The Houthis and the war on commercial traffic

(To Philip Del Monte)

In a recent article, the professor ofU.S. Naval War College Kevin D. McCranie compared the action of the Houthis in the Red Sea to a contemporary revival of the theories of Jeune Ecole of the French Marine Nationale, emerged at the end of the 19th century.

In the wake of the development of the torpedo boat and the torpedo, the theorists of Jeune Ecole they thought that the "decisive battle" between fleets led by large battleships would be conceptually surpassed by private warfare against the enemy's commercial traffic.

One of the postulates of the theorists of Jeune Ecole was that, to use the words of one of its leading exponents such as Auguste Gouceard: "It is and always will be completely ridiculous to risk 12-15 million, or even more, against 200.000 or 300.000 francs, and six hundred men against twelve". The central question was and remains, therefore, the price - to be understood in terms of brute economy - to pay to stifle the threat represented by privateering activities on the trade routes.

The reasoning was valid both in the 19th century and in the two world conflicts with the activities of submarines along the routes used by cargo ships. The reasoning also applies now, when the Houthis use commercial drones a few thousand dollars, which are shot down by missiles that can cost millions of dollars.

The declared objective of the theorists of Jeune Ecole in its time, as well as that of the Houthis now, is to make the fight against privateering economically unsustainable and navigation too risky. The French journalist and naval theorist Gabriel Charmes wrote that “the insurance premium against losses at sea would have become so high that navigation would have been impossible” faced with the guerrilla warfare conducted by small units against large commercial ships. Since the Red Sea crisis began, one of the first economic consequences has been theincrease in insurance premiums for ships traveling the Bab el-Mandeb route.

What the Jeune Ecole to the Houthis is that neither group believes the goal is to sink large numbers of merchant ships, but rather to disrupt trade and increase transportation costs.

Now, history shows that even attempts to sabotage sea routes of this type are annihilated by the economic resistance and counteraction capacity of the powers that can deploy a traditional fleet and are willing to bear the costs.

One of the responses to the war is to reduce the costs of defending freedom of navigation: the use of conventional artillery instead of missiles is one of the alternatives. “Traditional” naval artillery responses against UAVs are more effective and less expensive than missiles. This is a valid alternative to increase the permanence times of a naval-military device in the Red Sea which cannot be, also for economic reasons, indefinitely.

The conduct of Caio Duilio ship of the Italian Navy and the frigate Alsace of the French Marine Nationale, who shot down both drones launched by the Houthis with their own OTO Melara 76/62 cannon had precisely this effect.

And the question must be considered for countries that do not have "unlimited" resources, unlike the United States, but which nevertheless aspire to play a leading role in the seas for the maintenance of collective security and the protection of freedom of navigation.

Photo: US Navy