Over the last year, three of the four most powerful navies[1] in the world have suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of opponents with no navy at all.

First, there’s Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Until the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it was regularly touted as a decisive factor in any conflict, capable not only of blockading Ukraine but of supporting seaborne assaults on ports like Odesa. The desire to secure unchallenged control of Sevastopol in Crimea was widely seen as one of the crucial motives for the Russian takeover in 2014.

Two years after the invasion, most of what’s left of the Black Sea Fleet has fled Sevastopol to take refuge in the Russian port of Novorossiysk, which is, for now, safely out of the reach of Ukrainian drones and anti-ship missiles. (As I was working on this post, Ukraine hit Sevastopol again, damaging three ships and the ship repair plant there) The Black Sea Fleet has played no significant role in the war, except as a supplier of targets and propaganda opportunities for the Ukrainian side. Its attempted blockade of Ukrainian wheat exports has been a failure.

But for the large community of naval fans, the failure of the Black Sea Fleet hasn’t been a crucial problem. The ominous assessments of its capabilities made before the invasion have been retconned with a narrative of Russian incompetence, Soviet-era holdovers and so on.

The effective closure of the Suez Canal by the Houthi movement is a much bigger problem. Well before the war in Gaza, the US and its allies had a large naval force in the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean devoted to keeping this allegedly vital sea lane open. That force now includes two USN carrier strike groups, destroyers and frigate from the Royal Navy and other allies, and a long list of other warships.

At least so far, the Houthis don’t have the capacity to strike US warships. But, even with relatively unsophisticated weapons, they’ve already come close enough to require a US destroyer to use its last line of defence.

The main focus of Houthi attacks has been commercial shipping, particularly any that can be linked in some way to the US, UK and Israel. And it’s these attacks that the joint naval effort is supposed to stop.

The effort has been singularly unsuccessful in this regard. Houthi attacks have reduced shipping through the canal by around 70 per cent, even before the recent sinking of a UK-owned bulk carrier and the claimed escalation into the Indian Ocean. As shippers reconfigure their operations volumes are likely to fall even further.
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