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9 Lessons from Iranian and Houthi Attacks on Ships in the Red Sea


Attacks on merchant ships and warships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters are ongoing. Most of the attacks have been by the Houthi Movement in Yemen, but some can be attributed directly to Iran. And there is no reasonable doubt that Iran is assisting the Houthis. So far no ship has been sunk, although several have been hit and the impact on global shipping has been substantial. It is too soon to draw conclusive lessons, but some observations can be made.

1. Modular anti-ship ballistic missiles

Iran developed an anti-ship version of their Fatah-110 ballistic missile over 10 years ago. This involved fitting an electro-optical /infrared seeker. The missiles are smaller, slower and shorter ranged than their Chinese equivalents, but still potent.

In the past couple of years has seen a profusion of these designs, all appearing to leverage the same seeker. The largest and likely most sophisticated is the Raad-500 type which the Houthis call Tankil, while the Bahr al-Ahmar is barely wider than the seeker. Range and warhead vary but all present a real threat. The smaller ones will likely be cheaper and easier to hide, but still have adequate range of the engagements in the Red Sea.

2. Low cost simplified cruise missiles

Iran was able to reverse the Russian Kh-55 (AS-15 KENT) air launched cruise missile. Following this a simplified and scaled down version was built which could use a commercial turbojet engine similar to those in model aircraft. This design was supplied to the Houthis and may also now be in Iranian inventories. Essentially it gives the Houthis a very low cost long ranged land attack capability, but with a smaller warhead. And as to be expected in the Houthi arsenal, there is an anti-ship version. This approach is different from Western countries which tend to buy very few, yet expensive, cruise missiles.

3. Use of drones against ships

The Shahed one-way attack drone (OWA-UAV) has shown its usefulness in Ukraine. Individually they are relatively easy to shoot down, yet they are too dangerous to ignore so they stretch defenses. Generally they have been perceived as only being useful against fixed targets. But Iran has demonstrated that they can also hit ships at incredible ranges. At least two ships have been hit, one at extreme range.

Their usefulness against warships is likely to be very limited but against unarmed merchant ships they are a real concern. Various OWA-UAVs are being used by the Houthis against ships. Many miss or get shot down, but they are likely to get better.

4. Even ‘dark ships’ can be seen

Ships which do not transmit their location on AIS (automated identification system) are harder to locate and identify. This is particularly true for people relying on open-source intelligence (OSINT). But the effectiveness of ‘going dark’ against a determined adversary with eyes on the water, and various sophisticated means, is limited. Ships cannot easily hide their presence in the shipping lanes.

This also implies that if the Houthis hit a Russian or Chinese ship in the Red Sea, they meant to do so.

5. Merchant ships are highly survivable, and missiles rarely sink ships

Modern merchant ships are built with survivability in mind. Perhaps not against these threats, but certainly in a way which makes them hard to sink. And their layout, with the superstructure well aft of their center of mass (where missiles typically aim), means most hits are where the cargo is. There is still a significant risk if they are hit by missiles, but in practice few if any will be sunk.

Warships are however smaller and have more critical parts in close proximity. As a trade off, they are expected to have better defenses and damage control should the worst happen.

6. The importance of Air Defense for naval vessels

Warships are threatened by sustained multi-vector attacks with drones, sea skimming missiles and ASBMs. Many, maybe most, warships are too lightly defended to operate in this threat environment.

Even today few warships have defenses against ASBMs. For many navies the implementation of this capability is progressing much slower than the threat is proliferating.

Warships also need to intercept missiles aimed at other ships. This stretches engagement envelopes and magazines.

7. Deterrence is of limited use against an antagonist with little to lose

When the attacks begun there were calls for Western countries to take military action against the Houthis. Many observers expected Tomahawks at dawn, and were frustrated when strikes took months to materialize. But many observers were unsure that strikes would make much difference. And as we have seen, the attacks continue.

The latest strikes, which target missiles before they can be launched, are probably more useful. But they cannot be expected to catch every launch, and the Houthis can modify their methods to reduce the risks. For example, launching ASBMs from deep inland.

8. Don’t Underestimate Iranian Technology

Iran is capable of innovation, and of developing effective and smart weapons, particularly in the asymmetric arena. Credit where credit is due. There are some serious threats hidden behind the hype and grandiose claims.

So far, no ships have been sunk. Possibly this is because they are trying not to. There are at least indications of weapons and tactics designed to reduce the risk of sinking the targeted ship. This suggests that their goals are being met merely by presenting a credible threat.

It seems likely that they may try to sink warships however. And the Iranian technology is, in principle, able to achieve it.

9. It is hard to predict the future

Few would have imagined that the first use of ASBMs would be by the Houthi Movement in the Red Sea.

There are still several capabilities that Iran is believed to have, but which haven’t been used. And Iran and the Houthis can become more effective at these strikes if they learn from them. And there’s every indication that they will. This conflict appears far from over, and the next surprise could be as soon as tomorrow.



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