Freedom of Navigation: Houthi Attacks Only Part of How a Historical Anomaly Is Unwinding

The Wall Street Journal has a useful new article on how safe transit on the seas has been under attack for some time. Yet the West (like so many other problems resulting from arrogance and neglect) effectively ignored the erosion of navigation safety despite the obvious importance of global supply chains and is not able to do much about it any time soon.

One might read this piece as an effort to shift blame away from how the Biden Administration has demonstrated its impotence against a third tier military, the Houthis. But as we’ll show, the bigger picture does not exculpate Biden and his team.

And while we are on the topic of the Houthis, that sorry picture is not getting any better:

And the Houthis are ready to move up the escalation ladder:

The US effort to pretend that our embarrassing outreach to China to get them to Do Something about the Houthis via Iran (as if the Houthis are Iran’s minions, another officialdom-and-media-promoted misperception) is yet more propaganda:

I have no idea how important these particular cables are, but if the Houthis are able to cut one or ones that carry meaningful traffic to Israel, and not so much to neighbors (as in they might be affected but less seriously), this could be a big blow.

In the meantime, the US and its allies engage in response theater. We already know convoys, even ones with ships with missiles on board, have not been able to dent the Houthi threat. Yet we see this empty display (hat tip BC), Greek frigate to be dispatched to Red Sea is purely for supportive and defensive role. And the text in confirms that this is a frigate, as in one.

Now admittedly a lot of commentators, including the Journal, are overegging the pudding by focusing on the very recent increase in freight rates, as opposed to a somewhat longer period. That vies is still less than pretty but short of being dire. From Statista:

And more important, rates were much higher in 2022, so this increase, although alarming, is not even within hailing distance of being make-or-break, in terms of costs. From Europe-Cities, in August 2022:

After having broken through the ‘psychological’ threshold of 10 thousand dollars at the end of July, the decline in freight rates of container transport by sea from China to Italy continued, until this week brought them precisely to an average quota of 8,879. dollars for sending a 40-foot box from Shanghai to Genoa.

In fairness, the Journal points out, but much later in the article, that the real deal killer for Red Sea shipping is insurance costs:

Even if those ships can evade Houthi missiles, they can’t hide from insurers. The rate for war insurance through the Red Sea, once a tiny percentage of the total value covered, has ballooned to 1%, a difference that many shippers deem cost-prohibitive. The 10,000-mile-long alternative, circumnavigating Africa, is so fuel-intensive that cargo ships pay steep climate taxes on arrival in Europe and risk scoring failing grades on the International Maritime Organization’s carbon report index.

However, I have not yet seen much discussion of the impact of greater transit times on supply chain, and whether factor is generating any production problems. With tightly-coupled supply chains, there may be some cases of “for the want of a nail” type problems compounding into more serious problems.

Now to the main event, the Journal account of the decline in safety of commercial navigation over time. The article does correctly point out that freedom of the seas, as a reality as opposed to an aspiration, is a relatively recently development. This article depicts it as a result of the US post-World War II order. I am not sure that is accurate. The period right before World War I was also a high tide for international trade. The gold standard broke down during World War I because gold balances could no longer be shipped safely between states…which implies that was normal in the preceding decades. Any informed commentary appreciated.

The Journal story explains that the modern erosion of safety goes beyond the effectiveness of Somali pirates. The fact that the US is on close to non-speaking terms with Russia and China is a factor. Even though the US treated both as geostrategic rivals, there was still enough in the way of pragmatism in the US leadership so as to be able to cooperate with each country on areas of mutual interest. But as soon as the Biden Administration took office, it upped the hostility with both countries (recall our stunning rudeness at the summit with China in Alaska in March 2021). The piece begins with ritual whining that “American vessels aren’t welcome across one of the world’s most vital transport lanes” and how Russia has allegedly made the Black Sea unsafe. But its then gets to the bigger picture, for instance showing the changes in sea routes over the last year:

More from the Journal:

Until the 20th century, trading nations competed in blood for the right to ship merchandise to foreign ports; these days they compete on price and quality.

