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Houthi attacks on ships are giving the rebels and Iran intel on how to hunt down and strike naval targets, war experts say

Jake Epstein   

Houthi attacks on ships are giving the rebels and Iran intel on how to hunt down and strike naval targets, war experts say
  • The Houthis have spent the past few months lobbing missiles and drones at ships off Yemen's coast.
  • These threats have not hit US Navy ships in the region, but they have struck merchant vessels.

After months of constantly firing missiles and drones at ships off the coast of Yemen, the Houthis are showing no signs of ending their relentless provocations.

During this time, their weapons have struck several commercial vessels, come dangerously close to a US Navy warship, and introduced a deadly new threat into naval combat. War experts say the rebels and Iran, their main backer, have been learning key information from the ongoing attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War and American Enterprise Institute think tanks said the Houthis and Iran are likely using the attacks to "test and refine their approach to striking naval targets." Tehran's military advisors have reportedly been providing the rebels with critical targeting intelligence.

"These Houthi attacks provide Iran and the Houthis opportunities to evaluate the effectiveness of different strike packages to understand how they can evade and overwhelm US defenses more effectively," these analysts wrote in a Thursday assessment of conflicts across the Middle East.

The Houthi rebels boast a sizable arsenal of one-way attack drones, anti-ship cruise missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missiles, the latter of which had never been used in combat until recently. They also possess an inventory of surface and underwater drones.

Some of the capabilities, like the anti-ship missiles, are Iranian in origin or are made up of parts from the country, according to an analysis the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank published in early January.

As the Houthis continue to lose missiles and drones to US military intercepts and strikes — preemptive actions designed to take out the threats before they launch — it is unclear how often the rebels are being rearmed and resupplied by Iran.

American forces have, on several occasions over the past few weeks, intercepted small boats smuggling advanced weaponry from Tehran to Yemen in a bid to stem the flow of arms to the Houthis.

"We still believe that they continue to be supported by the regime in Tehran — materials, weapons systems are still being supplied," White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Friday, adding that the US is continuing to conduct operations to intercept Houthi-bound weaponry at sea.

"We'll obviously do everything we can to try to limit and stem that flow, but the flow is ongoing," he said.

But despite losing combat capabilities to US forces, the Houthis still manage to consistently launch threats into key international shipping lanes off the coast of Yemen. And while the rebels have been unable to score a hit on the incredibly well-defended American warships operating in the region, they have struck multiple commercial vessels with drones and missiles.

These hits have largely caused only minor damage to the ships, and they were still able to keep sailing toward their destinations. On occasion though, these engagements prove to be more costly. Earlier this week, for example, a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile hit a bulk carrier, forcing its crew to issue a distress call and abandon the vessel.

The frequency of the Houthi missile and drone attacks has raised questions about how long these engagements might go on for and the sustainability of the US Navy's operations in the region.

US officials continue to assert that the military's strikes against the Houthis — some of which have been widespread and coordinated with the UK while the vast majority are unilateral — have managed to degrade the rebels' capabilities to a notable extent.

Sabrina Singh, the deputy Pentagon press secretary, told reporters this week that the Houthis still have a large number of capabilities, but US and coalition forces have been able to chip away at this. And the White House has said the same.

"We do believe that we have had an impact on not just the degradation of their capabilities, but the way in which they're using the capabilities they have available to them," Kirby said on Friday.

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