The 11/12 January joint US-UK bombardment of rebel Houthi positions in the Yemen was extremely welcome despite its glaring shortcomings.
As was observed in these pages just hours before the joint US and UK operation, “refraining from striking the Houthis” had become “simply irresponsible” by that point. The Iran-backed Ansar Allah jihadis had been disrupting one of the world’s main seaborne trade arteries for months, with impunity.
This festering security issue had to be dealt with by those who took de facto responsibility for securing the oceans – and world order more broadly – after 1945: primarily the Americans, but the British as well.
As for “Europe” (the French included), no one takes it seriously or expects anything from it anymore when it comes to risky geopolitical action. With the single notable example of the secondary support role played by the Netherlands – which is the most British-like continental nation and has a great trading and naval tradition – the Europeans were missing from the field of battle.
The problem with these strikes, however, is that they failed to actually deal with the problem. The initial operation on the night of 11/12 January involved more than 100 missiles and bombs launched against over 60 Houthi targets – command posts, depots, launchers, “production facilities” and radars – at 16 locations from a variety of platforms.
Not since the heydays of the Syrian war has such a complex, multinational strike, of such size, taken place. The last time Western powers put together something similar was in April 2018 when the US, UK and France – back when La Republique still had some fight left in it – also launched about 100 missiles from a variety of platforms against some of Assad’s chemical weapons facilities.
But in the Houthi case, unlike with Assad’s fixed buildings, the mission is much more difficult because the Yemeni enemy is more elusive.
Drones and anti-ship missiles, the Houthis’ key weapons that the Western coalition is trying to destroy, are small and highly mobile items: they can be dispersed and evacuated rather quickly to safe locations. And the US-UK strikes came with ample advance warning, including an official White House ultimatum as well as apparent leaks from the UK side.
Even the Wall Street Journal noted the next day that “In anticipation of a U.S. response, Houthi forces had relocated some weapons and equipment and fortified others, and stockpiled missiles in bunkers in the densely populated city of San’a”.
It has now become clear that these initial strikes – including a follow-up barrage the next day that included a further 50 munitions and some 15 extra sites – had limited impact.
The press has quoted official US sources acknowledging that “less than a third” of the Houthi anti-shipping attack capability was destroyed. Even this is an optimistic assessment given the operational challenge of dynamically targeting a mobile enemy in this kind of environment with relatively few airborne assets on hand for the job.
The fact that the Houthis were quick to resume their attacks on cargo vessels proves the US-UK strikes, welcome and necessary as they were, primarily from a political standpoint, were much too weak and therefore missed the strategic mark.
Instead of this feeble pinprick we should have seen a major, multi-day air offensive with dozens of aircraft and hundreds of munitions seriously degrading Houthi capability, perhaps in conjunction with special operations forces raids onshore to go after the most sensitive targets.
That would have been a demonstration of Western might commensurate with the “free-world leadership” pretensions of the US, and a bloody warning to others who might want to play the commerce-interdiction card in the future.
None of this happened, and the decision to follow a much more limited, incremental and ultimately cautious course of action will no doubt have been rationalised in “sophisticated” strategic terms, among the high-level planners and decision-makers in Washington.
Political arguments will have been put forward, warning that “escalation” in Yemen would cripple (even more, that is) relations with the Saudis and perhaps lead to a much larger conflict by triggering even more vicious Iranian responses elsewhere.
Military concerns will have been raised about the overstretched resources of the Pentagon and the insufficient naval and air assets on hand for a bigger campaign in the Red Sea.
So the “clever” ones, from Jake Sullivan down, will have convinced themselves that what eventually came to pass on January 11/12 was in fact a very sensible way of dealing with the problem.
Except it wasn’t: this kind of approach, in situations like these, never has been and never will be the right way to solve anything.
The fact that we find ourselves following this strategic recipe over and over again is symbolic of a chronic Western problem – we never strike hard enough. There is always plenty of bellicose and confident talk about it – remember the Vulcans in the Bush administration in the post-9/11 era – but for all the bluster, in the end the force applied is always inadequate to the full dimensions of the task.
The 1990s were the last time the West showed it truly understood the notion of scale when it came to the use of military force.
For the First Gulf War of 1991, the US alone deployed almost 700,000 troops, and the UK over 50,000. In addition, the amount of military equipment for the ground forces, as well as air and naval power concentrated in-theatre, and the amount of logistics involved, would scarcely be conceivable today.
Most of the types of munitions and equipment used then, including high-precision weapons, are still part of Western militaries today albeit in updated and upgraded forms – from Abrams tanks to Patriot batteries or F-16 jets, in the US case, for example. The only real difference is that today we pretend that the same classes of weapons are so much more destructive in their contemporary iteration as to compensate for the huge loss of mass – i.e. sheer numbers – since 1991.
