Houthi fight extracts heavy cost on Pentagon

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More than two months of direct fighting with the Houthis has heavily taxed the U.S. military, which is expending a significant amount of money to take down cheap drones, launch retaliatory strikes and defend against rebels who are, in turn, shooting down pricey American drones. 

In most cases, the U.S. is launching $2 million defense missiles to stop $2,000 Houthi drones, a discrepancy that the Yemini rebel group has noted in its statements mocking Washington. 

The cost of taking on the Houthis is also becoming more apparent as the defiant fighters show no signs of stopping and could lock the U.S. into a long conflict — and it’s throwing the world into a tough spot. 

“North Yemen is becoming like North Korea when it comes to firing rockets over the seas,” said Mohammed al-Basha, a Yemen and Middle East expert at analyst and consulting company Navanti Group. “It’s going to be a long-term issue for not just us, but for the world.” 

Since late November, the Houthis have attacked commercial boats and U.S. ships dozens of times, with most of the attacks unsuccessful as the U.S. shoots down drones or anti-ship cruise missiles on a near-daily basis. 

But they successfully hijacked a ship in November, set a ship on fire in January and nearly sunk a British cargo vessel last month. 

To date, the Houthis have hit 15 commercial ships since the fighting began in November, with four of those ships U.S. vessels, according to Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Pete Nguyen. 

The U.S. in December first set up a task force called Operation Prosperity Guardian, which involves a coalition of other allied nations, to patrol the waters of the Red Sea and defend commercial shipping against the Houthis. In January, the U.S. began launching strikes on the Houthis with the U.K., and both nations have continued to target the group in Yemen to knock out military capabilities before they can be used in an attack. 

The maritime operation is still in effect. Between four and eight coalition ships are in the Red Sea on any given day, according to the Pentagon, but the U.S. is the primary actor for taking down Houthi drones and missiles. 

While playing defense, the U.S. Navy is likely using a Standard Missile-2 surface-to-air missile, which costs more than $2 million, to take down Houthi attacks. It may also be using Standard SM-6 missiles, which cost more than $4 million. 

The missiles are effective because they can neutralize threats over a larger area, enabling the U.S. to protect commercial ships. 

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said the U.S. will continue to safeguard international trade and noted that if the coalition hadn’t taken action, lives would be in danger and assets at risk. 

“What would have been the cost of sunken ships, lives lost, environmental disaster, had we not and were we not working with the international community to address this problem?” Ryder asked.  

Ryder said for the Houthis, in the long-term it is “not to their benefit to continue this.” 

“It’s almost like the Houthis are trying to wreck their own neighborhood,” he said. 

Robert Murrett, a retired Navy vice admiral and a former vice director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed. 

“The cost … is an absolute drop in the bucket compared to the global disruption that’s being visited on the world’s economy by the Houthis,” he said. “My firm advice to all the men or women on these [Navy boats] is use whatever you’ve got. Don’t worry about the cost.”

Still, Murrett, now a professor at Syracuse University, said the U.S. could look at cheaper means of taking down the drones like electronic jamming.  

“One of the best ways to deal with a cheap, unmanned aircraft is soft kill, and it has to do with electronic warfare jamming and other devices such as that, which is fairly inexpensive,” he said. 

The Houthis are also costing the U.S. elsewhere: taking down two roughly $32 million Reaper drones in November and another in February. 

Wes Rumbaugh, a fellow with the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said any military engagement is going to cost money and argued you can’t put a dollar value on saving lives. 

“The United States Department of Defense is not trying to win an accounting exercise,” he said. 

Rumbaugh also said he would place his bets on the U.S. over the Houthis in a protracted economic battle. 

“I don’t think the rookies are going to be able to bankrupt the United States,” he said. 

But the Houthis have not only stepped up attacks over time, they are also introducing new capabilities into the fight. 

Last month, Houthi fighters launched an underwater drone for the first time in the Red Sea combat arena. 

And Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said this week that he would soon introduce new “surprises” into the fight after vowing to carry on the battle. 

“We have surprises, which the enemy will not expect,” al-Houthi said, ”beyond anything the enemies and their friends could expect.” 

The Houthis, like other Iranian-backed groups, are protesting Israel’s war against Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. The Yemeni group has claimed to target ships heading to Israel or Israeli-based ships, while other Iranian proxies have hit U.S. bases because Washington supports Israel. 

But Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria have not launched attacks since early February, following massive U.S. strikes on the proxies in both countries after they killed three American troops in an attack on a base in Jordan. 

The Houthis, who endured years of bombings from a Saudi-backed government in Yemen, are more battle tested and more independent from Iran than other proxies. They have refused to give up, even after the U.S. has launched three waves of large strikes in Yemen to degrade their capabilities. 

Some experts have cautioned that the Houthis are enjoying the fight and the global attention — and they may not stop even if the Gaza war were to end.  

“The Houthis will only stop if it benefits them,” said al-Basha from Navanti Group. 

Al-Basha said the Houthis have Soviet-made bunkers for hiding equipment and that a ground operation may be the only way to ensure deterrence, though that option is likely not on the table in Washington or elsewhere in the region. 

“Because this is linked to Palestine, people are not” eager to start a ground operation, he said. “People are just shying away from that.” 

The Houthis are also inflicting economic damage on international trade, a gambit at which they appear to be succeeding. 

Al-Houthi also said his group has been effective at blocking Red Sea traffic and claimed to have targeted 54 ships so far. 

While the Houthis have attacked commercial shipping and U.S. assets before, they have never done so on this scale.  

The Red Sea remains largely shut down, with commercial ships still avoiding the shortcut through the Suez Canal, which is the channel for about 10 percent of global trade. 

Shipping giants like Maersk have opted to avoid the Red Sea and the Houthi threat and circle around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, adding miles to their trip and taking on extra costs that have jacked up shipping rates.  

Matt Colyar, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, said the U.S. economy is strong and demand is not as high as it was in the midst of the pandemic. He doubted the Houthis could inflict economic damage like the supply chain snarls of 2021 or force major economic challenges for the U.S. economy in the event of a prolonged conflict.

Still, he noted that Maersk has hiked its shipping cost for a 40-foot container from $2,000 to $6,200, and a drawn-out conflict could impose costs on countries like Egypt, which gets a large share of its tax revenue from ships in the Suez Canal. 

“It can make that country that’s already in a really dire fiscal situation that much worse,” he said. “Then you have a country of hundreds of millions of people in a sovereign debt crisis.” 

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