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Artillery Row

Necessary force

It was right for the US and the UK to attack Houthi military positions

It is difficult to conceive of a more overtly advertised series of events that led to the overnight bombing of Houthi positions in Yemen. It came at around 2.30am on 12 January (local time), about 30 minutes after another hostile anti-ship missile had been launched into the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden. This was the latest attack in the Red Sea, which links the Middle East and Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal, and its narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, 10% of the world’s tanker fleet ply their trade through it, while an estimated $1 trillion in goods pass via the region annually. As I outlined earlier in The Critic, the pro-Iranian Houthi junta in control of war-torn Yemen has been agitating for trouble ever since the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel. Having immediately declared war on the Jewish state, allegedly in support of their Palestinian brethren, they began firing long range rockets at Israel (all intercepted) and targeting warships and merchant vessels of more than 50 countries sailing in the region, with missiles and marine craft. 

The first incident was on 19 October when the destroyer USS Carney downed four missiles and 15 drones. Since then, the attacks have continued and escalated, with 27 Houthi attacks aimed at seventeen civilian vessels. This in turn triggered warships from many nations to patrol the area. Some are under command of the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, which on 18 December formed Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), to protect shipping in a region which sees up to 30 per cent of the world’s container fleet as well as tankers heading for the Suez Canal and Europe. Some nations, such as Italy, Spain, Denmark, Greece and Sri Lanka have now deployed frigates to the area, though not necessarily part of OPG or under US command.

On 31 December, four Houthi boats tried to seize a merchant vessel. When US helicopters responded to the ship’s distress call, the boats opened fire. The aircraft returned fire, sinking three of the boats and killing the crews. Houthi commanders claim they are only targeting civilian vessels heading for Israel, or which have Israeli links. This is manifestly untrue, and from Day One, their maritime attacks, either by fast patrol boat or shore-based anti-ship missile, have been indiscriminate, including that on the destroyer HMS Diamond on 9 January, forcing the warship to defend herself at close quarters. Diamond, the frigates HMS Lancaster and Languedoc from France (soon to be joined by another frigate, HMS Richmond) with the USS Eisenhower carrier strike group with other warships, are in the region to ensure freedom of navigation, enshrined by Article 87(1)a of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The real connection with the Hamas-Israeli conflict is at best tenuous. The fingerprints of Tehran are all over the Houthis’ behaviour, and may amount to Iran trying to strategically stretch the West’s resources by lighting provocative fires throughout the region, via the three “H’s”, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Despite much misinformed chatter to the contrary there is no Russian dimension to this. Indeed, Moscow may be anxious at the redirection of munitions and drones supplied by Tehran away from its depleted arsenals. The Kremlin is both nervous of organised Islam and mindful of the fact that 15 per cent of Israel’s population are Russians. Mr Putin’s link with Iran is purely transactional, for weaponry and drones he can use in Ukraine. This is not 1914 or even 1939. Neither are we on a launch pad to another world war.

The world has been forced to confront the wild men of Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, after many verbal warnings, culminating in a heavy kinetic attack by plane and missile. The action has been backed by a political coalition of Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Korea. This action was measured and proportionate, and targeted 16 locations with the Houthis claiming 72 separate attacks. They included radar and missile launch sites, airfields, missile storage bases, command and control facilities and drone operation bases, all of which have been monitored carefully by satellites during the preceding months. There is evidence that Houthi casualties will be low, as intelligence suggested they were emptying these locations of most military personnel beforehand. The argument remains with Yemen’s militant regime, not its people.

This measured action is not pro-Israel or anti-Yemeni, but pro-trade. There is no “world Zionist conspiracy” behind the coalition’s activity. The effect of tankers and container ships having to avoid Suez and trek the long way round to Europe has already created shortages, is estimated to negatively affect the UK’s GDP by up to 3 per cent, will add to the price of petrol, and inflict bottlenecks of vital raw materials and finished products throughout the West. Singapore has committed military forces to protect its merchant shipping, which sends 12 per cent of the entire world share of semiconductors through the Gulf region to Europe. This is most definitely our fight, and equally one involving the rest of the world. 

