Crossing the Red Sea

The price of protecting global trade in the Red Sea is well within America’s national interest.

By Jacob Reese


The Red Sea, remembered for its prominence in the Biblical account of Moses and the Exodus, is yet again the scene of a contentious crossing. Instead of hard-hearted Pharaoh pursuing the Israelites, however, now it is radical Islamic militants disrupting global trade in the region. 


Who are the Houthis?

A minority Shia Muslim sect based in Yemen, the Houthis emerged as a rebellious militant faction in the Yemeni civil war of the 1980s and 90s. Since then, they have cultivated a reputation as a proxy force of Iran. Agitated by foreign intervention in Yemen’s affairs in 2014, the Houthis redoubled their military activity against the legitimate Yemeni government. Civil war ensued, the Houthis experienced unprecedented military success, and a horrific humanitarian disaster developed.

Today, the Houthis are a rebellious, Iranian-backed regional powerhouse jumping back into the international spotlight. As the world watches conflict fester in Gaza, the Houthis seized the opportunity and are ramping up attacks on cargo ships crossing the Red Sea. Since October 17, the Houthis have targeted vessels with over 100 one-way attack drones, in addition to ballistic missiles and two confirmed hijacking attempts. 


A Serious Threat

The intention of the Houthis are uncertain. Whether they seek recognition as the legitimate government of Yemen, attempt to redirect global trade through Iran, or make common cause with Hamas against the West, the Houthis are inflicting harm on global supply chains and threaten to shut down a major trade route. Attacking ships in the Red Sea is not unprecedented, but the number and frequency of these recent attacks is cause for concern. 

Today, hostilities between the Houthis and Yemen’s government have largely cooled, but the Houthis remain in de facto control of vast swaths of Yemen’s territory, and isolated violence persists. The group’s stance toward the United States is unequivocal; their slogan reads, “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.” 


So What?

Why does it matter that a rebel military in a small Middle Eastern country is sending drones and missiles into the Red Sea? The answer comes down to costs. 

The Red Sea is a modern-day shipping silk road. The southern channel of the Red Sea hosts 12% of annual global seafaring trade and is a critical transit point for oil and natural gas shipments. Roughly 6.2 million barrels of oil traverse the channel every day. Yet, the Houthis’ continued aggression, endangering the lives of sailors and the welfare of their ships, is causing key corporations to redirect trade routes around Africa or pause travel through the region completely. These redesigned routes increase shipping costs by upwards of $1 million per trip, costs that are already increasing the price of oil. 


Close to Home

For the everyday American, increased shipping costs could increase costs at the gas pump. The United States has a compelling interest in deterring Iranian-backed Houthi aggression to maintain stability in the Middle East, but the threat posed by the Houthis implicates much more than foreign policy; it strikes at the economic well-being of hard-working Americans. At a time when gas prices promise to normalize, a disruption in global trade is the last thing our economy needs. 


An Expensive Response

In response to the recent escalation in hostilities, the United States military is increasing its presence in the Red Sea region to safeguard global shipping. Assembling a multi-national coalition and deploying an entire Carrier Strike Group, America’s recent show of force and use of firepower aims at defending against, if not deterring, Houthi attacks. 

Although effective, this strategy is expensive. American naval assets have borne the brunt of defending Red Sea vessels, shooting down roughly 50 drones and missiles this December alone. Every missile the U.S. uses to intercept an incoming Houthi projectile costs a staggering $2.1 million. Meanwhile, Houthi attack drones go for a fraction of that price – ranging from $2,000.00 to $20,000.00. 


Counting the Cost

When you factor in the typical costs of a long-term naval deployment, the math does not look good for American taxpayers. Indeed, it begs the question, is defending global trade worth the cost?

Crossing the Red Sea is costly—for Pharaoh, it cost an entire army. For modern-day shipping magnates under threat of Houthi attack, it costs millions of U.S. tax dollars. America’s expensive response to the situation in the Red Sea is, undoubtedly, less than ideal, but it’s a far cry from the costs of unprotected global trade routes. 


Looking Forward

American apathy towards Houthi aggression, although a temporary cost-cutting measure, would sacrifice our economic health and strategic defense posture. While alternative approaches to safeguarding sea travel through the Red Sea may offer cost-effective solutions in the future, we must accept the tradeoff at hand. 

Protecting ships in the Red Sea by U.S. naval action is a costly ordeal that prevents an even costlier economic and geopolitical catastrophe. Yes, protecting global trade is expensive, but it’s also in America’s national interest. Our response to the crisis has been costly for taxpayers, but it’s a cost we, as consumers, should be willing to bear. 


About the Author

Jacob Reese is a sophomore political science major and Trustee Scholar. On campus, Jacob serves as an Associate Editor of the Grove City College Journal of Law and Public Policy and is a member of the American Enterprise Institute Executive Council, the GCC Federalist Society, RoundTable Honorary, and the “Wolverine” Marching Band. His interests range from politics and foreign affairs to church-state relations and political philosophy. This summer, Jacob interned with Cornerstone Law Firm, a general practice law firm based in Berks County, PA. He aspires to pursue a career in the legal or public policy arena.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.