Escalating Houthi Drone Boat Attacks Heighten Red Sea Tensions

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Escalating Houthi Drone Boat Attacks Heighten Red Sea Tensions  houthis

Yemen’s Houthis are sending drone boats packed with explosives into the Red Sea as they intensify their attacks on merchant ships that have little defense against the “sophisticated shift” in tactic, maritime security sources say.

The maritime landscape of the Red Sea has been significantly destabilized as Yemen’s Houthi militants, aligned with Iran, escalate their use of explosive-laden drone boats to target merchant ships. These attacks represent a marked increase in the sophistication and danger posed by the Houthis’ tactics.

Since their initial aerial drone and missile strikes in November, which were claimed to be in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, the Houthis have executed over 70 attacks. These assaults have resulted in the sinking of two vessels, the seizure of another, and the deaths of at least three seafarers.

In recent weeks, the deployment of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) loaded with explosives has become a notable strategy. These USVs have attacked at least three ships, contributing to the sinking of the Tutor cargo ship. Maritime security experts highlight this development as a significant evolution in asymmetric warfare tactics. Dimitris Maniatis, CEO of Maritime Risk Managers MARISKS, explained, “These USVs, loaded with explosives, represent a sophisticated shift in asymmetric warfare tactics, enabling the Houthis to strike with precision and at a distance, thus minimizing their exposure to counter-attacks.”

The danger these USVs pose is considerable. Munro Anderson, head of operations at marine war risk and insurance specialist Vessel Protect, part of Pen Underwriting, stated, “USVs strike vessels at the waterline, and this, combined with the substantial warhead size, has the potential for significant water ingress and damage control issues.”

The escalation is also seen as potentially inspired by tactics used by Ukrainian forces in the Black Sea. On June 27 and June 30, two separate vessels were targeted by Houthi swarming tactics involving multiple seaborne attack drones, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO).

The sophisticated nature of these attacks includes psychological tactics. Some USVs are reportedly equipped with dummies to resemble pirates, aiming to confuse and intimidate seafarers. Additionally, Houthis are believed to employ spotters at sea who record the attacks and remotely steer the USVs to their targets.

The insurance industry has reacted swiftly to the increased threat. War risk premiums for vessels sailing through the Red Sea have surged, recently quoted at up to 0.7% of a ship’s value, compared to around 1% earlier this year. This increase translates to hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs, with the latest threats likely pushing rates higher.

Conversely, rates for Chinese vessels, perceived as less likely targets due to their lack of connections with Israel or the U.S., have remained comparatively lower, between 0.2% to 0.3%.

The situation in the Red Sea underscores the increasing risks faced by maritime operations in the region, as the Houthis continue to adapt and enhance their asymmetric warfare capabilities.

Photo: View of an explosion on a ship that Houthis say is an attack by them on Greek-owned MV Tutor in the Red Sea, dated June 12, 2024, in this screen grab obtained from a video. HOUTHI MEDIA CENTRE/Handout