The (Sort of) Short Version of Yemen’s Meltdown and Why It Matters

The Salty Wog has avoided certain topics because I didn’t want to comment on anything to which I was a party. But at this point, I’ve been away from CENTCOM for a while, have no direct knowledge of what’s going on right now, and am confident that nothing said here will get anyone fired or imprisoned.

So, with that out of the way…

Dude. Yemen.

Why watch the show when you can just watch Yemen?

Why watch the show when you can just watch Yemen?

So, Yemen was never a nice place exactly. After de-Ottomanization in 1918 and decolonization by the British in 1967, the territory split into two countries (North and South Yemen) and eventually unified in 1990. But hostility, skirmishes and occasional wars never really stopped. In 2014, the Houthi faction we hear so much about today overran the capital of Sana’a, and the current conflict really got going. President Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi of the internationally-recognized government lingered for a little while, but finally fled across the Saudi border in early 2015.

At that point, what we had was a civil war about internal grievances – not necessarily anyone else’s concern. The Houthi side contains large segments of the country’s armed forces, and is headed by the former president of Yemen (Ali Abdullah Saleh), who transferred power to his successor, Hadi, as part of a UN-sponsored bargain in one of the less-heralded moments of the “Arab Spring” movement. But when Hadi left for Saudi Arabia, he did a wise thing (from his point of view) and requested help from the Saudis and Gulf Cooperation Council nations, knowing they would not appreciate an uptick in unrest right on their border. The request was honored, and forces from Saudi Arabia began to get deeply involved in spring of 2015 in support of the legitimate Yemeni government.

However, Iran, always looking to put a stick in the eye of its petrostate Sunni neighbors, saw an opportunity to excel and began shipping arms and providing other tacit support to the Houthis. Beyond a desire to stoke fires on the Saudis’ flanks to distract them from happenings on their Arabian Gulf coast, the Iranians share a common Shi’a background with the Houthis, which counts for something, too.

We’ve stopped a lot of those weapons shipments – I can claim to have played at least a small role in doing so. But undoubtedly many have gotten through.

Now, hold onto your hats. With a major civil war raging mainly in the western half of the country since early 2015, the eastern half became essentially ungoverned. The inevitable result was the appearance of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State-Yemen (IS-Y) to fill the void. Both tried to become not just terrorist groups, but actual mini-states in control of territory – while, of course, being in conflict with each other as well as the warring government parties and international partners.

With the home government unable to control its own territory, the neighbors, the United Arab Emirates foremost among them, were brought in to deal with the terrorist groups.

So, in essence, there are two separate-but-interrelated wars occurring in Yemen – one in the west against rebels, supported by Saudi Arabia, and one in the east against terrorists, supported by the UAE.

Well, with Iran gaining influence on the flank of a staunch U.S. ally, and terrorist groups occupying coastal cities, there was really no way the U.S. could avoid some kind of role. No specifics about what that role is will be presented here, of course, but let’s look at some common-sense objectives (not in order of precedence) and then you can do the math.

Objective No. 1: Mitigate Iranian influence; since they’re pouring gasoline on the fire, we’ll try to cut off the flow.

Objective No. 2: End terrorist usurpation of civil authority by eliminating their territorial gains, and prevent them from striking abroad.

Objective No. 3: Did I mention Yemen is located on a critical international chokepoint?

Suez's little brother

Suez’s little brother

Yemen lies right on the Bab al-Mandeb. You have probably never heard of this strait until this week. So, think of it this way: you know of the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Well, the Bab al-Mandeb (or the BAM, as they say), is the access to and from the south end of the Red Sea. For long-haul traffic, Suez and the BAM are essentially one long canal between the Med and the Indian Ocean. And that’s kind of important. Dozens of ships, millions of tons of cargo, and millions of barrels of oil pass through the BAM – 18 miles wide at its narrowest point – every day.

So it’s in everyone’s interest to keep it open.

And the Houthis’ great trump card is their ability to close it.

How can a ragtag band of rebels in a dirt-poor country do such a thing?


Bad day to be made of aluminum

Bad day to be made of aluminum

Now, the exact weapon that did this is not yet (publicly) identified, but as the ship was out at sea, it is assumed to be some kind of anti-ship cruise missile launched from land, very possibly from the back of a truck that scooted as soon as it was launched. Weapons like this, generally of a Russian and Chinese variety, have been proliferating for the last few years and it’s been just a matter of time until we saw one get used. Hezbollah loosed one about a decade ago against an Israeli warship, killing four crew, but it hasn’t really been repeated until now. Cruise missiles don’t give the Houthis the ability to “close” the strait per se – it’s not like a mine field or steel cable that physically blocks it – but they can raise the threat level to a point where nobody wants to try.

This particular vessel was operated by the UAE and targeted for that reason (interestingly, in its past life, this Australian-built ship spent several years with the U.S. – I saw either this one or a sister ship in person in Guam once). Despite the targeted nature of this strike, the Houthis have nevertheless cracked the seal – they have shown they have the capability and the will to expand the war into the BAM. Merchant shipping may not be intentionally targeted, but do you think they might be sweating at Lloyd’s and the other marine insurance offices? Some of these missile seekers home in on the first thing they see along a certain vector…

That was October 1.

This was October 9:

The crew of a guided-missile destroyer fired three missiles to defend themselves and another ship after being attacked on Sunday in the Red Sea by two presumed cruise missiles fired by Iran-backed Houthi-forces, USNI News has learned.

During the attack against USS Mason (DDG-87), the ship’s crew fired the missiles to defend the guided-missile destroyer and nearby USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) from two suspected cruise missiles fired from the Yemini shore, two defense officials told USNI News.

Mason launched two Standard Missile-2s (SM-2s) and a single Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) to intercept the two missiles that were launched about 7 P.M. local time. In addition to the missiles, the ship used its Nulka anti-ship missile decoy, the sources confirmed. Mason was operating in international waters north of the strait of Bab el-Mandeb at the time of the attack.

There is a world of implications wrapped up in these three paragraphs. First and foremost, the Houthis have never (as far as I know) directly attacked U.S. assets or personnel before. Direct action against the U.S. invites reprisals. Are they trying to suck the U.S. in deeper? Or, alternatively, do they think they’ll get a pass from a lame-duck President? What is Iran’s role?

Second, for students of naval history, the scenario that occurred this weekend has literally NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE. We’ve talked about it; we’ve trained for it; we’ve equipped ships for it. But it has never actually happened. As mentioned above, real-world launchings of anti-ship cruise missiles at least have a precedent, but no ship has ever shot back. It remains to be seen if the cruise missiles malfunctioned, were downed by the Mason’s electronic capabilities, or were actually shot out of the sky. But you can be certain that every detail of this engagement will be taught as a case study for decades. Everyone involved will be interviewed multiple times by very smart people, and the CO will get a very nice FITREP bullet.

So, as the Western defense establishment continues to wrap its head around the problem our navy no longer calls Anti-Access/Area Denial, this is a nice confidence-builder.

What a week.

PS – If any election remarks are made in the comments below, SMOD will be summoned to destroy your home, and everything else.


2 thoughts on “The (Sort of) Short Version of Yemen’s Meltdown and Why It Matters

  1. Pingback: Yemen Roundup | The Salty Wog

  2. Pingback: Yemen – Still a Bad Place | The Salty Wog

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