There are long faces in Westminster today amongst the Labour left, SNP and Liberal Democrats complaining that parliament was not first consulted. This is not legally necessary. As a courtesy the Prime Minister did brief Keir Starmer and Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, but there is no codified parliamentary procedure that formally requires the Government to seek approval before taking military action. This is for the perfectly reasonable requirement of operational security: the more involved in a secret, the leakier it becomes. In world wars, military operations are authorised by a small war cabinet. Other nations do the same. The Prime Minister and Cabinet retain the constitutional right to decide when and where to authorise action, although in practice governments in modern times have usually ensured parliamentary debate, and a retrospective one will be scheduled. We now know the PM also consulted President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt on 11 January. This was to request permission for Cyprus-based RAF aircraft to overfly Egyptian airspace, the carrot being the removal of a problem causing $15m per day in lost transit fees through the Suez Canal.

Cynics may observe that in an election year, a war may well play well for a beleaguered prime minister. However, there are times to divorce foreign affairs from domestic politics and this is one of them. No doubt alive to the ghost of the 1982 Falklands War, but also of the 1956 Suez debacle, Mr Sunak is fully aware that he will be damned by some if he authorises force, but equally shamed if he fails to act. Mr Biden is in a similar quandary. Both have chosen military action as a signal of deterrence to the Houthis, and any other actors in the region, to desist from harassing international maritime trade.

Others complain there has been no (though one is pending) UN Security Council Resolution to provide legal cover for kinetic coalition action. Although one was passed on 10 January demanding an immediate end to the Houthi attacks, it did not deter, and there remains global concern about the effect they are having on shipping routes. Though China is neutral, if still worried about the implications for its maritime trade, Russia may well use its veto in support of its ally, Iran, who provides the moral force and technical expertise behind Yemeni aggression. Yet, this overnight coalition attack was no shoot-from-the-hip operation. Behind the scenes the UK and US governments will have been working hard to devise an appropriate package of force to deliver a strategic effect. It takes time to put the right personnel, ships, planes and munitions in place, conduct the fullest possible reconnaissance and mount 24-7 surveillance. 

This coalition strike will have inflicted some damage, and caused the Houthi regime to pause before considering its next moves

This coalition strike will have inflicted some damage, and caused the Houthi regime to pause before considering its next moves. The Saudis (who since 2015 led an unsuccessful war against the Houthis) will be nervous that a Houthi/Iranian response may be asymmetric, using sleeper Yemeni operatives to strike Western and Saudi interests within the kingdom itself. Whatever damage has been done was entirely the fault of Houthi intransigence, not international scheming. Predictably Yemen and Iran have claimed otherwise. The attack involved 4 RAF Typhoon FGR4s from No.903 Expeditionary Air Wing based at Akrotiri airbase on Cyprus, supported by Voyager KC3 air tankers, P-8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft, probably MQ9 Reaper drones and directed by RC-135W Rivet Joint and Shadow 1 radar-laden planes. Such is the airborne effort required these days to launch precision strikes over the horizon and underlines the value of retaining Akrotiri as an outpost. 

The RAF unleashed Paveway IV laser-guided bombs, while FA/A-18 Super Hornet fighters and a Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft launched from the USS Eisenhower carrier strike group released other precision guided munitions as well as Tomahawk Cruise Missiles fired from the submarine USS Florida. Vessels from the coalition fleet gave support, meaning logistical help in the form of fuel, or close-in defence against hostile aircraft, submarines and missiles. 

It is the hallmark of healthy democracies that so much information has been released so soon about the coalition forces, including overnight photos of the attacking aircraft proceeding on their missions, and illustrates the necessity and efficacy of alliance-building by friendly nations in difficult times. It also illuminates the perils of furthering UK defence cuts and the need for a massive expansion in military expenditure when faced with unanticipated activity across the globe. At the moment there is no need for any of the many Middle East tensions to merge into an unholy mess. However, it is vital that we continue to be prepared to act early and resolutely to prevent any further escalation.

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