Why asymmetric warfare on the high seas is so tricky for great powers.
- By James HolmesJames Holmes is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, a combat veteran of the Gulf War, and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.
Outclassed adversaries have a pesky habit of refusing to admit they’re outclassed. To wit: Early this month, U.S. Navy destroyers cruising off the Yemeni coast exchanged fire with Houthi rebels armed with C-802 anti-ship missiles. The C-802 is a ubiquitous missile of Chinese origin. Among the countries fielding these missiles is Iran, the Houthis’ patron and likely supplier of anti-ship weaponry.
Two C-802s lanced out over the Gulf of Aden on Sunday, Oct. 9, prompting the crew of the USS Mason to launch two SM-2 anti-air missiles, an Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, and a Nulka radar decoy in self-defense. The Houthi missiles fell harmlessly into the sea.
On Oct. 12, the Houthi gunners struck again, firing two more anti-ship missiles, which prompted the Mason to deploy defensive countermeasures once again. That day happened to be the anniversary of the October 2000 small-boat attack on the destroyer USS Cole, which was moored in Aden at the time. Aden is a harbor in — you guessed it — Yemen. The timing can be no accident. If the Houthis want to send a message to Americans, how better to remind them of the last time a nonstate Yemeni combatant scored a heavy hit against the U.S. Navy?
The offensive U.S. reply came swiftly. The next day, the USS Nitze, Mason’s sister ship, peppered three Houthi radar sites with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles — partially blinding the militants’ anti-ship capability.
Why does this matter? For one thing, this was no idle tit for tat between the U.S. Navy and an Iranian surrogate. Such skirmishes have consequences. Yemen adjoins the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the juncture between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. If a coastal foe can menace shipping transiting this narrow seaway, it would disrupt the shortest, most convenient sea route connecting Europe with South and East Asia. Doing so would carry significant economic and military repercussions.
Now, it’s doubtful the Houthis could close the strait altogether. Foreign navies are on station nearby for counterpiracy duty and would likely frustrate such an attempt. Nevertheless, Houthi antics could drive insurance rates sky-high for merchant shipping — prompting shippers to bypass the danger zone. Detouring all the way around the Cape of Good Hope, at Africa’s southernmost tip, could become the cheaper option, notwithstanding all the fuel, wear and tear, and time such protracted voyages involve. In a sense, then, the Houthis could conscript insurance firm Lloyd’s of London as an ally — magnifying their influence while distorting patterns of trade and military operations.
But the exchange of fire also helps us glimpse the future of sea combat. It confirms an adage from a good old book: There is nothing new under the sun.
That’s something to bear in mind when you hear catchphrases about warfare — like “hybrid warfare,” “asymmetric warfare,” “gray zone conflict,” or “little green men.” These are jazzy new labels for bottles as old as armed strife itself. All warfare is asymmetric. Indeed, the U.S. military is the most lopsided asymmetric combatant of them all, with its armadas of ships, planes, and weaponry.
Few can match that arsenal. Weaker combatants grasp that asymmetry — and refuse to fight America’s fight or submit meekly to its demands. They hunt for tactics and hardware to outflank U.S. material supremacy.
That’s time-honored strategic logic. Combatants have different comparative strengths and frailties. They try to nullify their antagonists’ strengths while exploiting their weaknesses for strategic gain. It’s as simple as that. You’d do the same thing in the Houthis’ place. So would I.
And here’s another historical truth: Lesser pugilists can prevail despite their material inferiority. Under what circumstances could combatants like the Houthis succeed by pelting Western vessels with missiles? Well, the stronger navy usually wins today, as more powerful forces have across the centuries. But the strong can take a serious bruising along the way. Even woefully outmatched antagonists like the Houthis can exact a heavy price for victory.
Make the price prohibitive and the strong may refuse to pay. A halfhearted opponent may go away — leaving weak yet strong-willed defenders holding contested real estate or whatever’s at issue in the competition. How can the weak make costs spike?
One, they could actually land a blow against a man-of-war like the USS Mason. That would impose the direct costs of repairing the vessel. It cost the U.S. Navy some $250 million (in 2000 dollars; almost $350 million today) and 14 months to nurse the USS Cole back to health — including replacing two main engines. And that’s not even accounting for the 17 American lives lost.
That’s a lot of bang for the buck from the militants’ standpoint, even leaving aside the enormous prestige bonus the Houthis would reap from such a coup.
Two, the Houthis or similar antagonists can compel navy ships to protect themselves at high cost. Even successful defense against missile attacks is expensive. Fending off the initial attack on the Mason may have cost the U.S. Navy more than $8 million, compared with a guesstimated cost of $500,000 for each C-802 the Houthis fired.