Ships handle more than 80% of global goods, according to the U.N.

Not long ago, the world’s most powerful navies cooperated to secure the seas. When Somali sailors seized two Chinese vessels in 2008, Beijing sent warships to help the U.S. patrol the Horn of Africa. After the Cold War, Russia teamed up with the U.S. military to clean nuclear waste from the Arctic Sea, before melting ice opened new shipping possibilities. For now, there is little chance those three world powers could summon common cause.

The U.S. can still call on allies in Europe or Japan, whose navies once spanned the globe. But today they are lightweights with few warships or skilled personnel they can mobilize in a crisis: The British navy has fewer sailors than it did during the Revolutionary War 250 years ago, when its total population was one-seventh its current size. The U.S. Navy, sidelined during decades of counterterrorism campaigns, is stretched securing not just shipping lanes but also undersea data cables and gas pipelines that have become equally important to economic output.

This discussion envisages navies as the means of responding to threats to shipping. But anyone who has been paying close attention to the Houthi attacks, or the Ukraine conflict, recognizes that the old paradigms of how to wage war have been disrupted by ISR and long and intermediate range missiles, particularly precision missiles. Surface vessels are sitting ducks. We’ve seen in the Red Sea how they exhaust their supply of missiles and then have to be resupplied. Worse, and this is a US own goal. First, see this section of a late 2023 article in Defense News:

In early October, the U.S. Navy reloaded a destroyer’s missile tubes using a crane on an auxiliary ship pulled alongside the destroyer, rather than a crane on an established pier.

Reloading a vertical launching system, or VLS, is a challenging maneuver, given the crane must hold missile canisters vertically, while slowly lowering the explosives into the system’s small opening in the ship deck.

It’s also a maneuver the Navy cannot yet do at sea. This demonstration took place while the destroyer Spruance was tied to the pier at Naval Air Station North Island, as a first step in creating a more expeditionary rearming capability.

But in the near future, that same evolution between a warship and an auxiliary vessel could take place in any harbor or protected waters around the globe. One day, it may even take place in the open ocean, thanks to research and development efforts in support of a top priority for the secretary of the Navy.

Translation: reloading in the open seas is vaporware. So US surface ships can’t respond effectively to opponents who can fire lots of cheap missiles or even drones. And that’s before getting to the US procurement propensity to prefer fewer, pricey and fussy weaponry to cheap, rugged, and ample, made even worse by the fact that the US never took air defense seriously. So not only do we have trouble maintaining continuity of defense due to ships needing to run back to port to get new weapons, we don’t have enough either.

Due to the state of search, I cannot verify when vertical launching systems became prevalent in the US navy. I dimly recall Larry Johnson discussing it in an interview, and if my memory is correct, before 2000 older designs were common, and that among other things meant missiles could be brought to ships by air. Any reader corrections or confirmation appreciated.

Second, even if our approach to shipping defense were sound, it’s also woefully underpowered:

At the time [1945], the U.S. Navy boasted about 7,000 ships….

Today, America’s navy can field fewer than 300 ships and the world’s largest fleet belongs to Beijing, which is reinforcing its unilateral claim on the vast South China Sea by creating and fortifying artificial islands. Stavridis called it “a preposterous claim that has been rejected by international courts,” but he predicted China will continue “and challenge anyone seeking to conduct freedom of navigation.”

The article contains more hand-wringing about how the Houthis are picking and choosing who they target, and Chinese and Russian ships are not on that list.

The story ends with a bleat about the threat to Our Way of Life:

“We really have to think about freedom of navigation and the connection between that and global trade,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström.

“As a nation very much dependent on global trade, we believe that global trade is the way forward,” he said. “Without global trade, and the possibility of maintaining the benefits of global trade, this world would be a much more difficult one for us to live in.”

