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The US and the UK seem to be readying to take robust military action against the Houthis in Yemen as part of a joint military operation, which seems likely over the coming month.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 4 January 2023.

  • The UK defence minister on 1 January stated that if the Houthis continue their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, the UK would ‘be forced to take the necessary and appropriate action’
  • On current indications, that does not seem imminent but is likely over the coming month

A US-UK joint military operation against the Houthis in Yemen seems likely over the coming month. International press reports this week suggest that the UK and the US are considering direct military strikes to prevent further Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. This comes as US-led military deterrence and broader diplomatic efforts have failed to achieve this. On 3 January the US and UK issued a joint statement with another 11 countries, saying the Houthis ‘would bear the consequences’ if they did not stop the attacks on vessels.

It does not appear that the US and UK are about to act in the imminent term (next two weeks). But the current pace of Houthi attacks and the conflict in Gaza among other factors indicate that they will probably do so within the next month.

Severe disruption to shipping to continue

The Houthis are highly likely to continue to attack international shipping at least twice weekly over the coming month. Since 19 November the group has conducted at least 24 attacks on commercial vessels in the southern Red Sea, including three this week alone. There have been many other incidents of attempted attacks (see map). The group has repeatedly stated, most recently yesterday, 3 January, that it would not stop until Israel ends its military operation in Gaza. That is likely to continue at least over the coming months.

Forms of Houthi tactics include unsafe approaches, hijackings (and hostage-taking), armed drones, and missiles. Houthi launch pads are located in Abs province, areas east of Hodeidah airport, and areas between Hodeidah and Al-Salif ports, according to a source who is well-connected politically in Yemen. This has had severely disruptive consequences for international shipping. Eight major container lines and one major tanker operator (among other shipping companies) have recently rerouted their vessels around Africa.

UK and US retaliation becoming likely

The US and the UK seem to be readying to take more robust action against the Houthis to prevent any further attacks on shipping. Their deterrence and diplomacy efforts so far have largely failed. And in a first direct confrontation with the Houthis since their attacks started in November, the US sank three Houthi ships approaching a cargo vessel in the southern Red Sea after the group’s crews fired at a US helicopter on 31 December. The UK defence minister on 1 January stated that if the Houthis continue such attacks, the UK would ‘be forced to take the necessary and appropriate action’.

There appears to be growing international political support for such offensive military action. On 3 January the US and UK issued a joint statement with another 11 countries, calling for the Houhtis to ‘immediate[ly] end..illegal attacks’ or ‘bear the responsibility of the consequences’. Based on our understanding of the Houthis’ resolve, we doubt that statement would deter the group.

Any operation against the Houthis in Yemen does not appear to be imminent (in the coming two weeks). At first, that would probably involve an intensification of US and UK strikes against Houthi targets at sea. This would involve similar deadly confrontations to the incident on 31 December involving US forces. According to The Times, an unnamed UK government source said this week that UK special forces could destroy Houthi boats while in the harbour using explosives.

Ultimately, the two states will probably feel compelled to take offensive military action against the Houthis in Yemen over the coming month. That is partly given the Houthis’ tendency to further escalate its missile and drone attacks when under attack. The group stated yesterday, 3 January, on X (formerly Twitter) that ‘any American aggression will not go unanswered or unpunished’.

In our analysis, any US or UK action within Yemen would involve a coordinated campaign of air and naval strikes against targets in Houthi-held territory in Yemen. These would include the coastal missile and drone launch and radar sites the group has been using to target shipping in the Red Sea in recent weeks. They seem unlikely to target launch sites the Houthis have been using to launch missiles and drones towards Israel, most of which are further inland.

Houthi capabilities unlikely to be totally degraded

We have moderate to high confidence that UK and US military operations would – at least initially – degrade the Houthis’ capabilities to launch attacks against shipping in the Red Sea. The frequency of such attacks would be highly likely to drop, though not completely cease. The group is able to set up launch pads in other parts of the Yemeni territory it holds and has weapons facilities throughout it.

The Houthis are unlikely to retaliate against US and UK military action by targeting Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They have not participated in any US-led diplomacy or deterrence efforts against Houthi attacks in the Red Sea; similarly, they would be unlikely to show any support for US or UK military action against the group. The Houthis also appear focused on targeting Israel, and still seem to want to maintain a truce with Saudi Arabia; on 23 December they agreed on a plan to establish a lasting ceasefire.

In the unlikely event that the US and UK completely degrade the Houthis’ ability to launch maritime attacks for a significant amount of time, it would be probable that Iran would step up its own attacks on commercial vessels in the Indian Ocean to keep showing solidarity with the Palestinians amid the conflict in Gaza. In an unconfirmed incident, the US accused Iran of a one-way drone attack against an Israeli-linked vessel southwest of the city of Veraval in India on 23 December.

Image: Yemen’s Houthi loyalists lift their weapons as they take part in an armed parade, staged to show their willingness to battle any potential attack by the USA, on 20 December 2023 in Amran province, Yemen. Photo by Mohammed Hamoud via Getty Images.