The Houthi Crisis and Lessons for Canadian Naval Air Defence


Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Zachary Van Nuys



by Alexander Salt
April 2024


Table of Contents


In February 2024, Canada joined a U.S.-led multinational coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, to respond to the growing threat of Houthi missile and drone strikes launched against international shipping off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea. Other members of the anti-Houthi coalition include the U.K., Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Seychelles and Spain, as well as several anonymously involved states. Canada’s current contribution includes staff officers and an intelligence analyst, though the distinct potential remains for the crisis to escalate, requiring greater Canadian involvement (Ritchie 2024). In March, the Houthis successfully sank a U.K.-owned commercial ship after hitting it with a shore-based missile (Pelham 2024). The growing crisis in the Red Sea is a rising challenge for Western naval forces because relatively cheap missiles and expendable drones risk overwhelming Cold War-era naval ship and air defence capabilities. While the Houthis’ weaponry lacks technological sophistication, their actions may foreshadow a strategic shift in maritime warfare, which adversarial powers such as China and Russia might employ in the future. The current crisis, though limited in scope, hints at the potential for more sophisticated powers to execute similar tactics on a larger scale, with greater speed and with more sophisticated technologies. Canada will need to learn quickly and adapt appropriately, which may involve the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) testing and integrating new technologies like directed-energy weapons, railguns and artificial intelligence to successfully respond to this new challenge. 


Air Defence and the Royal Canadian Navy

The RCN’s primary platform is its 12 Halifax-class frigates. While these ships are tasked with a variety of naval missions, including in counter-piracy, they are the RCN capabilities most likely to face combat situations, similar to what we are observing in the Red Sea today. The Halifax-class frigates are based on older Cold War-era designs. Their air defence capabilities involve multiple layers, with a primary air defence system centred around 16 Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles that can destroy hostile drones, missiles or aircraft up to 50 kilometres from the ship. The frigates also have other capabilities such as the Phalanx system, as a last resort, which fires several thousand rounds per minute against any hostile air asset from only a few hundred metres away from the ship. The Halifax-class frigates also have a 57mm gun that can shoot down adversarial air assets, as well as the RAMSES (Reprogrammable Advanced Multimode Shipboard Electronic Countermeasures System) (Naval Association of Canada 2022).

The threat of mass-oriented air attacks is a fundamental problem for the RCN and its air defence capabilities. After a Halifax-class frigate fires all 16 of its Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, it cannot be replenished at sea. It needs to return to a friendly port where a crane rearmament system at an established logistics facility loads a new payload of air defence missiles onboard (Eckstein 2023). This approach is far from ideal in offsetting, deterring and/or defeating waves of expendable drones and shore-based ballistic missiles. Furthermore, the future Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC), which will be based on the BAE Systems Type 26 Global Combat Ship, is anticipated to have similar air defence systems, and thus the risk of mass air attack remains a threat (DND 2023). The 2024 Defence Policy Update indicates that the CSC will be tasked with a variety of crucial missions, including a need for anti-submarine patrols as China and Russia have been heavily investing in their undersea fleets. This in turn emphasizes the need for upgraded air defence capabilities to enable the CSC to operate without constraint (DND 2024).


The Current Crisis

The Houthis, also known as Ansarallah, are a political and paramilitary movement that formed in northern Yemen during the 1990s and are influenced by the political elements of the Zaydi Shias. Banned as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Group by the U.S., they have frequently clashed with Yemen’s central government, most notably during the Yemeni civil war (2014–present). They are closely aligned with Iran and are frequently seen as a proxy force for Iranian foreign policy interests. Ongoing conflict in Yemen over the last decade, including a thwarted Saudi Arabian military intervention against the Houthis, has completely destabilized the country. This chaos has allowed the Houthis to consolidate power and continue to threaten adversaries, which in their view includes the U.S. and Israel. Yemen has essentially become a hotbed of geopolitical tensions in the Arabian Peninsula, as both the Saudis and Iranians struggle for domination and influence (Johnston et al. 2020).

The Houthis began a campaign of targeting international shipping in the Red Sea following the October 7, 2023 Hamas terrorist attack against Israel and the subsequent Israeli military intervention response into Gaza. The Houthis have publicly claimed their actions are intended to halt Israel’s military operation by targeting Israeli vessels in the region; their attacks on shipping, however, have been indiscriminate regardless of ownership. The Houthis have used a variety of fairly inexpensive weapons systems in their attacks, including missiles and cheap drones. Coalition naval assets in the region assigned to safeguard commercial vessels face significant operational challenges because they must protect a large number of ships from various Houthi projectiles and systems. An examination of Houthi attacks against civilian maritime vessels between November 19, 2023 and March 6, 2024 shows that missiles were used against 32 different vessels and that drones were used in eight unique civilian shipping attacks (Scarr et al. 2024). Strikes against United States Navy (USN) warships have involved a mix of those systems; for example, a Houthi attack against the destroyer USS Laboon involved 10 drones and a land-launched cruise missile (Gambrell 2024). Another USN destroyer was forced to destroy 14 Houthi drones during a different attack (Lendon 2023).