It would seem obvious that advanced economies need to kick their extended supply chain habit. The CO2 cost of shipping argues against it. The US decision to get aggressive with Russia and China would have seemed to imply, as a matter a prudence, reducing international interdependence. The impact of Covid lockdowns and surges on international commerce should have been a wake-up call. With all the blather about reshoring, talk exceeds action. After all, restructuring production is hard and often requires investment. So why not kick the can down the road and hope you can foist this problem on your successors?

It seems on this front, like so many others, change won’t happen until it is forced on the incumbents, which means the results will be worse than necessary. Welcome to late-stage capitalism.

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    1. LY

      I tried to answer the question by looking up history on the Standard Missile. According to Wikipedia, the Vertical Launch System (VLS), since 2003, has been the only launcher used for the Standard Missile.

      Standard Missile is the US Navy’s main air defense missile. Surface Naval Air Defense system is a layered system, with Standard Missile the outermost layer, then Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), then the Phalanx point defense system. RAM missiles are not VLS, so maybe those can be reloaded at sea?

        1. Polar Socialist

          Spruance class destroyers were upgraded with Mk 41 VLS between 1986 and late 1990’s, and since Arleigh Burke’s started to be commissioned in 1991 I guess it’s safe to say that early 1990’s the VLS became the dominant form of missile launcher in US Navy.

          That said, I don’t think resupply at sea was much done with the earlier on-deck cassette launchers either. Armored Box Launcher, the predecessor of the VLS from the early 80’s could not be reloaded at sea either.

          Maybe with the earlier missiles that had much shorter range, were within reasonable weight limits (under half a ton) and were stored in magazines to be fed to the armed launchers it was possible to deliver reloads by a helicopter or even by the Standard Tensioned Replenishment Alongside Method and let the crew manhandle them to the said magazine.

          1. Es s Ce tera

            And in those days the US wargaming was anticipating a USSR/NATO large battlegroup naval engagement unfolding in the GIUK gap.

            If such had actually happened, the US navy would promptly have run out of missiles while all the way across the Atlantic, far from home bases, and closer bases in the UK and Europe within range of Soviet fire.

            “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

          2. scott s.

            The first 5 Aegis (CG-47) class cruisers (aka baseline 1) had Mk-26 dual-arm (training) launchers, same as the nuke cruiser Virginia Class and the 4 modified Spruance hulls that the Shah had ordered for Iran but the USN took instead. Bunker Hill CG-52 was the lead install for VLS (1986), with a new missile variant SM-2 Block II.

            VLS was designed to accommodate Tomahawk RGM-109 which is quite a bit bigger than SM-2. The Mk-41 VLS strikedown crane was intended for SM-2-sized canisters. I think the inability to handle Tomahawk led to decision by OPNAV sponsor to not require that capability, which takes up 3 cells. Note that USS Spruance was not an SM-2 platform, so any discussion about reloading is not relevant to the AAW discussion.

            Armored Box Launcher was designed for Tomahawk not SM-2.

          3. redleg

            My dad built and installed Mk 10, Mk 26, and later ABLs. The first Burkes had Mk 26 launchers as did at least four of the Virginia class cruisers. If he worked on a ship it didn’t have VLS. The USN switch to VLS systems (late 1980s?) meant that he spent more time servicing launchers in overseas ports. This happened in the mid- 90s when he gradually started spending his field time in Spain, Taiwan, Italy, etc. instead of Virginia, Mississippi, Seattle, and San Diego.

      1. hk

        That’s not quite true, although it depends on which “standard” missile you are talking about. The original Standard (SM-1, also called RIM-66) is pretty old, going back to 1960 or so, and we’re launched from 1- or 2- “arm” launchers. The current Standard versions (there are several) are vertically launched, and they started showing up with the AEGIS system (Ticonderoga class), although even early Ticonderogas still had the “2-arm” missile launchers.

