$2 Million Missile To Shoot Down $2,000 Drone! Houthis’ Asymmetric War Has UK, US Navies In A Bind

The escalating tensions in the Red Sea between Yemen’s Houthi group and British and American warships marks another case of asymmetric warfare, where more considerable military powers have to expend more significant cost and material expenses in engaging smaller ones.

This has been brought about by the rising shootdowns of cheap Houthi drones and cruise missiles by multimillion-dollar air defense systems.

The Indian Navy, too, has deployed its warships to deter attacks on India-flagged and operated merchant vessels while maintaining a strategic distance and not being a part of the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian.

The Houthis had been striking Israel-bound shipping in support of Gaza, with a Malta-flagged, Greek-owned commercial vessel, Zografia, being the latest one to have been hit with a missile. 

The ship was hit in the southern Red Sea while sailing northbound. While no casualties were reported, and the Zografia remained “seaworthy” to continue the journey, the Houthi missile was identified as an “anti-ship ballistic missile.”  

Multimillion-Dollar Missiles To Shoot Down Drones

Warships like the US Navy’s USS Laboon, USS Gravely, USS Mason, and the Royal Navy’s HMS Diamond have shot down multiple Houthi cruise missiles and drones since mid-December. US forces on January 16 also announced seizing drone, rocket, and missile components, which they said were coming from Iran and bound for the Houthis.  

The HMS Diamond, for instance, was described by UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps as a “jewel in the naval crown” on January 9, “repelled the largest attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea to date.” 

HMS Diamond shot down seven of the Iranian-designed drones, Shapps said, and he indicated the British vessel was “potentially” targeted by the Houthis.

Three US destroyers and F18/A warplanes operating from the USS Dwight D Eisenhower aircraft carrier were also repelling the attack, but no casualties or damage were reported.

“Iranian-backed Houthis launched a complex attack of Iranian-designed one-way attack UAVs … anti-ship cruise missiles, and an anti-ship ballistic missile from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen into the southern Red Sea,” the US’s Central Command (Centcom) added.

“It was the most sustained and complex assault by the Iran-backed group since the Houthi force,” a report in The Guardian said. 

However, the weapons used to shoot down the Houthi missiles and drones show a different side of the story. Each Sea Viper/Aster missile costs about US$1 million to US$2 million.

But the Houthis’ one-way attack drones cost less than US$20,000-US$50,000 (up to Rs. 40 lakh), frequently cited as the price for an Iranian Shaheed 136 drone and its variants. Some Houthi drones have been assessed to be as cheap as $2,000

Likewise, the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow (ESSM) air defense missile aboard most US warships costs US$1.79 million.

Meanwhile, a single F/A-18 Super Hornet costs US$66.9 million. The heavily lopsided cost-to-benefit ratio has not gone unnoticed among military and strategic affairs experts. 

Expert Speak

Retired Indian Navy officer Commodore Venugopal Vengalil said “non-state actors” will employ “asymmetric” warfare and technology to “challenge technologically superior and well-organized” militaries.

“However harder the conventional militaries try, the non-state actors will still penetrate their air defense. Moreover, personnel “fatigue also sets in on ships during prolonged patrols. There would be 23 hours 59 minutes of inaction, but the preparedness to counteraction during that critical one minute counts, notwithstanding the superior air defense system.” 

In a previous analysis of Ukraine’s unmanned sea kamikaze drone attacks in the Black Sea, a EurAsian Times report noted how Kyiv’s military planners will conduct strikes in unpredictable patterns of timing and frequency to force watch and gunnery crews on edge and hair-trigger alert. This makes room for mistakes and missing targets, with which one odd strike does get through. 

Vengalil suggests that the Houthi’s advantages of being the ‘home defenders’ fighting from their home turf and suitable local geography take precedence over the strengths enjoyed by the Royal and US Navies.

“Houthis can choose the time and place of the attack and conduct it in narrow waterways like the Red Sea by staging attacks on ships from nearby coasts. It would not be effective in open seas like the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal,” Vengalil added.    

Geopolitical Fallout

Vengalil, however, brought attention to the Houthi’s possible strategic and diplomatic calculations. He said while the group is positioned to affect global shipping and energy security, they would also tread carefully, indicating it has more political objectives than a military intent behind the attacks.

“Houthis would be extremely cautious not to target any warship on escort duties as the repercussions would be disastrous for them, inviting the wrath of a big power directly against them. However, accidents can take place though chances are remote,” he explained. 

Other countries, too, are carefully placing themselves in the evolving diplomatic scene. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which fought the Houthis in the nine-year Yemen civil war, might privately prefer some action against the Iran-affiliated Houthis but do not support a full-scale offensive chiefly for two reasons. 

First, it will reverse the China-brokered Saudi normalization with Iran, followed by extensive coordination of their positions and unprecedented diplomacy between the Arabs and the Persians. 

It conveys that the desire for de-escalation in Riyadh and Tehran was genuine. It reflected in Saudi Arabia and the UAE not naming Iran directly during the periodic missile and drone attacks by the Houthis.

But it also bared that the Houthis commanded considerable autonomy from Iran. Its subsequent clashes with Saudi Arabia and UAE were independent actions and not under the complete tutelage of the Persian nation.    

Secondly, the Saudis and the Emiratis are also wary of angering both their domestic and regional Arab populations – across the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and Saharan North Africa – that are sharply opposed to Israel and deeply supportive of Palestine.  

After Hamas and Hezbollah, the Houthis have now won extensive popular support for their acts of solidarity with Gaza. Thus, backing any US and Western action against the Houthis in support of Israel will therefore unleash severe discontent and political backlash and impact their diplomacy with other Arab nations.  

Sea Sparrow missile
File Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jordon R. Beesley

Asymmetric Warfare In Ukraine

Interestingly, this situation has also been playing out in Europe, where Ukraine and Russia command this asymmetric advantage in different theaters of the war.

In the Black Sea, Ukraine’s kamikaze drone boats have been attacking Russian warships with only sporadic success, but necessitates the need to engage larger capital weapons like Su-30SM, Su-24 strike jets, and Ka-25 naval helicopters to destroy them. 

Russia meanwhile manages to expend Ukraine’s costly Western-origin surface-to-air missiles (SAM) like the Patriot PAC-3, Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile (NASAMS), or the German IRIS-T with its periodic missile and Geran-2 suicide UAV barrages.

Since the weapons are not manufactured in Ukraine and have come from the US and European militaries’ armories, each successful shoot is even more painful and redundant.