The UK’s participation in air strikes on Yemen exposes its diminished military strength

Whatever effect strikes have on Houthi infrastructure, countries such as Russia and China will note the limited contribution the RAF and Royal Navy were able to make.

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News that the UK joined US military strikes on Yemen was not much of a surprise. For the last few days both had been hinting that such action was likely, if the Houthis continued attacking shipping in the Red Sea.

The Russian government has claimed that the action is illegal whilst in the UK there are calls for the recalling of parliament and a potential vote on the action taken. Memories of the House of Commons vote against bombing Syria in 2013, in response to the Asaad regime’s use of chemical weapons, have been revived.

Beyond some social media references to the UK continuing to be a ‘poodle’ of the American government there are bigger questions. Why did the British government elect to carry out air strikes on Yemen and what does this tell us about the state of Britain’s armed forces?

British interests and freedom of movement on the seas

If truth be told, an operation to attack the Houthis is probably the last thing that Rishi Sunak would have wanted to deal with in an election year.

The ghosts of the 2013 Syria vote, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the UK’s failed counter-insurgency campaign in Yemen in the 1960s are not things that he would have wanted public opinion to focus on. There are no positive associations here. However, he will have felt he had little choice but to act.

The UK, like a number of other states, is critically dependent on the free movement of ships through the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

The UK, like a number of other states, is critically dependent on the free movement of ships through the Red Sea and Suez Canal. In the depths of winter, the Sunak government will have been aware of the likely impact on the UK if liquefied gas tankers coming from the Persian Gulf had to take the longer route around the Cape.

But it is more than this for Britain. Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, and this response, are a reminder of the UK’s continued emphasis on the importance of the freedom of movement on the seas.

A significant part of the maritime insurance market resides in the City of London, and successive UK governments have felt obliged to play an international role championing freedom of navigation.

The Royal Navy led efforts to combat Somali pirates a decade ago, when they threatened trade passing through the Red Sea, and periodically sends ships into the South China Sea as a reminder to China that these are international waters. At the same time it still maintains a number of mine countermeasures vessels in the Persian Gulf to deter the Iranians from mining the Strait of Hormuz.

Diminished capabilities

But ambition increasingly outstrips ability. According to the UK Ministry of Defence, the British contribution to the air strikes comprised four Eurofighter Typhoons, which dropped precision guided munitions on two targets.

The American contribution was far more significant, involving strikes on 16 targets according to the US Department of Defense. That in itself says something about the relative capacity of the different militaries, and the largely symbolic role the UK has played. 

Reductions to Britain’s armed forces and persistent delays in bringing in new capabilities and upgrading existing equipment left the UK government with few options.

Reductions to Britain’s armed forces and persistent delays in bringing in new capabilities and upgrading existing equipment left the UK government with few options to contribute to the operation beyond a few Typhoon aircraft.

The build-up in the UK’s fleet of F-35B Joint Strike Fighters has been delayed, with the second operational squadron still to be fully equipped and the third now due in the early 2030s.

Similarly, HMS Diamond, the Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer that has been protecting shipping in the Red Sea, currently lacks the ability to attack land targets. She is still awaiting an upgrade to her engines and the addition of SeaCeptor surface-to-air missiles.

Nor was a submarine available to launch cruise missiles. Delays in bringing the new Astute-class submarines into service has left the navy with only six boats, leaving it struggling to meet basic tasking such as the protection of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

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Where the strikes originated is also of note, with the Typhoons launching from Cyprus. The UK has received access to bases in Oman in the past, but the Omanis clearly did not want to have the strikes launched from their territory. Launching from elsewhere in the Gulf would have been to overtly take sides in Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

The likes of China and Russia will have noted the limitations of the action.

In many ways, therefore, the British contribution reflects weakness rather than strength. The likes of China and Russia will have observed the limitations of the action.

The UK government can, at best, hope that the Houthis will note this initial wave of attacks and be deterred from undertaking further attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

Should they choose not to, it is unclear where the British government goes from here. Many will hope for cool heads and calm at this point. Should the US military effort continue or expand, the limitations in Britain’s armed forces will readily become apparent.