  1. JHenry

    This brings to mind an old saying we had in systems security: You have to be accurate every time. Your adversary only has to be accurate once.

  2. bwilli123

    Cutting the cables would hurt big time (from 2021)
    The growth of Middle Eastern fibre optic cable networks has given Western signals intelligence agencies unprecedented access to the region’s data and communications traffic.

    “There is no question that, in the broadest sense, from Port Said [in Egypt] to Oman is one of the greatest areas for telecommunications traffic and therefore surveillance. Everything about the Middle East goes through that region except for the odd link through Turkey,” said Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist specialising in surveillance since 1975…”

    “Egypt is a major chokepoint, handling traffic from Europe to the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and vice versa. The 15 cables that cross Egypt between the Mediterranean and Red seas handle between 17 percent to 30 percent of the world population’s internet traffic, or the data of 1.3 billion to 2.3 billion people.”

    Also GCHQ in Oman

    1. JustAnotherVolunteer

      A bit more on cables and the Israel connection. Google is funding Blue/Raman which by-passes the Egyptian land route and transits Israel instead. Supposed to go on line in 2024.

      Note the Saudi connection called out here:

      More here on recent risks

  3. DJG, Reality Czar

    I note the absence of the word “diplomacy” in the article, in keeping with the current dire theme that diplomacy is for ninnies and peace talks don’t accomplish anything.

    Yet I was wondering if there might be some mechanism, some code of law, set out to govern the seas.

    And there is:

    I realize that much of the convention seems to be about territoriality, but it also covers navigation.

    Yet is is part of the law set out by the United Nations. We have just seen how the U S of A deals with the UN, International Court of Justice, and UNRWA. As one might expect, the U S of A hasn’t ratified this convention either.

    The biggest problem with the U.S. elites is the studied inability to understand the old saying: What goes around comes around.

    Also, looking at the maps, one is reminded that geography is destiny. What a bunch of pinch points. But I’m sure that the Blinken Sullivan Nuland Trio are great at entertaining anger-addled Joe Biden with renditions of Don’t Know Much about Geography

    And, evidently, the song goes on:
    Don’t know much about the middle ages, looked at the pictures then I turned the pages
    Don’t know nothin’ ’bout no rise and fall, don’t know nothin’ ’bout nothin’ at all

    1. tegnost

      …but I do know that I rule you,
      and if you do what I tell you to
      then what a wonderful wonderful world
      this should be….

      Maybe moving fast and breaking things is just something only a two year old would do without considering the consequences

    2. digi_owl

      Note that once more the 90s come up as a curious date.

      I’m starting to think that what we are seeing now is the result of a slow rot that set in during the 90s, as USA lost any real opposition on the world stage.

      And those pinch points served USA and “allies” well in the past, bu helping contain opposition as long as USA was in control. But we are now slowly realizing that USA is no longer in control.

  4. The Rev Kev

    ‘#Yemeni armed forces threaten to cut Red Sea internet cable if the US-UK keep bombing their airports’

    The Yemeni Ministry of Communications denied this rumour but it does not matter. The possibility has been brought up. Could it be that the Yemenis have escalatory dominance here? They are not trying to hit every ship as those from counties like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia(!) are getting a free pass but that means that they have fewer targets to concentrate on and so can up the ante on them. The fact that they got a missile through an AEGIS screen must be really concerning to the Pentagon as having the possibility of a US Navy ship getting hit would be something that the Chinese, Russian, Iranian navies would be watching like a hawk. Of course if there was a ceasefire declared in Gaza the Yemenis would stand down right away but we all know that old Joe will never allow that to happen. He would prefer that the US Navy be revealed to be a paper tiger just so that Israel might be able to get cheaper and quicker shipping to their port. But that is not happening so the costs of shipping to Israel is skyrocketing while the world learns not to fear western navies any more. Genius move that.

