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HomeNEWSInternational NewsWhat do Houthis gain by attacking ships in Red Sea?

What do Houthis gain by attacking ships in Red Sea?

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The Red Sea, through the Suez Canal at its northern end, is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, being much shorter than the old route to Asia, Pacific Islands and Australia around the Cape of Good Hope. As long as the world depends on oil for energy, this shipping lane will remain of great strategic and geopolitical importance. The Gulf of Aden connects with the Red Sea at its southern end through the Bab-al-Mandab strait and the Arabian Sea to the north-east. Of late, the Red Sea has been witnessing a spill-over of the Israel-Hamas war.

Since October 19, 2023, that is less than two weeks after the October 7 dastardly attack of Hamas terrorists on Israel, the Houthis have been firing missiles and drones randomly on merchant ships in the Red Sea belonging to countries not even connected with the Israeli war in an act of unabashed terrorism. In retaliation, since January 11, the USA, UK and some allies have started attacking Houthi military targets in a very controlled manner. The US Navy has started firing cruise missiles and bombing with warplanes from its aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, whereas the Royal Air Force planes are flying from their base in Cyprus. 

Who Are the Houthis?

Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking ships in the Red Sea?
Pic: Radio New Zealand (RNZ News)

Houthis are Shia Muslims comprising about one-third of the population in Yemen, which has a Sunni majority. They call themselves Ansar-ul-Allah. It was formed in the 1990s as an opposition force to the Yemeni government. If you recall, 2011 was characterized by a wave of anti-government protests and uprisings known as the Arab Spring. There was a revolution in Yemen too. They capitalized on the unrest in Yemen to start a civil war since 2014 against the Saudi-backed government. They seized the capital Sanaa then and are holding on to it since then besides most of the country. In 2017, Yemen Post estimated the number of armed Houthi men at about a lakh. The Yemeni government has been driven to the southern port city of Aden, and the less-populated eastern portion of the country. But, the world has not granted the Houthis recognition. A truce was negotiated under UN auspices, but it formally ended in October 2022, though its terms have largely been held up even without a formal agreement.

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The Houthis and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah are ideological allies of Hamas. Both of them are supported by Iran. Iran calls them the ‘Axis of Resistance’ against Israel.

Reasons for the Attack on Mercantile Shipping

The Houthis call their attacks ‘naval operations’. They say that the attacks are being carried out “to support the Palestinian people in confronting the aggression and siege on Gaza”. They, of course, cannot be bothered to explain as to why they are attacking ships that have nothing to do at all with the Israel-Hamas war. That is precisely what makes their attacks an act of terror even if they have not been formally declared a terror group by the USA.

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How Indian Seamen Are Getting Affected By the Attacks

While the entire nation was busy celebrating our 75th Republic Day, the Indian Navy was busy deploying a guided missile destroyer INS Visakhapatnam in the Gulf of Aden in response to a Marshal Islands oil tanker MV Marlin Luanda’s distress call about a missile attack off the coast of Yemen and subsequently a fire on board. The ship had 22 Indians and one Bangladeshi amongst its crew. Navy’s fire-fighting team brought the fire under control in six hours. Earlier, there were two more attacks on merchant vessels that had Indians on board. On December 23, 2023, tanker Chem Pluto was attacked and on January 18, 2024, Genco Picardy was attacked by missile or drone. We are given to understand that as many as 12 warships of the Indian Navy are patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea in the wake of Houthis’ and pirates’ attacks.

From Where Do the Houthis Get Their Missiles and Drones?

Pic: Middle East Monitor

When the Houthis captured the national capital, they got hold of some obsolescent Soviet-made P-21 and P-22- missiles (RS-SSC-3 Styx), as well as the slightly more modern Chinese C-801 (YJ-81/CH-SS-N-4 Sardine), from Yemeni military stocks. Though they are paraded even now, it is doubtful whether they are operational. In 2016, for the first time, they fired an anti-ship missile of Iranian origin on Emirati troop-transport catamaran HSV-2 Swift and tried to attack the USS Mason (DDG-87), an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer.

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Iranian help was confirmed in 2019 when US Navy’s USS Forest Sherman (DDG-98) guided missile destroyer intercepted a vessel in the Arabian Sea smuggling Iranian-made arms to Yemen, including a version of the Chinese C-802 (YJ-82/CH-SS-N-6 Saccade) anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM). Iran has made its own version of the Chinese 120 km-range C-802 called Nour. It was modified first into the 200 km-range Ghader and then the 300 km-range Ghadir. According to Fabian Hinz, writing for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Houthis have the Ghadir, which they call Al-Mandab 2.

During their parades in 2022 and 2023, Houthis displayed two more anti-ship missiles, which are believed to be two modified forms of Iranian Quds/351 LACM (Land Attack Cruise Missile). One (Sayyad) is suspected to be equipped with a radar-homing seeker, and the other (Sejil) with an electro-optical/infrared seeker (Quds Z-0). They might have range of 800 km.

They also have rebranded Iranian Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM). Their Asef ASBM is Iran’s Fateh 313 and Tankil is Iran’s Zohayr with a range of 500 km. The advantage of ballistic missiles over cruise missiles is their heavier payload. These two can carry up to 300 kg of explosives. The Houthis are learnt to have mounted Iranian guidance kits on some rather crude rockets of Iran to improvise ASBMs. This has resulted in three small ASBMs, namely, Faleq, Mayun and Bahr al-Ahmar with range of 140 km.

