Early Thursday US naval forces launched a number of Tomahawk missiles against Houthi-controlled radar sites in southern Yemen. The strikes came in response to Houthi rebels firing missiles at US warships operating in the waters off Yemen. Twice in the past four days, anti-ship missiles were fired from shore against the destroyer USS Mason. In both instances, Mason took steps to defend herself and nearby US ships. The inbound missiles were destroyed and there was no damage to US ships or casualties.
The strikes were limited to the three radar sites and justified under the circumstances. Mason was attacked and the response is clearly act of self-defense. The Houthis used the radar to identify and track ships that would ultimately become their targets. Destroying the radars will diminish the Houthi’s ability to target US warships in the Bab-al Mandab Straits and Gulf of Aden. The second element of justification for the action falls under the freedom of navigation principle. Ships flying the flag of a sovereign state should not be interfered with by any other state. The fact that the Houthis are rebels and not a sovereign nation-state does not alter the principle. Under international law, the missile attacks by a non-state actor is something akin to piracy. One final element of justification is the fact that Bab-al Mandab Straits is a choke point between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as being a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. The amount of merchant traffic that transits the area is very high and recent Houthi activity in southern Yemen serves as a reminder of how easily the area can be destabilized. Should that happen, the economic results could be catastrophic.
What happens next remains to be seen. Will the Houthis refrain from further attacks, or will they double down and attempt to find a new way to threaten US warships in the area? Yesterday was the 16th anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole so one has to wonder if that played a role in the Houthi attacks. One also has to speculate about whether or not the Houthis are acting on their own or taking their orders from Tehran.