    1. FlyoverBoy

      Cable cutting: As for any unthinkability that such an act of terrorism against undersea peacetime infrastructure may have had, we severed that along with Nord Stream.

        1. JohnnyGL

          Agreed…it matters for the “who started it” debate.

          But, of course, in practical terms it doesn’t matter who’s at fault. It matters who wins. The west isn’t winning.

          1. Michaelmas

            Rev Kev: Could it be that the Yemenis have escalatory dominance here?

            Probably not. See below.

            JohnntGL:The west isn’t winning.

            The west doesn’t think it’s existential yet.

            In the real world, Yemen is extremely vulnerable because it’s the first country liable to run out of water as global climate change proceeds. The population’s survival is pretty much dependent upon a relatively few desalinization plants and wastewater plants —



            Even the Saudis worked this out and targeted one back in 2016. A sufficiently ruthless, intelligent empire would have diplomatically made clear to whomever in Yemen that if the Houthis didn’t cease and desist it would flatten Yemen’s water infrastructure — and would guarantee it would do this if Houthi threats of cable-cutting were carried out.

            Of course, a sufficiently ruthless, intelligent empire would never have gotten in bed with Israel and Netanyahu, as Biden, Blinken, and co have.

            Still, below the Blinken, Biden, and Nod level, it used to be the case that the Pentagon had plans for everything and quite a few intelligent people drawing these plans up. Those plans will still be there, if the intelligent people aren’t.

            So if the Houthis continue to be a problem, someone in the Pentagon will point out the potential to flatten what water infrastructure Yemen has. For that matter, someone in London — Yemen used to be a troublesome part of the British empire — will be aware of this potential, too.

            1. juno mas

              …but that’s more of a problem for the civilians. Up the ante and the Houthi militants will likely expand their attacks on US/Isreal ships. At some point increased shipping costs is going to create inflation in the US economy.

              The Global South is getting a first hand lesson on the consequences of a Rules based Order.

          2. clarky90

            I am reposting this…..

            Wed 4 Oct, 2023

            Over 1,000 Israeli extremists storm Al Aqsa complex on fifth day of Sukkot


            The odious Israeli Settlers managed to unite the fractious Muslims World, against the “West”, by invading, and desecrating the the sanctity of The Al Aqsa Mosque.

            The Al Aqsa Mosque is the third Holiest Muslim Site. It is worshipped by ALL Muslim factions…… , uniting the Muslim World, via a common threat.

            The “settlers dream” is to level the Al Aqsa Mosque and build the Third Temple, in order to resume Animal Blood Sacrifices to god. (small “g”).

            “Why On Earth Do We Need a Third Temple?”
            By Tzvi Freeman


            In other words, it could be argued that the present conflict in the Middle East, (Which, by the way, threatens the sanctity of our atmosphere and our environment) ………….

            began on “Wednesday, October 4, 2023!”, not on “Saturday, October 7, 2023…………..”

  5. Cetzer

    Dear Huthis,
    in the name of decency, aesthetics and capitalist surrealism: Please sink the Icon of the Seas . To minimize collateral damage and leave a warning memorial, do it in shallow, coastal waters.
    Yours faithfully

    1. Randall Flagg

      Yes, thank you for making me change my shirt from the coffee I coughed up laughing at that one.
      And some would say that act would be a twofer, reducing population and global emissions…

  6. Jams O'Donnell

    “It would seem obvious that advanced economies need to kick their extended supply chain habit.”

    I am no expert in trade, international or otherwise, so I’m open to correction on this, but presumably that would entail a massive amount of re-industrialisation in the west. The scale required for this would probably need at least a couple of decades, and would have to overcome the vested interests of the share-owning and rentier classes, who have invested everything, more or less, in China, India and elsewhere where wages are cheap. How can this be overcome?