As far as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Drones) are concerned, according to Conflict Armament Research, an independent investigative organisation that tracks the sources of weapons, ammunition, and other military materiel that have been diverted into the hands of non-state armed actors, Houthis have some nine types of UAVs. Their information is partly based on the actual seizures made by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Presidential Guard forces.

The Qasef 1 is Iran’s Ababil-T. From this is derived the Qasef 1 Hybrid. The somewhat bigger Sammad and its three variants use an engine made by 3W-Modellmotoren Weinhold GmbH (3W) in Hanau, Germany, giving them a range of 1,500 km. It can carry some 18 kg of explosive warhead. Wa’eed 2 is Iran’s Shahed 136.

How Accurate Are Their Attacks?

Iran has also been training them in using both missiles and drones. The accuracy of their ballistic missiles on moving targets is very much doubtful and no technical data are available. Tucker Reals of the CBS News estimates that probably many of their rockets and drones never reach their intended targets, and it is often not clear what those targets actually were before the weapons are destroyed. Modern naval ships can easily shoot down these relatively unsophisticated missiles. However, given the fact that merchant vessels do not have any defensive systems, they are sitting ducks. If a large number of missiles are fired simultaneously, some may indeed find their target. According to the TIME magazine, on January 10, 2024, in a single attack, the US forces shot down as many as 18 drones, two anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile.

Moreover, we must keep in mind that drones are very cheap whereas the missiles used to shoot them down are very costly. The engagement, therefore, soon becomes uneconomical if you have to shoot down a large number of them.  Using Close-In Weapon Systems like Gatling guns is cheaper but then you have to let the drones come relatively closer.

What Is Iran’s Strategy in Arming Houthis with Anti-Ship Missiles?

Pic: The New Arab

In the brouhaha of the Houthi attacks coinciding with Israel-Hamas war, most people forgot that Iran has actually been arming the Houthis with anti-ship weapons since years, that is, much before the current conflict. The Houthis’ claim that they are attacking international merchant vessels so as to arguably hurt Israel is simply farcical because most ships have had nothing to do with Israel. Further, anti-ship weapons are of no use to the Houthis against the Yemeni government. What is the motive of Iran in keeping on arming them? The only plausible reason is that Iran is using the Houthis as a proxy to exercise naval coercive power from the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz to the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which are of great geopolitical and strategic significance. It is towards this end that Iran spends about $100 million a year on them.

What the Houthis Want

The Houthis, with the obvious backing of Iran, want to strengthen their regional status as a resistance movement and secure further support from Arab and Muslim people in the region as a rising Islamic force. In their five-part slogan “God is the greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam” only the first and the last parts are critical, the remaining are cover-ups or façade. Since there is no way they can take on the USA or Israel militarily, the only inference possible is that in effect, they remain an Islamic terror group, which happens to have seized the national capital and power in Yemen and thus has acquired bargaining power. The ISIS spent itself trying to carve an Islamic state; the Houthis have grabbed an existing one.

Also Read: Can Israel Hamas conflict escalate into World War III?

The current spate of attacks is, in their view, intended to achieve various purposes. First, they boost the morale of their cadres, supporters, and sympathizers at least for the time being. Second, the popular rhetoric of ‘Victory to Islam’ and the sheer bravado of fighting the USA/UK serve to rally the people by distracting them and help contain the discontent arising from poor governance. Third, they believe that this could increase their leverage in the on-going Saudi-Houthi talks, the Saudis being the main support of the ousted government. As Shannon Crawford said in the ABC News, it is because of the talks that the US has refrained from designating them a terrorist group and going whole hog against them. Lolita Baldor adds in PBS that the US does not want to upend the shaky truce in Yemen and trigger a wider conflict in the region.

What Will Eventually Happen To Them

Protests in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in the aftermath of the missile strikes Pic: AhlulBayt News Agency

However, being the duffers they are, they do not realize that terrorists can survive only as long as they remain fleeting and intermingled with civilians in one or more states because then they present intangible targets. The moment they try to become a state themselves, they actually make the task of the state fighting them easier. Fighting a terrorist group which is holding on to a static position is easy, because then the higher firepower and military resources of the state’s army prevail in conventional battles they are trained for. That is how the LTTE and the ISIS were destroyed. The LTTE had some of the deadliest attacks to its credit in the history of terrorism. However, when they sought to hold ground and administer vast areas like a state, even the army of a small nation like Sri Lanka could overrun and crush them utterly. The same fate had befallen the ISIS. That is what will eventually happen to the Houthis if they do not behave. They can survive as long as they keep their obnoxious activities confined to Yemen. The world could not care less. However, if they overstep their boundaries and start rubbing the West on the wrong side as a state by attacking their merchant ships, they will simply be bombed out of existence. 

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 56 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


  1. An in depth commentary by Dr Asthana on the recent developments around the Red Sea and issues to be addressed by various stakeholders….In my humble opinion,after whatever time the Israel -Hamas dispute goes on to the back stage ,the world leaders have to think over elimination of Islamic terrorism in all its manifestations…….. irrespective of good or bad ones.


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