What are Marines learning from Houthi tactics in the Red Sea?

What are Marines learning from Houthi tactics in the Red Sea?


The Houthis impose costs on their powerful navy by lurking close to the coast, tracking ships, threatening them with drones and missiles, and blocking navigation in vital waterways.

To some observers of the Marine Corps’ modernization program, that may sound familiar.

In the fight against the Chinese military, the Corps wants Marines to move in stealth groups around the coast, working with the Navy to monitor and interdict enemy shipping.

Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have used similar tactics in attacks on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Brian Clark, a senior researcher at the Hudson Institute, said the Houthis use land-based outposts to locate ships and launch drones and anti-ship missiles. It then moves to another location, making it difficult to track.

Clark said that to mount a counterattack, the U.S. military will need to conduct “very active and sustained surveillance and targeting.”

Clark said the Houthis lack some of the capabilities of the Marines, such as electronic warfare capabilities.

“Still, I think this is an example of the type of operations the Marine Corps is looking to pursue,” Clark said. “And the Houthis did that quite effectively with a much less sophisticated force.”

The U.S. Navy and combined fleet were successful in thwarting most Houthi attacks on ships, but at a high cost. Warships fired missiles costing millions of dollars to intercept Houthi drones worth only a few thousand dollars.

Meanwhile, many commercial ships are taking long detours around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa to avoid transiting the Red Sea. The rebels said they were launching the attack in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

The Houthi offensive comes as the Marines embark on an ambitious four-year plan to overhaul the force to counter naval powers like China, after decades spent fighting on the ground. It was held in the midst of The service is intended to help Marines become lighter, more dispersed, and better track the enemy while avoiding tracking themselves.

The plan, called Force Design, has drawn criticism from a group of retired Marine Corps leaders. It largely secured the support of decision-makers in the Pentagon and Congress. Veterans groups claim the Marine Corps made cuts and other changes with insufficient evidence, but current Marine leaders say experiments, drills and exercises support their decisions. It claims to be a thing.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘The Marines won’t be able to conduct these distributed operations within the arms war zone of a hostile country like China,'” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Travis Hoard. . Joint Advanced Warfare School, which previously worked on future concepts and capability development for the Marine Corps.

“I think what the Houthis are showing is that you might be able to do that, too, because they were able to do that to us to a certain extent.”

In Hoard’s view, the Houthi operation is not an “absolute validation” of the force design concept, but it does show that land forces equipped with sensors and missiles can pose a dramatic challenge to shipping. There is.

Hoard stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the Marine Corps, but in January he cited similarities between Force Design and Houthi operations in a “rock war” defense of the Marine Corps’ modernization plan. He was one of six Marines and Marine Corps veterans who made the point.

Lt. Col. Zach Otah, one of the paper’s co-authors, stressed that even though the U.S. military might learn from Houthi tactics, it would not copy the Houthis’ mission to disrupt trade.

“We are champions of freedom in the Pacific and open commerce in the maritime commons,” said Otah, an operational planner for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Marine Corps Pacific, not speaking on behalf of the Corps. He said it was not.

Another difference between the Houthis’ sea denial operations and the operations the Marines might conduct in the Pacific War is that the Houthis operate offensively, whereas Marines’ stand-in forces focus on defensive operations. Mr. Ota said that this is what he is doing.

Ota pointed to real-world examples of land forces attacking ships for defensive purposes. It alleges that a Ukrainian attack on Russian shipping in the Black Sea freed commercial ships to export grain from Ukrainian ports.

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who led U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, expressed deep skepticism about the Marine Corps turning to land-based sea denial operations.

Of course, land-based missile systems can be part of sea denial operations, but the Marines asked rhetorically whether they should focus on that at the expense of other capabilities.

“If you look at this like a combatant commander, this was a crisis response force,” Zinni said. “They were able to respond faster and with greater capabilities than anyone else. …That degree of responsiveness, deployability, and flexibility was unique to them, and they were all set aside for Force Design. (Corps leaders insist the Marine Corps remains ready to respond quickly to a variety of crises, even with changes related to its force design.)

There is also the fact that the Houthis have not caused any damage to US Navy ships.

“How effectively have the Houthis challenged our capabilities at sea?” Zini asked.

Retired Col. Hames, Texas, a distinguished fellow at the National Defense University, said one of the lessons learned from the battle between the Houthis and the navy is that ships can evade small numbers of missiles. Therefore, the Marines should have more weapons.

Hames said the Marines should be able to fire a volley of missiles that can overwhelm an enemy ship’s defenses.

It’s unclear how well the Marines are implementing the lessons learned. From Houthi operations. The Marine Corps did not respond to requests for talks with Marines studying insights from combat operations in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

But one thing is clear: the Corps also drew lessons from America’s adversaries when developing its force design.

In a 2021 document describing proxy forces, a concept that envisions Marines lurking close to the enemy to conduct reconnaissance and support naval missions, the corps describes Houthi activity in the Red Sea from 2016 to 2018. I split the page.

“Their efforts quickly developed into an excellent example of how effective reconnaissance, counter-reconnaissance, and sea denial can be conducted while operating within disputed territory,” the document said. There is.

The Houthis are not the only adversary the military may be learning from.

Even if military leaders don’t admit it, they are learning from Russia’s electronic interference with Ukrainian communications, Clark said.

Corps leaders said the service’s autonomous low-profile vessel prototype was inspired by drug smugglers’ narco-submarines.

Drawing lessons from enemy tactics is nothing new.

For example, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military adopted jungle warfare tactics from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, notes retired Lt. Col. Travis Reese, another co-author of “Rock War.”

“Learning from your enemy is as old as war,” Reese said.

Eileen Lowenson is a staff reporter at Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an Editorial Fellow in her August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College and served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.



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