    Additionally, what we really need is less but smarter industrial output worldwide. For example, ask yourself – is the fashion industry a positive or a negative element in world trade, in terms of wasteful and unnecessary output? Same for the car industry, and many others. Are we all going to be able to run a personal transport in the future – everyone in the world wants to, but there is not enough materials or especially energy to make this possible. Do we need to be able to import summer fruits to eat in the winter? Etc.

    1. hk

      Wouldn’t that cause howl’s from NIMBY greenies, who want no factory (or factory workers) anywhere near them? /S

  7. JohnnyGL

    Re: the concluding remarks of the post

    Certainly, large corporations are allergic to big investment projects, especially ones that don’t boost margins. They don’t yearn for resiliency of cash flows, they just assume resiliency in cash flow projections out several years.

    However, this is also something that deeply damages the Davos dream of free-flowing capital unencumbered by real world obstacles. This is a class that yearned to free itself from the constraints of the domestic labor force and now they have to consider coming home and making peace with those they’ve scorned for decades. It turns out, they left a wreck behind and that workforce isn’t super-enthusiastic about their return, with the terms they’re offering (usually worse than before they left) and don’t trust them to stick around.

    These are the results of the low-trust environment that the Davos set has created. They’re untrustworthy with their foreign partners, and equally so with their employees.

    1. JonnyJames

      The Davos dream will turn into a nightmare, sooner than later. The neoliberal, unipolar world of the “garden” is full of weeds and has been sprayed with glyphosate.

    2. digi_owl

      It seems like humanity is destined to go through this at generational intervals, as one can see the pattern across history by simply swapping out titles. Back in the day it was the behavior of nobility and their retinues, these days it is shareholders and their middle class assistants. They become detached from the daily logistics of life, and at peak it produce a “let them eat cake” indifference to the plight of the masses. Sadly a certain scene involving a freezer stuffed with ice cream has not resulted in a equivalent response, at least not yet.

  8. Socal Rhino

    On rebuilding onshore industry, one thought: revive vocational high schools. My father taught in the vocational high school system in NJ, in its heyday with students who were primarily children of immigrants. Alongside traditional studies were hands-on instruction in things like machine tools or automobile repair.

    1. ISL

      A generational project. To revive the vocational schools (and engineering and mining and) one needs to revive the teachers to teach them, who have passed through a (baby boom age) retirement wave.

      Meanwhile, the non-West will continue to advance and lower its costs, while the West’s costs (already) are launching out of the band where social stability lies even without detanglement?- What is Gini coefficient in the US? Equivalent to Egypt during the Pharoahs?

      And this neglects that teachers are highly exposed to seasonal flus and bugs (I am thinking long covid), and has been in crisis in the US for decades, yet nothing ever changes.

    2. KLG

      Until the early 1980s IIRC the very good public high school I attended had a robust vocational track: Small gas engine repair, carpentry and woodworking, plumbing, sheet metal, welding and metal working with lathes and other machine tools not much different from those in the machine shop at the chemical plant I worked in later, where I got to watch and sweep up the metal shavings. These classes were taught by masters of their respective crafts, and their students taught me to use a slide rule. This came in handy in General Chemistry when the TI SR-10 calculator cost $600 in current dollars. The HP-35 was $2300. I dearly hope my HP-33s with RPN dies after I do. Also a strong Future Farmers of America section; I don’t remember 4H Club but that was probably there, too. Not much in the way of invidious comparisons of “vocational” versus “academic” tracks, either, except perhaps among a few teachers. A different and better world.

      1. Randall Flagg

        This comment ( and thank you for the positive words on vocational education ),reminds me of the recent circus involving the Ivy League schools and their big donors withholding multi million dollar donations due to free speech arguments/ anti Israel/palestine protest blowups. As someone said much better and earlier those places are just hedge funds with an attached university. They can get by without it.
        If these blowhards want to really make a contribution to society they should send their 50/100 million $ checks to trade/ vocational schools/community colleges. An act that would really make a societal change. And yes, before anymore institutional knowledge by the instructors is lost.

