The curse of air power is that air strikes always capture the public’s attention. The praise that follows their tactical brilliance can quickly swing to disappointment that they have not proven to be a political panacea. This is the risk that comes with the US and UK air strikes on the Houthi forces currently attacking cargo ships in the Red Sea. It is why James Heappey (Minister for the Armed Forces) was cautious during his media round, rightly stating we should await the battle damage assessment (BDA) before declaring the mission a success.
The trouble is that BDA is a technical, military assessment of accuracy in mission execution – but the problem to be solved is political. The Saudis commenced significant air operations against the Houthis in 2015, expecting a quick, three-week campaign. That campaign evolved and continues today, although at a drastically reduced rate which speaks to its lack of strategic success. What the Saudis discovered is a truism of all military campaigns: the military activity must be stitched into, and form an essential plank of the ‘theory of victory’, meaning all the elements that would come together to deliver military success. What might the UK and US coalition’s theory of victory look like here?
The most simple rationale is to eliminate the threat. In this case, the threat is the Houthis’ ability to deploy anti-ship missiles and drones that credibly threaten Red Sea shipping. This requires coalition forces to be able to find and track them, attack and destroy a significant fraction of the Houthi arsenal, and then prevent its resupply.
Alternatively, an assessment could have been made that a large, one-off strike will shock the Houthi leadership enough to deter it from continuing, and so preserve its forces.