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The rebels strike back


WORLD Radio - The rebels strike back

Houthis in Yemen respond to U.S.-led attacks with missile attack on an American vessel

The bulk carrier Gibraltar Eagle off Kristiansand, Norway Associated Press

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: warfare in the Red Sea.

As you heard earlier, Houthi rebels managed to hit an American-owned container ship with a ballistic missile from Yemen on Monday. This follows the U.S. and U.K. last week firing on more than a dozen Houthi military bases.

NICK EICHER, HOST: The allies claimed to have wiped out about a fourth of the firepower of the Houthis. But this new attack on shipping indicates that the conflict is far from over.

Joining us now is retired Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery. He served more than three decades in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer. He now leads the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Admiral, good morning to you.

MARK MONTGOMERY: Well thank you very much for having me, guys.

EICHER: Admiral, what did the U.S. strike last week accomplish, both in damage inflicted and the message it sends to enemies and allies?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I'm glad you broke out the question that way, Nick, because it has two different issues. It is the question of what are we physically taking off the table? And in that case, what it was was missile launch sites, you know, the actual launchers, weapons stowage, and some of the command and control facilities. But then in the second strike we did it was to get at radars that do targeting. So what we're trying to do is reduce their ability to locate and, and shoot at Western merchant shipping and Western warships. But the bigger issue is, what are we doing in terms of deterrence? Because what was happening was, we were practicing deterrence by denial, which is a wholly defensive effort to lower the likelihood of Houthi drone and cruise missile strikes hitting merchant shipping or warships by doing convoy duty, having shooters placed at special choke points, you know, to do this, and that that was a very cost prohibitive method. We were using $2 million Standard Missiles to shoot down, you know, $30,000 drones routinely. And so what we practiced was what's called deterrence by cost imposition, which is punishing the enemy with strikes on their system. So we're trying to say to them, don't do this, or we will strike and remove your capability to do things and inflict damage and injury on your personnel. So from my perspective, it had achieved two different mission sets there

REICHARD: What does this new Houthi attack on Red Sea shipping tell you about how effective the U.S. strike was last week?

MONTGOMERY: Well, obviously, it wasn't 100% effective. And I don't think that the United States, United Kingdom or any other countries involved, perceived that it would be 100% effective, either in removing capability off the battlefield or in fully deterring them. So I think this is going to be an iterative process. I suspect another U.S. strike will occur to remove specific launch capabilities. But I think it would have been foolish to presume that a singular strike or a strike spread out over two days would have ended Houthi actions. So I suspect further strikes are required. I think we're being careful to not be perceived as escalatory versus the Houthis' major supporter, Iran, but at the same time explaining that this sort of activity towards international shipping is completely unacceptable, and will be prevented by the United States and its Western allies.

EICHER: I mentioned at the beginning, Admiral, that you had previously served as an aircraft carrier strike group commander. So I'd like to have you talk a bit about what it costs to defend these ships in the Red Sea. Now, you mentioned the high cost of US Defense missiles versus these drones. Is it possible that the Houthis are trying to degrade us? Not so much us them? Is that, is that a plausible way to look at it?

MONTGOMERY: I certainly don't think that they started that way. I'm not sure they knew how much our responsive weapon systems would be. You know, I think some might have hoped that our gun systems would work out against this, which would be you know, tens of thousands of dollars of rounds against tens of thousands of dollars of incoming drones. But it certainly has become clear over time that we are using expensive systems to take these down. It reminds us that we need to get our technology moving in terms of directed energy and other systems and lower cost munitions. But while the Houthis have benefited from this and certainly exposed a challenge for the United States, I don't believe it was their intent to do that from the beginning.

REICHARD: Final question here: do you think there’s a way to eliminate the threat of Houthi attacks without ending up in a shooting war with their sponsor, Iran?

MONTGOMERY: Yes, over time, I think that we'll be able to persistently attack and try their launch platforms. I think we need to stay away, obviously be very careful about collateral damage, you know, not accidentally strike non-targets or have weapon systems go off, you know, veer off course and do inappropriate damage. I think if we're careful and deliberate in how we do this, we can over time—this is a very specific capability that the Houthis have, and it will take some time to like rearm themselves from Iran. So I think we can do it. Look, again, I don't think you can get to zero but I think you can get very close to near zero. Remember, before October 7th, the Houthis were doing some of this intermittently anyway—these kinds of attacks. It did not just start after the Israel-Hamas dustup began; this predates that. So, while I think we can largely eliminate it, they'll probably always be a very small ability to disrupt shipping, but I think we can get it low enough so that international shipping can generally return to the Red Sea.

EICHER: Well it looks like we have about a minute and I wonder whether we ought to just zoom out to the bigger picture of the conflict. Admiral, what else? Do you think we need to know about this?

MONTGOMERY: You know, I think that, you know, the United States is in a terrific balancing act here between as, as Mary alluded to, the idea of not escalating with Iran, but at the same time, preventing Houthi actions that are disrupting 10% to 12% of internet world shipping. And that's a serious issue. You know, we're supporting Israel and its operations against Hamas, you know, in the removal as a military threat. And then we've got the final issue with Hezbollah and Iran, where we're trying again, I don't think Hezbollah is itching for a fight with Israel, but certainly one could start unexpectedly. So we're trying our hardest to deter that kind of event. So, you know, this is a terrific balancing act the Biden administration is in. I think they've come around after probably slightly late, but certainly not too late to handling the Houthi issue properly. And let's hope that we can keep everything else in balance vis-a-vis Iran.

REICHARD: Mark Montgomery is a retired Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Thank you for your time, sir.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you very much.

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