        1. Paris

          Who says they the elite want to make any change? They send their millions to Ivy League schools so their mediocre children can get entry. Also, they can name of their halls and leave something to be talked about. That’s the goal.

          1. Randall Flagg

            Could not agree more with your statement, I recognize what i wrote is the dictionary definition of wishful thinking.
            Just hoping for a more enlightened day.
            You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

    3. JonnyJames

      That sounds like a good idea to me, especially in light of the shortage of skilled tradespeople: electricians, HVAC techs, plumbers, carpenters etc.

      On the negative side, Michael Hudson has pointed out that the US has priced itself out of global competitiveness due to high overhead costs: the financialized economic environment has caused, housing, healthcare, utilities etc to rise disproportionately. Health care costs in the US are the highest in the world, for example.

      Also, the high levels of debt of the average US dweller makes them little more than debt peons. The interest charges, fees etc. only add to the overhead. Any politician that says they will bring back jobs is just spreading BS, as usual. It cannot happen without major overhaul of the laws and institutions, plus massive infrastructure investment. I don’t see that happening

  9. Skip Intro

    I read it here first, and I think it bears repeating:
    “There are two kinds of vessels in the Navy, submarines and targets.”

  10. Camelotkidd

    The long-form version of rebuilding domestic manufacturing, vocational, apprenticeship education and a smaller more sensible economy was articulated by John Michael Greer in his 2016 fictional account–Retrotopia. The caveat is that the transformation of one of the new American republics, brought about by closed borders and trade embargoes, was precipitated by a brutal civil war.
    Greer asks in his unmistakeable style–How should we then live?

  11. Feral Finster

    “Now admittedly a lot of commentators, including the Journal, are overegging the pudding by focusing on the very recent increase in freight rates, as opposed to a somewhat longer period.”

    If freight rates have spiked, then that is a sign that the Houthi attacks are getting the desired effect, and that the maritime industry is taking them seriously.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You missed the point that this spike still has container shipping rates as way lower than in 2022. But as the post also explains, the big deal is the increase in insurance costs, which makes the Red Sea route unaffordable for many.

  12. JonnyJames

    This is fascinating in the context of long-term foreign policy of the British, and American empires. The US/UK domination of the seas for roughly 200 years appears to be rapidly coming to an end. The power of the Anglo-Americans has largely rested on sea (and air) power, control of sea lanes, thus control of crucial international trade routes..

    And on the Eurasian landmass, we have Ukraine and Iran as important pieces in the Grand Chessboard. Control of Iran and the ME appears to be more important than ever in light of China’s Belt and Road project. It looks like Iran sits smack dab in the middle of a key route. The plan to “pry” Ukraine away from Russia looks doomed. So now it looks like there will be more pressure to regime change Iran by any means possible. Of course the bomb Iran crowd play a very dangerous and desperate game, and regime changing Iran is obviously not just for Israel’s benefit as some might claim.

    Since the Anglo-Americans are losing their grip on the seas, and China is making inroads to circumvent the sea routes, we have a sort of “double whammy” blow to unipolar hegemony. The US/UK will be cut off and more isolated in future.

    Since overall US policy lately seems to be “hegemony or total destruction” the desperate power-drunk foreign policy establishment may well pull out the stops on attacking Iran. I hope I have got this all wrong, I had hoped to live a couple more decades ;-)

    1. vao

      It looks like Iran sits smack dab in the middle of a key route.

      In fact, this has been the case for many, many centuries. Iran controlled most branches of the silk road that passed through or near what is nowadays Afghanistan, through the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf, and partly the Indian Ocean (most of Pakistan was long a possession of Persia). This is why, during about six centuries, the Roman empire fought to pry away the control of the Silk Road from Persia, with Armenia being the crucial and much disputed prize.

      I am sure Iranians are deeply aware of that historical background — I doubt that the big shots in the US government ever read or heard about that, and if they did, it certainly does not register.

