The US and UK militaries launched strikes against multiple Houthi targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen on Thursday, marking a significant response after the Biden administration and its allies warned that the Iran-backed militant group would bear the consequences of repeated drone and missile attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.
President Joe Biden said he ordered the strikes “in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea.”
“Today, at my direction, U.S. military forces—together with the United Kingdom and with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands—successfully conducted strikes against a number of targets in Yemen used by Houthi rebels to endanger freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways,” the president said in a statement released by the White House.
Biden added that he will “not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”
The strikes are a sign of the growing international alarm over the threat to one of the world’s most critical waterways. For weeks, the US had sought to avoid direct strikes on Yemen because of the risk of escalation in a region already simmering with tension as the Israel-Hamas war continues, but the ongoing Houthi attacks on international shipping compelled the coalition to act.
Though the US has carried out strikes against Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, this marks the first known strike against the Houthis in Yemen.
The strikes were from fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles. More than a dozen Houthi targets were fired upon by missiles fired from air, surface, and sub platforms and were chosen for their ability to degrade the Houthis’ continued attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, a US official told CNN.
They included radar systems, drone storage and launch sites, ballistic missile storage and launch sites, and cruise missile storage and launch sites.
The USS Florida, a guided missile submarine that crossed into the Red Sea on November 23, was part of the attack on Yemen, according to a second US official. Like the surface ships that participated in the attack, the sub fired Tomahawk land-attack missiles, the official said.
A senior military official told reporters on Thursday evening that he could not provide an exact percentage of Houthi assets that were destroyed in the strikes but that it was “significant.” He added that precision guided munitions were used to destroy the targets “and also to minimize collateral damage.”
“We were absolutely not targeting civilian population centers. We were going after very specific capabilities, in very specific locations, with precision munitions,” the official said.
Tuesday attacks the final straw
The Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping on Tuesday marked the final straw that culminated in Biden giving the green light for the US to move forward with Thursday’s strikes, though preparations have been ongoing for some time, a senior US official told CNN.
The strikes come as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin remains hospitalized following complications from a surgery for prostate cancer. A senior Defense official said Austin ordered and monitored the strikes in in real-time from the hospital “with a full suite of secure communications.”
Over the course of the past several weeks, Biden has weighed potential strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen against the prospect of an escalating crisis in the Middle East. His underlying hesitancy in ordering direct action has been the potential of getting drawn in more directly to an expanding conflict — a scenario US officials believe could ultimately be Iran’s objective.
But the White House had made clear the repeated Houthi attacks on international shipping lanes in the southern Red Sea were intolerable. The attacks have forced some of the world’s largest shipping companies to avoid the waterway, instead adding thousands of miles to international shipping routes by sailing around the continent of Africa.
Hours before the strike on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Iran “has a role to play” in getting the Houthis to stop their “reckless, dangerous, and illegal activity.” If they did not, he said, “there will be consequences.”
The Houthis — an Iran-backed Shia political and military organization that has been fighting a civil war in Yemen against a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia — have been launching drones and missiles at commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea for weeks, many of which have been intercepted and shot down by US Navy ships in the area.
The Houthi’s deputy foreign minister, Hussein al-Ezzi, claimed that Yemen was targeted in a “massive aggressive assault.” In a speech Thursday, Houthi leader Abdul Malek Al-Houthi said that any US attack on Yemen ” will not go unanswered,” cryptically warning that the response will be “much more” than attacking US ships in the sea.
The senior military official said that the Pentagon has thus far not seen any signs of retaliatory action by the Houthis as of Thursday night..
A senior US administration official signaled that there could be more action to come against the Houthis.
“This may well not be the last word on the topic,” the administration official said. “And when we have more to say and more to do, you will hear from us.”
US warned of ‘consequences’
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned while traveling in the region that “if it doesn’t stop, there will have to be consequences. And unfortunately, it hasn’t stopped.”
Blinken also said he doesn’t believe the war in Gaza is escalating into a regional conflict, even as he warned of “a lot of danger points.” While in the region, Blinken visited Bahrain, home to the US Naval Forces Central Command and the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
An important aspect of Blinken’s trip to the Middle East was to tell regional leaders that if US takes military action against the Houthis, it should be seen as defensive, not escalatory, according to a senior State Department official.
On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council passed a US- and Japan-led resolution condemning “in the strongest terms the at least two dozen Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels since November 19, 2023” and demanding “that the Houthis immediately cease all such attacks.” Eleven countries voted in favor of the resolution. Four abstained, including China and Russia. A Western diplomat told CNN that the US accommodated some of China’s requests on the language of the resolution.
US strikes in Yemen are not unprecedented; according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the US has conducted nearly 400 airstrikes in Yemen since 2002.
In Yemen, officials say they are concerned at what a strike against the Houthis would portend for the region. Declassified US intelligence shows that Iran has been deeply involved in coordinating the Houthi attacks on commercial and merchant ships, including providing information about shipping vessels passing through the waterway.
Among the US’ concerns about taking direct action inside Yemen is also the risk of upsetting a carefully brokered truce in the war in Yemen between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which a US official previously told CNN the Biden administration considers one of its most significant foreign policy achievements.
Concerns about a prolonged conflict
Some American officials feared a direct attack on the Houthis in Yemen would be precisely what the group craved: drawing the US into direct engagement with the Iranian proxy group and potentially committing its forces to a more prolonged conflict.
Still, Biden’s attempts at deterrence had done little to prevent the Houthis from continuing their attacks on commercial and merchant ships transiting the Red Sea.
A significant turning point came around New Year’s, when US Navy helicopters shot and sank three Houthi boats in self-defense, killing those aboard. It was the first direct engagement between the US and Houthis since the start of the conflict, and prompted Biden to convene his national security team for a secure briefing call while he was on vacation in the US Virgin Islands.
That joint statement was issued on January 3, saying that the Houthis “will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”
While not describing the statement as a red line, Biden and his team recognized the language would essentially bind them to a more forceful response should the Houthi attacks continue, which many officials privately believed they would.
Just hours after the joint statement was released, the Houthis launched an unmanned surface drone against commercial shipping lanes.
And on Tuesday, in one of the largest Houthi attacks to date, three US Navy destroyers, Navy F/A-18s from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, and a UK destroyer, the HMS Diamond, shot down 21 missiles and drones. There were no ships damaged by the attack, and no injuries reported.
A senior administration official told CNN that Biden directed his national security team to carry out strikes on Houthi facilities in Yemen following that missile barrage. The official said the attack was directly targeting a US commercial vessel, with US military vessels alongside it.
Biden directed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to carry out the response, which led to the strikes on Thursday evening.
There have been at least 27 Houthi attacks since November 19. As the US and its allies have been navigating the Houthis’ ongoing attacks, there have also been at least 131 attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria since October 17, leading to several strikes on facilities linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other proxy forces. Just last week, the US targeted a member of Iranian proxy group Harakat al-Nujaba who an official said has “US blood on his hands” in Iraq.
But many of the commercial vessels have had no connection to Israel. Vice Adm. Bradley Cooper, the commander of US Navy Central Command, said last week that the US assesses 55 nations have “direct connections” to the ships that have come under fire.