances are regional, flexible, and pragmatic with no single player being hegemonic. Whether by accident or design, this transition is starting to bleed the American-led order white due to its poor management of the situation . With conflict zones popping up all over the globe — from the relatively low intensity, but economically-important conflict in the Red Sea to the high intensity conflict in Ukraine — the American-led order is becoming severely overextended. The run-down in cruise missile stocks we will no doubt see in the coming weeks is the mirror image of the run-down of stocks of air defence, tanks, and artillery we have seen since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Having deindustrialised our economies for nearly three decades, we cannot rapidly replace these munitions.

The grim reality is that, at the time of writing, Britain has no strategy

The economic consequences of this shift from unipolarity to multipolarity are also rapidly becoming apparent. The Russo-Ukraine war massively impacted European energy markets. Having previously relied on cheap Russian piped gas, these economies were forced to buy more expensive Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) shipments mainly from the United States. The higher cost of this gas has maintained European energy prices at a high level, and this is currently in the process of hollowing out the industrial base of Europe. The American attitude toward this development was cynical, to say the least. Frankly, Americans thought that Europe’s loss was their gain — an extremely short-sighted view of a key ally which spoke to more short-term thinking lacking a realistic strategic picture.

But the machinations in the Red Sea will impact the United States. We have known since the supply chain chaos during the lockdowns that when global shipping is disrupted it tends to impact the entire global market. When shipping is slowed down, less products get delivered. This is because there is a limited supply of ships. So, if these ships must take a longer route to get to their destination, they can make fewer trips per years and less stuff gets delivered. Rerouting ships from the Red Sea around Africa, as is currently happening, means adding around 40 per cent onto the total trip. This, in effect, means around 40 per cent less goods will get delivered.

Shipping is also fungible, as economists say. If less goods are being delivered to Europe due to Red Sea disruptions, then the price of these goods will rise relative to the price of, say, American goods. This will make the European market more attractive and so ships that were heading for the United States will change course and head to Europe to avail of the higher prices. With less goods now going to America, prices there will rise until an equilibrium is reached. Thanks to market dynamics, unlike the energy situation surrounding the Russo-Ukraine war, we are all in this one together.


What is Britain to do in this emerging new world order? The grim reality is that, at the time of writing, Britain has no strategy. Being a mid-sized island economy Britain is very reliant on trade. Imports into the United States make up around 14.6 per cent of GDP, but imports into Britain make up around 36 per cent of GDP. Yet, lacking ideas of its own, Britain’s first instinct is to simply copy the strategy of the United States. This is especially apparent amongst British conservatives who have become plugged in, via Twitter, to the American political debate in a manner that appears less and less healthy by the day. British politicians and commentators put their ear to the ground, listening to what is being said across the Atlantic and simply repeat the party line. If America hurls invective at the Chinese, Britain falls into line and even tries to one-up them. But what is good for the goose is by no means clearly good for the gander.

Ireland is preparing for a multipolar world while Britain prepares for a world war that will likely not come and which, if it does come, the country cannot fight

Consider the frankly strange statements of British Secretary of State for Defence Grant Shapps after the debacle in the Red Sea. A few days after the strikes, in his first major speech in his new ministerial role, Shapps said that Britain was entering a “pre-war world” and within five years would be at war with China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia. One wonders if Mr Shapps is familiar with basic statistical realities. Combined these four countries have armies of around 8.2 million soldiers, active and reserve. The British army currently comprises just under 76,000 full-time personnel, just over 4,000 Gurkhas, and around 26,500 reserve personnel. In Mr Shapp’s world war scenario, every British soldier would be fighting 77 Chinese, North Korean, Iranian, and Russian soldiers. These sorts of numbers can be overcome in Hollywood movies, but not in the grim reality of war where one warm body is as good as another.

This is before even considering how the troops would get from here to there. Just days before Mr Shapp’s apocalyptic speech the Royal Navy confirmed to The Telegraph that they would not be able to field any British aircraft carriers to go to the Red Sea. The reason? There were not enough sailors to man the ships. The entire British armed forces have a profound recruitment crisis at present and the taxpayer is currently paying to maintain extremely expensive equipment that cannot be staffed. No one wants to talk about this because it is not convenient for anyone to talk about, and so we are stuck with occasionally leaks to sympathetic publications like The Telegraph. At the start of the year, the Royal Navy was forced to advertise on LinkedIn to hire a Rear-Admiral for its nuclear fleet — an utterly bizarre situation in an institution where recruitment is supposed to take place by promotion through the ranks. Unless Mr Shapps wants to volunteer to man the oars himself and row an aircraft carrier, first to the Persian Gulf to deal with Iran and then to the South Pacific to deal with China and North Korea, it is not clear how Britain is going to partake in his incipient world war.

As Mr Shapps beat his chest, the Chinese Premier Li Qiang arrived in Dublin, Ireland. There he met the Irish President and Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and said that Chinese ties with Ireland were a “good example” to the rest of Europe and the Western world. The prospect of war was not mentioned, Irish leaders clearly know their limits and are also aware that global war of the sort Mr Shapps is talking about would be unimaginably catastrophic. The two countries affirmed their intention to deepen trade relationships and other projects that would serve their mutual benefit. It is no secret that in recent years Ireland has pulled ahead of Britain economically. When Irish national income is measured properly and the distorting effect of tax efficiency tricks removed, Ireland outpaced Britain economically in 2017 and is currently anywhere between 10 per cent and 15 per cent richer. Today, Ireland is preparing for a multipolar world while Britain prepares for a world war that will likely not come and which, if it does come, the country cannot fight. Perhaps it is time to reevaluate Britain’s strategy in this new emerging world.

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