The Houthi Crisis and Lessons for Canadian Naval Air Defence


The Houthi Crisis and Lessons for Canadian Naval Air Defence

1 Apr 2024

Air Defence and the Royal Canadian Navy The Current Crisis The Maritime Air Defence Challenge Looking Ahead Conclusion References About the Author Canadian Global Affairs Institute Introduction 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. TOP OF PAGE 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
africa china iran yemen canada russia navy defence policy perspective cyber & tech defence resources defence operations middle east & north africa alexander salt


Alexander Salt

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