Defying Western Threats, Houthis Launch Drone Boat Attack in Red Sea

In this 2020 file photo, a Houthi drone boat approaches a target in the Red Sea. Houthi forces have used remote-control bomb boats for years (Saudi military handout)

Published Jan 4, 2024 2:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

Less than a day after a Western coalition threatened them with "consequences," Yemen's Houthi militants launched a suicide drone boat attack in the Red Sea, an American official said Thursday. 

The drone boat was carrying a payload of explosives and made it about 15 miles before it exploded, Pentagon spokesman Vice Adm. Brad Cooper told reporters. He said that it approached to within visual range of American warships and nearby commercial vessels before it detonated in plain view. The intended target vessel was not known, but Cooper said that the boat headed directly from Yemen towards the sea lanes, “clearly with the intent to do harm."

With technical support from their supporters in Iran, the Houthi rebels have developed a degree of expertise in drone boat technology. Years before Ukraine's exploits on the Black Sea made suicide drone boats famous, the Houthis were attacking Saudi ships with unmanned speedboats laden with powerful explosives. In the most prominent example, a Houthi boat hit and damaged the Saudi frigate Al Madinah in January 2017, without appearing to trigger a defensive response from the warship's crew before impact.

The drone boat has changed the equation for suicide attacks on the water, Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan told Defense News in 2017. "There are certain terrorists that do things and they get martyrs to go and do it," explained Donegan. "[Remote control] makes that kind of weaponry, which would normally take someone suicidal to use, now able to be used by someone who's not going to martyr themselves."

Thursday morning's incident was the 25th Houthi attack on shipping since November, but it was the first instance of a drone boat attack during the period.

It was also the first attempted Houthi attack after a "final warning" from Western partners. The Houthi drone boat maneuvers followed just hours after 12 nations warned the Houthis that the group would have to bear the responsibility for any "consequences" if it continued to harass shipping. The UK, one of the signatories, explicitly warned of the possibility of military action. 

Other co-signers of the warning included Australia, Canada, Japan, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Singapore. Bahrain, the host of U.S. 5th Fleet and one of America's closest allies in the Middle East, was the only nation from the region to join the statement. 

The Houthi group says that its interference with Western commerce is a means of protesting Israel's operation against Hamas in Gaza. Its leaders claim that they are attacking Israel-linked and Israel-bound vessels; in practice, however, all shipping through the Red Sea has been affected by the perceived risk, and container ship transits of the Suez Canal have dropped by 70 percent. To be sure, many operators continue to use the waterway, but the disruption has driven up average freight rates and increased transit times on core Asia-Europe routes. 

The Houthi attacks have also buoyed ocean carriers' earnings, improved stock prices for shipping investors, and encouraged pro-Palestinian activists, who hail the Houthi interference as an example of solidarity with Gaza.