USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducts flight operations in response to increased Iranian-backed Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, Jan. 22, 2024.

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducts flight operations in response to increased Iranian-backed Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, Jan. 22, 2024. (Kaitlin Watt/U.S. Navy)

The United States has already committed to a months-long campaign to force an end to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, continuing to conduct attacks this week to degrade the Houthis’ missile arsenal. This exercise in futility will not deliver its desired end and will instead make attacks like those in Iraq last week more likely. Though no American service members were fatalities in last week’s attack, the overwhelming force and resultant injuries portend a cycle of escalation where this possibility becomes an inevitability.

The United States has to look at its options to secure shipping in the Red Sea. This means changing either the Houthis’ strategic calculus or their ability to attack shipping. In practice, nine years of Saudi bombings against the Houthis shows that the latter cannot be accomplished.

Whether through disbursement, camouflage or replacement, the Houthis’ missile arsenal is redundant and unlikely to be bombed into irrelevance. Precision bombs did not help the Saudis then, and they won’t help Washington now.

American decisionmakers have fallen prey to hubris in the application of airpower. While the United States boasts the best weapon systems, these tactical advantages do not translate into strategic ends. The idea of effects-based operations posits that sufficient destruction will trigger effects which disrupt the enemy’s freedom of action. But the Houthis do not have a center of gravity that can be knocked out with a shock and awe campaign from the air. Their weapons will remain hard to locate, and their base of support will likely rally in the face of U.S. attacks.

The Houthis’ will is also unlikely to break. Deterrence is the wrong framing for changing the Houthis’ behavior. The Houthis have already established a new status quo. Changing that requires compellence, as Thomas Shelling coined it. The Houthis have already seen that their Red Sea attacks invite attacks, and continue nonetheless. The United States persisting in further strikes won’t magically create leverage where there is none.

The United States should instead focus on what it can influence: the Houthis’ decision calculus. The Houthis may be resistant to bombs, but they’re not immune to incentives. The Houthis’ motives are clearly stated, and they will fight until there is an end to Israel’s war. Washington’s expenditure of munitions won’t change that.

To eliminate the Houthis’ incentives to attack shipping, the United States can suspend its offensive support for Israel’s war. This would also discourage further entanglement against Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria. This doesn’t translate to making Israel vulnerable either. The JDAM kits, tens of thousands of precision bombs and artillery shells, and tens of thousands of tank shells do not make Israel safer. To the contrary, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted in December, Israel’s conduct of the war is courting a strategic defeat.

The simultaneous escalation in Yemen and Iraq is indicative of a larger spiral that the United States needs to avoid: war with Iran. As shown last week, Patriot missiles can be overwhelmed with saturation attacks. This was achieved with less than two dozen missiles; large-scale conflict would inevitably mean thousands of U.S. troops caught in the range of thousands of Iranian missiles. The scale of destruction would be unthinkable, and the economic and military effects would dwarf any minor nuisance occurring in the Red Sea. The cost-benefit ratio does not justify this risk. Already, shippers have rerouted container ships to avoid this risk altogether. Washington is risking all-out war, thousands of American lives, and a fifth of the world’s oil supply to protect phantom shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

The United States needs to acknowledge realities. The Houthis cannot be bombed into compliance, but they might respond to a change in the costs and benefits. The United States can discourage further Houthi attacks by dampening American support to Israel’s ongoing offensive. At the same time, the United States can withdraw troops from their most vulnerable positions, namely Iraq and Syria. Doing so provides Iranian proxies with fewer targets and decreases the probability of an Iran-U.S. conflict. The same strategy won’t yield different results, but a different strategy just might.

Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.

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