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Forget China, We Can’t Even Beat the Houthis

The US no longer has the capability or credibility to conduct large-scale amphibious operations.

Forget China, the new American way of war isn’t working against Yemen’s Houthis.

Striking missile and killer drone launching sites as well as terrorist headquarters with our own missiles and drones seems like a relatively bloodless way to wage war — at least on the part of the shooter — but it is increasingly ineffective.

American presidents love such approaches. It makes them look decisive without endangering their troops’ lives. However, the world’s bad guys quickly figured out that war from thousands of feet up can be countered.

Yemen’s Houthis have been the latest to make American-style push-button war look ineffectual. Western shipping is increasingly being routed away from the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and prices in the US and Europe are already rising.

The US Navy used to have a solution for this kind of dilemma called amphibious warfare, but our admirals, aided by a wrong-headed Marine Corps commandant, walked away from that capability.

Amphibious Capabilities

It would take the equivalent of a Marine Corps division to conduct a large-scale raid in southwestern Yemen capable of cleansing the area of the missile and drone launch sites that have made the Bab-el-Mandeb a shooting gallery.

Such an operation would require two Marine Expeditionary Brigades’ worth of military transport ships. For years, the Marine Corps insisted that figure was necessary to conduct a large-scale amphibious operation such as Inchon in Korea or Guadalcanal in World War II.

The Navy no longer has that capability, as Marine Corps Lieutenant General Karsten Heckl recently pointed out.

What Heckl did not say was that General David Berger, the former Commandant of the Marine Corps, released the Navy from that long-standing two Marine Expeditionary Brigade requirement in 2019.

The aircraft carrier and submarine admirals who compete to run the Navy happily complied. By late in his tenure, even Berger was forced to admit that the Navy/Marine Corps team could not even do an evacuation mission in Sudan or a humanitarian mission in Turkey due to lack of adequate shipping in those vicinities.

Super Garuda Shield
US Marines participate in the Super Garuda Shield exercise. Photo: Sgt. Andrew King/US Marine Corps

Eliminating the Houthi Threat

Eliminating the Houthi threat of missiles and drones would require ground assault troops to locate the underground sanctuaries that allow the launchers to be rolled out, fired quickly, and re-hidden just as quickly.

A large-scale amphibious raid to methodically find and eliminate these facilities would likely mean at least two months of sustained combat by a division-sized force.

Aside from the shipping required to land and maintain such a force, the troops involved would need assault bridging, tanks, and volumes of artillery that the Marine Corps no longer has.

It has taken a few years for the chickens to come home to roost, but the bottom line is that the US no longer has the capability or credibility to conduct large-scale amphibious operations.

Rebuilding the Marine Corps Combat Capability

The Houthis are the first to benefit from this windfall, but others are sure to follow.

The Iranians can use the tactics of the Houthis to close the Strait of Hormuz with relative impunity, and now any malign actor can close a critical sea lane such as the Malacca Strait at the cost of relatively cheap missiles and drones.

As General Heckl points out, it will take a major shipbuilding effort to repair the amphibious ships we still have, let alone build new ones. That is exacerbated by the ground combat capabilities that Berger threw away to buy anti-ship missiles.

This has reduced the US Marine Corps’ combat capability to the level of the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Hamas. If we ever decide to close the Caribbean Sea or the Saint Lawrence Seaway to international shipping, we will be all set.

Otherwise, Janis Joplin was right: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Headshot Gary AndersonGary Anderson served as the Chief of Plans (G-5) of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Force responsible for the Indo-Pacific area.

He lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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