Unfortunately, I was unable to speak in the Situation in the Red Sea debate due to the debate clashing with a long-standing Defence Committee evidence session, which I was chairing. However, the remarks I would have made in the debate can be found below.
“The decision of the United Kingdom and our allies to take action through targeted strikes against Houthi military capacity and command and control is proportionate, appropriate and necessary.
It is not guaranteed to secure a swift and total abatement of the attacks it is designed to prevent.
It is though, after every other avenue has been pursued and rejected by the Houthis and their backers, the right action to take. The consequences of Inaction would be worse.
I would like to outline the threat we face, why in this context the allied action is proportionate and where we go from here.
Despite the standing UN embargo on arms shipments to the Houthis no one should be in any doubt as to the arsenal they hold, supplied directly or created with the support of Iran.
As the panel of Experts reported to the UN Security Council there is publicly available evidence of the Houthis’ possession of stockpiles of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, UAVs and waterborne improvised explosive devices.
This information and that gleaned from successful interdictions led the report to conclude in November 2022 that the Houthis, and I quote,
“are drastically reinforcing their land and naval military capabilities, including under water, as well as their arsenal of missiles and uncrewed aerial vehicles in violation of the targeted arms embargo.”
Nor is it the case that this is an arsenal of significant quantity but lacking in capability.
While its targeting fortunately remains a weakness, as RUSI has outlined, the Houthis have access to Anti-Ship ballistic missiles carrying 500kg warheads, cruise missiles with shorter and yet effective ranges and UAVs capable of travelling up to 1500km with an explosive payload. These are based on Iranian re-engineering of Chinese weaponry.
So not only do we know the Houthis have launched persistent attacks on Red Sea shipping with, since November, multiple attacks impacting 55 nations and threatening the lives of civilian seafarers we know that they have the capacity, without disruption, to continue to do so.
The Houthis have clearly broken international law, are disrupting freedom of navigation and are putting at risk the lives of merchant and naval seafarers.
Acting in self-defence and in the protection of United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea the Allies have every right to take the actions they have.
It is of course one thing to have the right to act, it is another to decide it is strategically worthwhile to go beyond the essentially defensive posture of Prosperity Guardian to strike back at the threat in the hope of causing its degradation.
I believe that the Allies are right to take the steps they have.
First, I believe that the actions themselves are likely to have a positive effect in reducing risks to civilian shipping.
The strikes are likely to have had an impact on stockpiles and delivery mechanisms. The Prime Minister made clear that intelligence gleaned since the strikes points to their effectiveness.
Secondly the Houthis know they can no longer operate with impunity. These strikes will force them to change their modus operandi.
If they store missiles on a more dispersed basis to make them less vulnerable to attack, they will make them harder to maintain and less reliable.
Operating on a time pressured and hit and run basis, doubles down their existing weaknesses around targeting and accuracy.
In the immediate term I have no doubt that these strikes conducted in self-defence will reduce the risks to shipping and civilian lives.
Third there is an essential point to make which is that these actions are more than simply about the Red Sea.
Maritime trade is the lifeblood of the world economy. 90 per cent of our own trade goes by sea and this for us and for many nations remains the mechanism of paramount importance for feeding, employing and providing sources of energy to our populations.
An analysis by the Kiel Institute posits a reduction in container traffic through the Red Sea of over 60 per cent since November. This has a direct impact on costs – including the cost of food. Attacks on shipping and trade, as so often, risk hurting most the very poorest including those in need in Yemen itself.
If the Allies declined to act positively in this scenario, in keeping with UNCLOS and UN resolutions and our long declared commitment to maintain freedom of navigation where would that leave us not just in the Red Sea but in the multiple choke points where international shipping is vulnerable to the actions of malign actors?
Attacks on trade and on civilian seafarers must be met with a response.
Every effort was made, every warning was given, before this ultimate sanction was deployed.
NOT to have acted would also have had its consequences, including in the message it would send to others, we were right to take the action we did.
Notwithstanding this will it succeed? What constitutes success?
In answering this one must be very conscious of the adversary with whom we are dealing.
The Houthis have grown and prospered through war. Notwithstanding the opportunity to be seized post the reduction in violence over the last year they are struggling to deliver to their people who are looking beyond what had become a seemingly continuous struggle within Yemen. There is evidence that the Houthi regime’s failure to deliver is beginning to undermine confidence in the populated region they control.
They will certainly propagandise these strikes and will seek to make a point of internal unity on being the recipient of targeted action by the West.
Internationally they will see the intervention as further grounds for securing support and funding from Tehran, bolstering what they may see as their credibility as a regional ally.
Furthermore, while I have no doubt the strikes will have a positive impact in degrading their capacity to successfully strike shipping we should be under no illusions that the Houthis have proved adept at operating and delivering military action even circumstances in which their opponents have complete air superiority.
I am sure that we are well aware that while this is the right course of action there are no guarantees that it will allow Operation Prosperity Guardian to stand down anytime soon.
How this evolves is not solely a question for us.
We have the means to act, we have shown, correctly, a willingness to do so.
The Houthis have decisions to make. They have shown in the past their willingness, when it suits their agenda, to be pragmatic, including in the talks with the Saudis and other third parties, notwithstanding the speculated views of Iran.
It is in their gift and I believe in their interest to wind down these attacks.
That is a decision for them – we know that in acting in self-defence we have sought to address a real threat and one which risked setting a precedent not just in the Red Sea but much further afield in an increasingly contested and dangerous world.
The Prime Minister is right to have set out his determination to continue to pursue diplomatic routes and humanitarian objectives. He is right to focus all our allies attention, whether or not they chose to join the strikes, on the importance of ongoing interdiction work reducing Iran’s ability to rearm and resupply its proxy.
We must persist in all these efforts while maintaining a willingness to act again in self-defence to defend shipping. The Houthis would be wise to be considering what exactly is in their own best interests.”