Red Sea Attacks and Naval Response

By Dr. Ann Griffiths, 15 January 2024

If anyone is wondering about the relevance of navies in 2024, then there is an obvious role now – protection of shipping. Yemen-based Houthis are making the Red Sea a no-go area for shipping. They have used drones, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and small explosive-laden boats to target ships in the Red Sea off Yemen (the group has noted it might also target ships in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden). Their actions are ostensibly undertaken in support of Palestinians in Gaza and were originally said to target only those ships with ties to, or bound for, Israel, although their focus seems to have broadened to include pretty much any ship passing by. Many shipping companies are now re-routing their ships around Africa instead of using the shorter route through the Suez Canal. This has major implications. Egypt will not receive millions of dollars of revenue for passage through the canal, which it can ill afford to lose. Insurance rates have gone up, container costs have increased, the longer route means delays, more fuel, more pay to crew (including additional security personnel). The events are already starting to pinch in Canada – apparently two-thirds of the 43 ships scheduled to arrive in Halifax in the remaining weeks of January are likely to arrive at least a day behind schedule, with some weeks late.[1]

In response to the attacks, the United States initiated Operation Prosperity Guardian in December. This has involved deploying a number of US Navy warships, as well as British and French warships to the area. Along with some European states, Canada has supported the operation – not with ships but apparently with three CAF staff officers, whose contribution is unknown. (Missing from public support of the operation are Middle Eastern countries.)

The problem is that the presence of warships has not deterred the Houthis. Missiles and drones continue to be launched at ships in the area. The US, UK and French warships have successfully intercepted the vast majority of missiles and drones, illustrating the efficacy of their anti-air capabilities. But the plot thickens. On the night of 11/12 January, the USN and Royal Navy carried out airstrikes on sites in Yemen. The Houthis have vowed revenge. Iran has sent a warship into the area.

The Houthis were losing support among Yemenis because of poor governance but this action in support of Palestinians has increased their support, both at home and with populations in the Middle East. Airstrikes in Yemen increase the popularity of the Houthis even more.[2] This continuing crisis raises many questions. How effective is deterrence against determined non-state groups? Despite the warships, shipping companies are using the alternate route. Thus, how effective are warships to counter land-based attacks against ships in chokepoints? Since it seems to be working, will this strategy be used in other shipping channels? Many people have worried that the conflict in Israel will metastacize into a broader conflict, but most predicted it would spread via the West Bank, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Iran, but perhaps Yemen will be the match that lights the fire?

Interestingly, two major shipping canals in the world – the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal – are both suffering right now. The Suez Canal is threatened by missiles and the Panama Canal by drought. Just when the mess caused by the pandemic got unsnarled, we get two new wrinkles in global shipping.   

[1]  “Tremors from Red Sea conflict start to shake Canada, with dozens of ships delayed,” The Canadian Press, 15 January 2024, Tremors from Red Sea conflict start to shake Canada, with dozens of ships delayed (

[2] For a good discussion of this, see International Crisis Group, “What Next after US and UK Strikes on the Houthis?” 13 January 2024, What next after U.S. and UK strikes on the Houthis? | Crisis Group


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