How to arrive at the $8 million figure? It’s unclear which variant of the SM-2 the Mason crew fired. In July, though, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of 246 “Block IIIB” SM-2s — a late model, but not the latest — to Japan for $821 million. That breaks down to $3.34 million per round. An Evolved Sea Sparrow goes for $1.17 million judging from a recent sale to Denmark, which purchased six missiles for $7 million last March. Two SM-2s, one Evolved Seasparrow: That comes to about $7.85 million, not counting the cost of the Nulka decoy. Details about the Nulka’s price tag are few and far between, but a reasonable guess based on the program’s early history suggests each decoy may go for around $75,000.
In other words, it probably cost the U.S. Navy upwards of $8 million to ward off the attacks — eight times what it cost the Houthis to mount. That’s a forbidding ratio. Is it affordable? Sure — if the navy leadership and the U.S. political leadership are prepared to bear the expense of putting ships in harm’s way.
Ship crews seldom get to launch missiles in peacetime for training exercises, chiefly because of the price tag of expending ordnance. The imperative to save money could modify the conduct of future skippers or superiors. They could remain farther offshore to avoid attack, thus ceding maritime space to local adversaries.
Or political leaders could come to question whether the strategic gains of staging a naval presence off Yemen’s coast justify the expense and hazard of doing so. If the Obama administration or its successor decide the reward isn’t worth the cost and risk, it may pull the naval squadron back out of harm’s way. But by retreating over the horizon, Washington may surrender that portion of the Gulf of Aden to Houthi militants — letting them claim victory. If so, the weak will have won through harsh cost/benefit logic.
Next, nonstate scourges are nothing new to the high seas. Thucydides, the chronicler of the Peloponnesian War, reported that King Minos of Crete founded the Greek world’s first navy to combat pirates who ravaged coastal towns and cities.
And yet, despite the efforts of Minos and countless naval commanders since classical antiquity, nonstate menaces — armed groups, brigands, traffickers in all manner of illicit wares — still blight the world’s sea lanes. Indeed, a multinational naval force has been plying the Gulf of Aden, along Yemeni shorelines, since 2008. The goal of that force? To quash Somali piracy.
Everything old is new again, then. Super-empowered groups have made trouble for great navies from the Aegean Sea of antiquity to maritime Asia, where Japanese wako pirates once plagued maritime China, to Yemeni offshore waters today. Some of these nonstate troublemakers do the bidding of governments — witness the Chinese “fishing fleet,” which acts as a maritime militia, helping Beijing get its way in territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Neither the U.S. Navy nor other regional navies have come up with satisfactory strategies for handling such challengers. In any event, naval warfare has never been solely about contests pitting symmetrical, evenly matched navies against one another.
Heck, sea combat isn’t even just about navies in this high-tech age. Precision-guided arms flung seaward from shore — or from aircraft flying from airfields ashore — can smite a fleet as surely as volleys disgorged from silos aboard a ship. We inhabit an age of land-based sea power. Militant groups need not go to sea if they have the wherewithal to imperil naval fleets that venture within missile range.
If combatants in a civil war want to threaten the friends of their enemies — the United States is a silent partner in the bloody Saudi air campaign against the Houthis — they do so with whatever implement lays to hand. And they do so with whatever external support they can attract. In the case of the Houthis, that means their state sponsor in Tehran.
It’s worth recalling that this isn’t the first time a nonstate Iranian proxy has struck at a Western navy. A decade ago, Hezbollah crippled the Israeli corvette Hanit with a C-802 missile, the selfsame munition launched at the USS Mason.
All of this being said, this month’s encounter is a good-news story in many respects. It affirms that Western warships operating in their natural habitat — namely the high seas — with crews on their guard stand a good chance of riding out threats from shore and completing their missions.
The USS Cole, a destroyer of the same make as the Mason and Nitze, was immobile while resupplying and thus unable to defend itself against a small craft packed with explosives. Mariners on board the INS Hanit were caught unawares. They hadn’t activated the vessel’s defensive systems and thus were unready to counter the Hezbollah missile barrage.
By contrast, the Mason was riding the waves a reasonable distance offshore, its crew watchful for attack. Unlike the Cole and Hanit debacles, the engagement with Houthi rocketeers constituted a fair test of an American ship’s defensive prowess, and it passed.
But let’s not get cocky. This was a pricey victory. Future victories promise to be just as pricey, raising the cost of defending oceanic thoroughfares. Political leaders should put the case to the American people that this is a price worth their taxpayer dollars.
Photo credit: Anna Wade/U.S. Navy