      1. JonnyJames

        Excellent points, history sure does rhyme and all that. Then, in the 19th century, the Russians and British competed for the “sphere of influence” in Persia/Iran. Then in 1953, the Brits (with US support) overthrew the democratically-elected Mossadegh govt. in Iran.

  13. Aurelien

    As I’ve recently pointed out in an essay, this is an example less of asymmetric warfare than of asymmetric objectives. Briefly, the Houthis have a simple objective – trade disruption – which is straightforward to accomplish with relatively unsophisticated weapons. The West’s objective – freedom of navigation – is much more complex and requires a large, long-term presence with the ability to operate by land, sea and air, without ever having the initiative.

    But this doesn’t mean that traditional naval power is necessarily dead. The Houthi Navy, should they develop one, would be blown out of the water pretty quick. Likewise, submarines are good at sinking ships, but pretty much useless for anything else, as well as being fabulously expensive. It’s all about the tasks you want to carry out, and whether you have the appropriate weapons to enable you to do so.

    1. Altandmain

      The West would need to basically go into semi-wartime mobilization to have the kind of military forces needed to achieve its objectives, which it can’t do today.

      One minor point of contention in regards to submarines – conventional missile submarines, or SSGNs could be used for land attack. That’s especially the case with hypersonic missiles. They may be costly compared to guided missile cruisers, but they are stealthy and are more likely to have the element of surprise.

      1. Jams O'Donnell

        The US / UK doesn’t have any hypersonic missiles, and probably won’t for the next ten or so years.

  14. Victor Sciamarelli

    As I understand things, I think the US interpretation of Freedom of Navigation is basically correct. Where things get fuzzy is when we’re talking about war ships instead of cargo ships.
    Wars ships are allowed what’s sometimes known as “innocent passage”; you transit an area, say the Taiwan Straight. Again things get fuzzy when warships look busy near another countries EEZ. That is, your aircraft carrier is launching aircraft, helicopters are coming and going from other ships, you’re firing at target buoys, you’re spying on coastline installations, etc.
    Where I disagree is referring to Europe and Japan as “naval lightweights.” In terms of size or the amount of ships, that may be true but in terms of power the US is surely the most powerful and Japan, UK, France, and South Koea are easily in the top ten most powerful.
    As long as the Houthis stay where they are and maintain their home court advantage, they can make life very difficult for Israel and the US. Moreover, as the US is the major sponsor of the war in Gaza, which threatens to affect Yemen, their actions are defensible.

    1. hk

      I suppose the real question is whether any power besides US has realistic ability to project power and independently launch an expedition far from its shores–something like UK to Falklands back in 80s. It doesn’t seem like anyone can. Heck, even US lacks logistics and support ships to replenish fleets on high seas now.

      1. digi_owl

        Over the years i have gotten the impression that USA increasingly lean on NATO vassals as mercenaries for it’s military escapades. That so many refused openly to partake this time round should be concerning, if DC was not clearly high on its own supply.

  15. marku52

    JM Keynes pointing out that global trade was very unfettered in the Pre WWI era:
    “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages;”

  16. Phenix

    The US has the largest blue sea Navy. The majority of China’s ships can not sail in the open ocean….one day yes but as of today the US and it’s allies are the dominant Naval powers.

    Like so many things, Clinton’s policy failures led to a gradual decline in Naval readiness. The US has penny pinched on maintenance so we have too many ships in dry dock…or the Navy is not ready for this war.

    The gross mismanagement of US assets is awe inspiring. I would honestly trust my ten year old to run this Empire more effectively then the past 5 administrations.

  17. scott s.

    Innocent Passage is in regards to the territorial sea (12 nm from baseline). International Straits provide an exception to the requirements for innocent passage when the strait runs through territorial seas. The EEZ has no bearing on requirement for innocent passage. There’s lots of straits that have EEZ of different states abutting each other but these aren’t “international straits” (eg, Florida Straits).

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