LONDON : Britain is considering air strikes on Houthi rebels as the Defence Secretary, Mr. Grant Shapps warns that the UK will not hesitate to take “direct action” over their attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea.
The UK is drawing up plans with the US for potential military strikes against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen to counter their attacks on shipping which are causing chaos on world trade routes.
Writing in The Telegraph, Mr. Grant Shapps warns the Houthis that Britain is willing to act to deter threats.
The US and UK are preparing an unprecedented joint statement that could be issued as early as Monday giving the Houthis a final warning to stop their attacks.
The Telegraph understands that any attack would likely be led by the US. It would be a major escalation of the response to the Houthis and discussions are under way for other countries to join the US and the UK.
One option under consideration in the Ministry of Defence is to move HMS Lancaster, a Type 23 frigate operating in the Gulf region, to the Red Sea to support HMS Diamond.
In his article for The Telegraph, Mr Shapps highlights the fact that HMS Diamond, a Type 45 destroyer, shot down a Houthi attack drone in self-defence in the Red Sea earlier this month.
He says: “As HMS Diamond illustrated earlier in the month, we are willing to take direct action, and we won’t hesitate to take further action to deter threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.
“The Houthis should be under no misunderstanding: We are committed to holding malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks.”
It comes after the US Navy destroyed three Houthi boats on Sunday, killing at least 10 rebels as they attempted to board a container ship in the Red Sea. US Navy helicopters from nearby warships opened fire on the small boats after they attacked the Maersk Hangzhou container ship.
Sources said the US-UK joint statement would be a “verbal final warning” to the Houthis. Talks were under way on Sunday evening for at least two other nations also to sign it.
It is thought unlikely that the statement will set out any specific military action. However, speaking ahead of it being issued, Mr Shapps said: “If the Houthis continue to threaten lives and trade, we will be forced to take the necessary and appropriate action.
“Those terrorists who are disrupting trade in the Red Sea are drinking in the last chance saloon. Diplomatic efforts have been made to find a resolution but with limited success.”
Two senior US defence officials told The Telegraph that the Biden administration would not “telegraph” its military plans in advance, but they did not rule out the prospect of air strikes in the near future.
“US forces have the inherent right to self defence, and if we do decide to take any action against the Houthis, then we will do so at a time and place of our choosing,” said a US defence source.
After Sunday’s clash, Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, told his Iranian counterpart that the country shared responsibility for preventing attacks in the Red Sea given its support for the Houthis.
A Houthi spokesman issued a statement urging other countries not to join the US in their response to the attacks and warning of “negative repercussions” for those who did.
While it is thought any offensive strikes to counter the launches from Houthi strongholds would be led by the US, the UK has Typhoons stationed at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, currently carrying out missions over Iraq and Syria.
HMS Lancaster, which is being considered for a move to the Red Sea, is equipped with the Sea Ceptor missile system, which can fire at three times the speed of sound and is designed to protect an area of 500 square miles – around the size of Greater Manchester.
Unlike the Sea Viper system installed on HMS Diamond, the Sea Ceptor can also fire at small, fast-moving craft such as speedboats, which have been used by Houthi rebels in the region to attack container ships in the Red Sea.
Defence sources said the redeployment of HMS Lancaster was not “imminent” but that the ship remained on “standby” in the region to assist with future operations if necessary.
Mr Biden has been considering military strikes against Houthi sites in Yemen since mid-December and has been urged to take more aggressive action.
The Houthi rebels, who are backed by the Iranian regime, began strikes on commercial ships in the Red Sea in December in solidarity with Hamas and its war with Israel.
Attacks have escalated from three in November to 20 in the 30 days before Christmas, of which eight were on cargo ships that were either UK registered, had Britons in their crews or carried goods for the UK.
Major shipping firms such as BP and Maersk are diverting vessels away from the Red Sea to around the coast of Africa amid concerns that the crisis will drive up the price of goods and inflation.
The Houthis’ commanders have said they will not stop attacks on Western ships or direct missile strikes on Israeli ports, and will defend themselves against military strikes in Yemen.
The attacks have wreaked havoc on the international shipping industry, imposing delays on imports to Britain from Asia.
On Sunday, Maersk said that it had suspended all transits through the Red Sea for the next 48 hours to assess the security situation.
By convention, any military action would likely be put to a House of Commons vote unless the severity of attacks required strikes to be launched at short notice. MPs return from their Christmas break on Jan 8.
A UK Government spokesman said: “The situation in the Red Sea is incredibly serious, and the Houthi attacks are unacceptable and destabilising. As you would expect, while planning is under way for a range of scenarios, no decisions have yet been made and we continue to pursue all diplomatic routes.
“We call for the Iranian-backed Houthi to cease these illegal attacks and we are working with allies and partners to protect freedom of navigation“.