So far, the Houthis have achieved considerable success at disrupting global trade, with many trade ships opting to take longer, more costly journeys around the Horn of Africa rather than risk travelling through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal (Berman 2024). The Houthis have continued to widen their target selection by launching drones and missiles against American, British and French warships and the Israeli coastal city of Eilat. The U.S.-led multinational coalition has responded with a campaign of strikes against the Houthis’ military assets at sea and in Yemen, to degrade their capacity for future attacks (Stewart and Alli 2024).


The Maritime Air Defence Challenge

The Houthis are engaging in a strategy of area denial, using a variety of weapons systems to threaten and prevent foreign ships from openly accessing the Red Sea. This has been a common strategy used in the region. For example, Iran has a history of threatening international shipping near the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway incredibly important to global petroleum shipping. The Iranian government has threatened to use its military to close off the strait during disputes with the U.S. government, as it did most recently in April 2019 ( Editors 2019). But the recent Houthi campaign is part of a wider trend of regional adversaries preparing to use, among other capabilities, cheaply made and mass-produced missiles and drones to offset qualitatively superior Western weapons systems. Besides Iran, both China and Russia rely on this strategy and have heavily invested in the capabilities needed to counter Western naval forces (Fukuda 2015; Thomas 2020). While medium- and short-range ballistic missiles have received the most attention to date, the conflict in the Red Sea has clearly illustrated that inexpensive domestically constructed drones pose another major challenge to traditional maritime air defence systems (Wintour 2022).

Recent USN operations against the Houthis have led to concerns about Western air defence capabilities. The Houthis have turned towards mass missile and drone strikes to attack USN ships, launching several waves of attacks at once, hoping to overwhelm air defence systems with quantity over quality. Current naval air defence systems are heavily influenced by Cold War-era designs, when they were developed to counter high-cost, sophisticated and state-run weapons systems. However, the Houthis’ equipment is mass produced, and while of lower quality, is also of lower cost. This has led to a situation in which the USN and allied ships from the U.K. and EU are shooting down Houthi drones that were built for a few thousand dollars with an air defence missile that costs several million dollars (Howard 2024). Concerns are emerging that stockpiles of air defence missiles could be depleted far too quickly in any future major conflict. Stockpile shortages may lead to navies becoming reluctant to continue certain missions out of concern for being unable to fully protect their ships. This stands in direct contrast to the Chinese, Russians and Iranians, all of whom have been rapidly increasing their ballistic missile reserves and drone factories (Eglen 2024).


Looking Ahead

The RCN, along with other Western navies, will need to respond creatively to the type of challenges posed by the recent conflict with the Houthis. Future adversaries can learn from the Houthis’ experience to better exploit the inefficiencies in current air defence systems. However, emerging technologies may offer a solution to some of these challenges.

Direct-energy weapons, including lasers, offer one of the more intriguing options, given their operational use comes at minimal cost, especially compared to higher end air defence missiles like the Sea Sparrow. The USN has already overseen successful operational testing of direct-energy systems against drones. A few USN destroyers have been equipped with laser systems for counter-drone capabilities; however, the USN continues to debate the future of air defence in the service and whether or not to embrace this new technology on a wider level (Lagrone 2024). The U.K., Israel, Japan, India, South Korea and other states, including Russia and China, are also experimenting with direct-energy systems to counter adversarial missiles and drones. As direct-energy technology advances, it will have more opportunities to contribute to maritime air defence capabilities. Even if these systems never fully replace missile interceptors, they can nonetheless add a highly cost-effective layer to air defence systems on RCN ships (Black 2024).

Railguns are another re-emerging cost-effective technology that may help counter newer air defence threats. Railguns fire an extremely high-velocity solid metal projectile using electromagnetic force. As with direct-energy weapons, the costs to fire a railgun shot are far less than those of an air defence missile system. Japan is a leader in the development of railgun technology for air defence purposes; it successfully test-fired a railgun system offshore that was integrated with a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel last fall, with future live-fire tests against targets to occur at a later date. Railguns still require further research and development until they can be a competitive element of any navy’s air defence system, but they are worth watching with an eye to patching Canada’s naval needs (Takahashi 2023).

Currently, the U.S. and other states are researching and developing drone systems designed to neutralize hostile aerial drones. These systems intercept and engage adversarial drones midflight and try to disable them using various methods, including chemical sprays. Notably, these drone systems are engineered for reusability, a highly advantageous feature for naval vessels undertaking prolonged operations requiring comprehensive and continuous air defence coverage. Despite being at an early stage of development, with most testing conducted in support of land-based military assets rather than under maritime conditions, these systems have considerable potential to evolve into integral components of effective naval air defence systems (Mizokami 2021). 

