How Houthi attacks are impacting commercial shipping in the Red Sea
In this comprehensive analysis, we delve into the evolving trends of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea region, examining the strategic implications, patterns, and geopolitical factors that shape the ongoing security situation.
• Following explicit warnings that international shipping companies associated with Israel would be considered targets, the Houthi military seized control of the GALAXY LEADER on November 19, 2023.
• Subsequently, between December 1 and January 18, a total of 42 incidents unfolded in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
• Despite the presence of the US-led international naval operation Prosperity Guardian and military strikes initiated by the US and Britain against Houthi strike capabilities starting January 4, the Houthi forces maintain their capacity to target international shipping in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, or beyond, particularly with the Iran-supplied Paveh boasting an 800km range.
• While Prosperity Guardian and the military actions by the US and Britain have achieved some success, with a notable decline in incidents from a peak of seven during the week of December 4-10 to two and one attack in the subsequent two weeks respectively, it is crucial to acknowledge potential distortions in the figures. These distortions may arise due to a decrease in transit volume, with just under 550 recorded during November 19-26 compared to just under 350 during January 8-14. Many vessels are opting to navigate via the Cape of Good Hope rather than the Red Sea.
• A further detailed analysis reveals a shift in the Houthi area of attack, transitioning from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Fig 1 – Increased traffic along the shipping route around the Cape of Good Hope
Fig 2 – 42 incidents have taken place in the Red Sea over December and January
Situation: Houthi Statement of Intent
Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea commenced on November 19, 2023, when they seized control of the Car Transport vessel GALAXY LEADER. A warning was issued by the Houthis, declaring that all vessels associated with Israel would be considered “legitimate targets for its armed forces.” These attacks were explicitly linked to the condition that they would persist until Israel ceased operations in the Gaza Strip.
On December 9, Brigadier General Yahya Sarea, the Houthi military spokesperson, formally announced an expansion of their maritime assault scope. He stated that “ships regardless of their national affiliation will become a target for our armed forces,” extending their target list to include all vessels traveling to Israel.
Despite efforts by the United States and the United Kingdom to degrade Houthi capabilities through airstrikes targeting missile and radar guidance sites in Yemen, attacks on commercial ships have continued unabated. In response, General Sarea attributed full responsibility to the “American and British enemy,” characterizing their actions as “criminal aggression against our Yemeni people.” He emphasized that this aggression would not go unanswered. The Houthi faction explicitly declared that vessels from the United States and the United Kingdom are now considered “legitimate targets” within the context of their ongoing military campaign.
Situation: Operation Prosperity Guardian
A US-led military operation has been launched with the objective of guaranteeing maritime security and the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. Its central aim is to address the challenges posed by Houthi militants in Yemen, backed by Iran, who have been actively targeting both commercial and military vessels. The primary focus of this operation is to establish a defensive perimeter to counter Houthi attacks, safeguard international shipping routes, and sustain the unimpeded flow of global trade through this vital maritime corridor.
Fig 3 – Approximate location of International Naval Assets
The following graphs demonstrate the statistics for vessels that have transited the Red Sea and the number that have been subsequently attacked from 19th November 2023 to 16th January 2024. The table below indicates the time frame for each week.
|19th November 2023 – 26th November 2023
|27th November 2023 – 03rd December 2023
|04th December 2023 – 10th December 2023
|11th December 2023 – 17th December 2023
|18th December 2023 – 24th December 2023
|25th December 2023 – 31th December 2023
|01st January 2024 – 07th January 2024
|08th January 2024 – 14th January 2024
Fig 4 – Total vessels transiting via the Suez Canal
Fig 5 – Attacks on vessels in the Red Sea
The threat to ships transiting the Red Sea has resulted in an increasing number of ship operators routing their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope as a risk mitigation strategy. In December 2023, BP released the following statement which echoes the sentiment felt by the wider industry: “In light of the deteriorating security situation for shipping in the Red Sea, BP has decided to temporarily pause all transits through the Red Sea”. Without coalition reassurances that the Red Sea route is safe, it is likely that this route will be utilised by more and more vessel operators, notwithstanding the additional and significant financial cost.
The ongoing turmoil in and around the Red Sea, characterised by aggressive actions from the Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen, presents a clear threat to commercial shipping in the region. Recent incidents, including the Houthi targeting of commercial and military vessels, indicate the heightened risks in this crucial maritime corridor. Despite the concerted efforts of Operation Prosperity Guardian and US/UK strikes on Houthi capabilities and radar facilities, the Houthi’s arsenal of anti-ship missiles, notably the Iran-supplied Paveh with an 800km range, remains a significant threat.
Fig 6 – Weekly oil tanker transits indicating an overall reduction in traffic
The data demonstrated above indicates that there has been a reduction in attempts by the Houthis to strike commercial vessels in the Red Sea in week 8 down from the height of the problem in week 3. The defensive umbrella established by the implementation of Operation Prosperity Guardian and its success in intercepting Houthi weapons has reduced the number of successful strikes. The number of attacks has also reduced recently but it remains unclear if this is due to the US/UK strikes on Houthi infrastructure or down to the steady decline in the number of ships transiting the Red Sea due to Houthi attacks.
Recent Houthi attacks have predominantly focused on the Gulf of Aden rather than the Red Sea. This shift suggests an effort to circumvent the protective measures implemented by Operation Prosperity Guardian, potentially increasing the likelihood of successful hits or aiming to broaden their operational scope, thereby diminishing the effectiveness of the operation. The presence of the Iranian-flagged cargo vessel BEHSHAD, likely providing intelligence and targeting information to the Houthis, suggests a deliberate tactical strategy testing the coalition’s capabilities.
While the UK/US strikes may not have completely eradicated the Houthi weapons arsenal, they likely inflicted significant damage, potentially compelling the group to conserve their munitions. A reduced arsenal could diminish the threat of future attacks, as there are fewer weapons available for interception. The impact on the shipping industry’s confidence in resuming Red Sea transits remains uncertain despite additional warships operating in the region.
Despite international naval forces and airstrikes targeting land-based sites, the Houthis are expected to persist in applying pressure on global shipping and trade. They may adapt tactics, potentially increasing amphibious operations against specific targets, exploiting their asymmetric advantage to devise innovative attack methods. Consequently, continuous monitoring, robust risk assessments, and thorough contingency planning are imperative for all operators in the area.
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