Not much attention is being paid to the relentless attacks on merchant shipping rounding the Gulf of Aden and entering into the Red Sea for transit of the Suez Canal and following the same route in the opposite direction. This is being done by three major groups: Iran, the Houthi elements of Yemen, and now, apparently, the Somalis. Iran is the regional proxy for China, and recent comments by a Chinese National Defense University Professor said the quiet part out loud when he remarked how the Houthis were doing China a “favor” by stopping world trade. This has become the largest assault on ocean shipping since the German U-Boat campaign in the North Atlantic during the earlier phases of World War II. Between Chinese Fentanyl across the Southern Border and this assault on world shipping, World War III is well underway. The first attack occurred on November 19, 2023, when the M/V Galaxy Leader was seized with its crew and is still being held. The 20th attack was carried on January 4, 2024, when an unidentified ship was boarded and seized 460 nautical miles east of Somalia – deep into the Indian Ocean.
World trade depends on access through the Red Sea to and from the Suez Canal, 15% of all world merchant traffic passes through this vital chokepoint. Relatively little American commerce uses the Suez, but Europe is far more dependent upon this route. The challenge is that when this route is blocked, it begins to eat into American routes and needs and is already having an impact on world supply chains. The Americans have announced Operation Prosperity Garden, which has commenced but is struggling, with a number of key nations not participating and several other announced participants taking care of their own ships first. Despite this operation, the Houthis continue to attack, demonstrating that the U.S. Navy is not quite as feared as it used to be. There are several things that can be done relatively quickly to regain the initiative and clear the seas. Of course, it’s not in the DNA of the Biden Team to do the right thing when the key tenet is “proportionality”, which is a part of the International Laws of Warfare but should not be considered a religion in which the U.S. is groveling and subservient to those who want to hurt Americans and others which is how the Obama-Biden team treat this principle.
Secure the Bab al-Mandab Strait
The choke point within the choke point of this transit to and from the Suez is the narrow opening of the Red Sea at an approximate ten-mile-wide point between the tip of Yemen and the small African country of Djibouti. Many of the attacks have occurred close to this point. The reports from Central Command (CENTCOM) have been interesting and describe cruise missiles, drones, and also “anti-ship ballistic missiles.” This last reference is confusing – supposedly, the Chinese have the DF-21 and DF-26 Ballistic missiles with maneuvering re-entry vehicles that can engage a moving target – a capability the U.S. does not have. The Iranians have the Fateh-110 tactical battlefield rocket, but I have a problem with the term “ballistic missile” when referring to the Iranian Fateh-110 if that’s what CENTCOM means. I would not dignify the Fateh-110 with the term “ballistic missile.” This tactical battlefield, likely sub-orbital, rocket may have a maneuvering warhead, but battlefield estes rockets do not a ballistic missile make. Proper terms and classifications matter. I’ve asked CENTCOM to please clarify – no response yet.
The reality is that with this narrow gap of the Bab al-Mandab, the Houthis, with proper intelligence on track, speed, and direction of merchant vessels can lob enough ordnance into this gap and eventually hit something. The American Navy has the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with the 26th MEU (SOC) (Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)) close by. The Bab al-Mandab starts from a small, very sparsely inhabited island called Mayyun off of the Murad Peninsula. Supported by the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, the Marine 26th MEU (SOC) should be able to land and create a firebase with the highly effective HIMARS launchers to rain fire on the Houthis deep into mainland Yemen. Re-taking this island would expose the Houthis to the thunder of Navy MH-60 helicopters acting like modern flying PT boats, as three Houthi speed boats just found out. Mayyun should provide a strategic vantage point to deter further Houthi actions.
Make a clear and demonstrative teaching point to the Houthis and Iran
One puzzling issue that is going on is that mired in the religion of “proportionality”, the Biden Obama Team appears to be allowing at least two Iranian spy vessels to wander around the zone of conflict. It is highly likely that these Iranian ships are providing that intelligence described above. Well, if the Wall Street Journal can figure this out, it is incredulous that the Biden Team does not understand their role and would allow the Iranians to conduct these forward observer activities to properly direct fire into the Bab al-Mandab gap and the Red Sea.
If the Biden Team is serious about stability, peace, and the rule of law they would carry out a distinctive life lesson. Central Command should warn the Iranian vessels to leave and then vaporize them the nanosecond any intelligence related signals were transmitted by the Iranians. Allowing the Iranians to operate with impunity in the middle of this Houthi/Iran/China created conflict, disrupting world trade is baffling but consistent with the Biden Administration’s obsession with “proportionality” and giving deference and cash to Iran. The translation of Team Biden’s behavior: Biden is willing to risk American and Allied Sailors rather than doing the right thing and chasing out the Iranians.
Communicate clarity and resolve through words and action from the White House
Of course, clarity and resolve are not in the DNA of Team Biden/Blinken/Austin/and Sullivan, but the best advice I give regardless of who’s in the seat. The national command authority must be clear and mean what they say when staring down the Chinese-led coalition. A red line must be drawn, and as President Trump would say, the cost must be imposed for failure to adhere to the red line. There’s a short-term aspect to this to address the immediate tactical situation to regain control of the sea lanes, but there’s a near-term and longer-term element to spin up the U.S. Defense Industrial Base to rapidly expand the U.S. Navy and Air Force to re-establish feared, credible deterrence. The more we spin up now, the less likely larger conflict with China or forever wars will occur. That is exactly what Trump advocates.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro is doing a very Trumpian job of trying to whip up the entire shipbuilding industrial base into shape – he is showing energy and vision on this matter that I have not seen since the Reagan days. I’m not implying he should be held over into the second term of the Trump Administration, but I’m going to give him credit for his leadership. He seems to be one of the few who also relatively avoids DEI lecturing and advocacy. At least Del Torro may warm up this anemic and woefully decrepit sector of the defense industrial base into some foreword movement in time for America First leadership in the fall.