Artificial intelligence may also have a role in enhancing air defence capabilities. The USN is exploring how AI can serve as a critical enabler for some of its ships’ air defence systems. In particular, the USN views AI as a means of enhancing its electronic warfare systems that are used to jam and disrupt hostile drones, by automating part of the process. This can be particularly useful when dealing with swarms of enemy drones in a chaotic battlespace. The RCN should likely prioritize integrating AI when possible into its air defence systems (Harper 2024).



The future of RCN air defence needs to be faster, cheaper and capable of responding to newer threats like drone swarms. The recent Houthi crisis has underscored a concerning trend wherein adversaries, including non-state actors, exploit readily available technology to pose significant challenges to Western states. Traditional equipment that was effective against older technologies may hold less relevancy against these newer threats. While it is imperative for the RCN and other Western naval forces to enhance their response capabilities to non-state actors, the lessons learned from the Red Sea crisis can also inform strategies against other potential adversaries. By gaining a deeper understanding of operational challenges in naval air defence posed by newer technologies, the West can better prepare for confrontation with major powers like China in the Pacific or Russia in the Baltics and North Sea regions. Fortunately, the RCN and its allies, with careful planning, can anticipate leveraging a new wave of emerging technologies to bolster their air defence capabilities and counter these evolving threats more effectively.



Berman, Noah. 2024. “How Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea Threaten Global Shipping.” Council    on Foreign Relations. January 12. 

Black, James. 2024. “Directed Energy: The Focus on Laser Weapons Intensifies.” RAND. January 24. Editors. 2019. “The Strait of Hormuz: A U.S.-Iran Maritime Flash Point.” Council on Foreign Relations. January 18.

Department of National Defence (DND). 2023.“Canadian Surface Combatant.”

———. 2024. “Our North, Strong and Free: A Renewed Vision for Canada’s Defence.”

Eckstein, Megan. 2023. “US Navy Prioritizes ‘Game-changing’ Rearming Capability for Ships.” Defense News. March 28.

Eglen, Mackenzie. 2024. “The U.S. Navy Doesn’t Have Enough Air Defence Missiles.” The National Interest. January 4.

Fukuda, Junichi. 2015. “Counteracting China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial Capabilities.” IIPS Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 1. January. 

Gambrell, Jon. 2024. “Attacks on Ships and US Drones Show Yemen’s Houthis Can Still Fight Despite US-led Airstrikes.” CNN. February 20. 

Harper, Jon. 2024. “Navy Sees IED and Drone Jamming as Important Use Case for AI.” Defensescoop. January 24. 

Howard, Brad. 2024. “How Chaos in the Red Sea is Putting the U.S. Navy to the Test.” CNBC. January 24.

Johnston, Trevor et al. 2020. “Could the Houthis Be the Next Hizbollah?: Iranian Proxy Development in Yemen and the Future of the Houthi Movement.” RAND.

Lagrone, Sam. 2024. “New SWOBOSS Wants More Directed Energy Weapons on Warships as  Low-Cost Threats Expand.” USNI News. January 31.

Lendon, Brad. 2023. “How US Warships are Shooting Down Houthi Drones in the Red Sea, and   What Might Come Next.” CNN. December 20. 

Mizokami, Kyle. 2021. “America’s New Drone Killer Blasts Targets With Stringy Pink Stuff.”Popular Mechanics. June 9. 

Naval Association of Canada. 2022. “Naval Affairs Program Briefing Note #13: Halifax-Class     Frigates.” 

Pelham, Lipka. 2024. “UK-owned Ship Attacked by Houthis Sinks Off Yemen Coast.” BBC. March 2. 

Ritchie, Sarah. 2024. “Canadians Helped Plan U.S., U.K. Attacks on Houthis in Yemen: Defence Department.” The Toronto Star. January 12.  

Scarr, Simon et al. 2024. “Red Sea Attacks.” Reuters. March 6.

Stewart, Phil, and Idrees Alli. 2024. “US, British Forces Carry Out More Strikes Against Houthis in Yemen.” Reuters. February 25.

Takahashi, Kosuke. 2023. “Japan Performs First Ever Railgun Test From Ship at Sea.” Naval News. October 19.

Thomas, Matthew. 2020. “Maritime Security Issues in the Baltic Sea Region.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. July 22.

Wintour, Patrick. 2022. “Iran Agrees to Supply Missiles as well as Drones to Russia.” The Guardian. October 18.


About the Author

Dr. Alexander Salt has a PhD from the University of Calgary's Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies and an MA in Political Studies from the University of Manitoba. His dissertation explores to what extent has the battlefield experience of the U.S. military influenced post-war organizational innovation. His research has been awarded the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada's Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Award, as well as a General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr. Memorial Dissertation Fellowship. He has published research relating to international security and defence policy with Strategic Studies Quarterly, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, and The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society. Previously, he was a Visiting Political Science Instructor with Macalester College and has also held positions with the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, as well as the Consulate General of Canada in Dallas, Texas, and the Consulate General of Canada in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


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