The ‘90s were also the last time when we could conduct effective counterinsurgency (COIN) and stabilisation operations – because we had the good sense to acknowledge and implement the force ratios of soldiers per number of population that are required to actually win such a conflict.
Research and analysis – initially by James Quinlivan but since amply confirmed by other studies – drawing on data from dozens of irregular and COIN campaigns in the 20th century found that you need a ratio of 20 security personnel (troops and police combined) per thousand of local inhabitants in order to stabilise an area and prevent or defeat an insurgency.
The Western stabilisation operations in Bosnia (IFOR with some 60,000 troops from 1996) and Kosovo (KFOR with around 40,000 from 1999) achieved ratios of 22.6 and 23.7, respectively, per 1000 locals – which is why they worked, preventing conflict from flaring up again.
Since the turn of the century, however, the West – especially the US – has completely lost its way and sense of proportion regarding the force requirements for victory, both in the conventional and in the irregular spheres of warfare.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq provides an excellent example of a severely under-resourced military campaign. George W Bush’s war has since become synonymous in popular imagination not just with evil, morally-corrupt “neocon” abuse of power, but, more importantly, with military failure.
Much of the reason why the Iraq War is remembered as such a colossal folly is because of the shocking debacle that occurred after president Bush’s famous “mission accomplished” moment, as the Iraqi insurgency ripped through the country.
It did not have to be this way; and if Iraq had indeed been a successful war – had the insurgency been kept at bay – history might have been kinder with this conflict. Indeed, in military-strategic terms it may be said that the real mistake was not as much the decision to attack Iraq, but to not go in hard enough – i.e. with enough forces.
This issue had been recognised by the US military before the invasion. CENTCOM’s initial planning in early 2002 – codenamed “Generated Start” – indicated a requirement of 385,000 troops for this campaign, which was a sound assessment. The head of the US Army at the time, General Shinseki also testified to the US Senate in February 2003 to say – again drawing on both theory and the recent experience from Bosnia and Kosovo – that “several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq”.
Shinseki was fired for the audacity of pointing out the obvious, the US invaded with only 160,000 troops, and disaster followed.
The failure of the 20-year Afghanistan adventure (especially from 2006 when Western focus shifted from Iraq to the Afghan theatre) is likewise rooted in the same fundamental problem: completely inadequate military resources in relation to the objective, together with a political decision to ignore this reality and go ahead with the war anyway.
At the height of the war – mid-2010 to mid-2012 – the West had over 130,000 troops in Afghanistan, theoretically supported by anywhere between 150,000-250,000 more or less viable Afghani security forces.
But the country is geographically vast and the population in 2010 was around 28 million. Therefore, Western forces and their allies never achieved even on paper a ratio of more than 14 troops to 1,000 local population even at the very peak of the war. In practice, for most of the COIN campaign, in most places, the war was fought at ratios of some 4 or 5 to 1,000 – in contrast to the ratio of 20 that would normally be required in ideal geographic conditions.
It goes without saying that the Afghanistan campaign was vastly more complex, and that there were a multitude of other factors and decisions that contributed to its failure, both at specific turning points along the way, and in a strategic, overall sense.
But focusing on the military aspect – itself one of many – of basic force levels in relation to the scale of the challenge, and the sheer inadequacy of this calculation, helps put into context the West’s current woes in Yemen and elsewhere.
Whether it has been Iraq, Afghanistan, the Libya operation in 2011, the proxy involvement in Syria, the war against ISIS between 2014-19, or indeed the too-slow and often half-hearted arming of Ukraine, the leading Western military powers – particularly the US – have been giving ample proof, for three decades now, that they do not understand the necessity of massive force when deciding to support or get involved in any military operations.
Anything other than the large-scale deployment and employment of military power, with maximum effect – like the IDF is doing now in Gaza – is a mistake waiting to turn into a major disaster, as we have seen happening over and over for the past three decades.
Being able to concentrate superior mass and firepower is in fact becoming more not less important as the technological edge of Western militaries and sophisticated weapons proliferate across the world.
As the world becomes engulfed by crises, a continued Western inability to act decisively and demonstrate the lethality of its military power will only embolden our adversaries – including minnows like the Houthis – who read only weakness in all this.
To paraphrase Machiavelli, we may have passed the point where the West still has a choice between being loved or feared, as it tries to keep exercising leadership in the global system. In this darkening age, decisive strength has become the vital necessity, whether in the long-term strategic competition with major adversaries or in more tactical situations such as the one in the Yemen. The time for half-measures is well past.
Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at Yorktown Institute in Washington, D.C