What Marines may be learning from Houthi tactics in the Red Sea

by Vern Evans

The Houthis have imposed costs on a powerful navy by tracking down ships, threatening them with drones and missiles, and disrupting travel through vital waterways, while lurking near shore.

To some observers of the Marine Corps’ modernization plans, that sounds familiar.

In a fight with the Chinese military, the Corps wants Marines to move from place to place near shore in stealthy groups, working with the Navy to monitor and block enemy vessels.

The Houthis, Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, have followed similar tactics in their attacks on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

From outposts on land, the Houthis figure out the locations of ships and then launch drones and fire anti-ship missiles at them, explained Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Then they move to another location, making it harder to track them.

In order to launch counterattacks, the U.S. military has to engage in “very aggressive, persistent surveillance and targeting,” Clark said.

The Houthis lack some of the Marines’ capabilities — in electronic warfare, for instance, Clark said.

“But still, I think it’s an example of the kind of operation that the Marines are trying to pursue,” Clark said. “And the Houthis have done it pretty effectively with a much less sophisticated force.”

The U.S. Navy and coalition fleets have managed to block most Houthi attacks on ships — but at a high cost. The warships have launched missiles that cost millions to intercept Houthi drones worth just thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, many commercial ships are making lengthy diversions around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa to avoid transiting the Red Sea. The rebel group has said it is launching the attacks in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.

The Houthis’ attacks come as the Marine Corps is four years into its ambitious plan to overhaul the force to counter a naval power like China, after spending decades waging land wars. The service intends for Marines to be lighter, more dispersed, and better at tracking enemies while avoiding being tracked themselves.

The plan, called Force Design, has attracted criticism from a group of retired Marine leaders, although it has largely secured the support of decision-makers in the Pentagon and Congress. The group of retirees claims the Corps made cuts and other changes with insufficient evidence, while current Marine leaders have argued that experiments, exercises and wargames back up their decisions.

“A lot of people have said, ‘The Marines aren’t going to be able to pull off these distributed operations inside the weapons engagement zone of an adversary like China,’” said Marine Lt. Col. Travis Hord, a student at the Joint Advanced Warfighting School who previously worked on future concept and capability development for the Marine Corps.

“I think what the Houthis are showing is that you might be able to do that, because they’ve been able to do it against us to some degree.”

In Hord’s view, while the Houthis’ operations are “not an absolute validation” of Force Design concepts, they show a land-based force equipped with sensors and missiles can pose dramatic challenges to ships.

Hord, who emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of the Marine Corps, is one of six Marines and Marine veterans who drew parallels between Force Design and the Houthis’ operations in January in a War on the Rocks piece defending the Corps’ modernization plan.

Another of the essay’s co-authors, Lt. Col. Zach Ota, stressed that the U.S. military would not emulate the Houthis’ mission of disrupting trade, even as it might learn from their tactics.

“We are the upholders of freedom in the Pacific and of open commerce in the maritime commons,” said Ota, an operations planner with U.S. Pacific Fleet and Marine Corps Forces Pacific who noted he was not speaking on behalf of the Corps.

Another difference between the Houthis’ sea-denial operations and those the Marine Corps might undertake in a war in the Pacific is that the Houthis operate on the offensive, while the Corps’ stand-in forces are geared toward defensive actions, Ota said.

Ota pointed to a real-world example of land-based forces striking ships for defensive purposes: Ukrainian attacks on Russian ships in the Black Sea that have freed up commercial ships to export grain from Ukraine’s ports.

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who led U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, expressed deep skepticism about the Marine Corps’ turn toward sea-denial operations from land.

Of course land-based missile systems can be part of sea-denial operations, Zinni said, but, he asked rhetorically, should the Marine Corps focus on that at the expense of other capabilities?

“Looking at this like a combatant commander, this was the crisis response force,” Zinni said. “They could respond with a greater degree of capability faster than anybody else. … That degree of readiness, deployability and flexibility were unique to them — all thrown away for Force Design.” (Corps leaders insist that Marines remain ready to respond quickly to a range of crises, even as they make Force Design-related changes.)

There’s also the fact that the Houthis haven’t damaged any U.S. Navy ships.

“How effective have the Houthis been at sea denial against our capabilities?” Zinni asked.

Retired Col. T.X. Hammes, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, said one lesson from the fighting between the Houthis and the Navy is that ships can fend off a small number of missiles. So the Marine Corps should have more of them.

The Marines, Hammes said, should be capable of firing volleys of missiles that can overwhelm enemy ships’ defenses.

It is unclear to what extent the Marine Corps is implementing lessons from the Houthis’ operations. The Marine Corps did not respond to requests to speak with Marines who are studying insights from combat operations in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

One thing is clear, however: Even when developing Force Design, the Corps drew lessons from U.S. adversaries.

In its 2021 document explaining stand-in forces — a concept that envisions Marines lurking near an adversary to conduct reconnaissance and support naval missions — the Corps devoted a page to the Houthis’ 2016-2018 activities in the Red Sea.

“Their efforts quickly evolved into an excellent example of how one might conduct effective reconnaissance, counter reconnaissance, and sea denial while operating inside of a contested area,” the document reads.

The Houthis aren’t the only hostile actors from which the military may be learning.

Even if military leaders may not acknowledge it, they are learning from Russia’s electronic jamming of Ukrainian communications, Clark said.

Corps leaders have said the service’s autonomous low-profile vessel prototype was inspired by drug smugglers’ narco-submarines.

Drawing lessons from enemy tactics would be nothing new.

During the Vietnam War, for example, the U.S. military adopted jungle-warfare tactics of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, noted retired Lt. Col. Travis Reese, another co-author of the War on the Rocks piece.

“Learning from your enemy is as old as war,” Reese said.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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