Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea: A New Twist on the Jeune École?

USS Carney Engages Houthi Missiles and UAVs

Recently, a journalist questioned Vice Adm. Brad Cooper of U.S. Central command about naval operations in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, “When was the last time that the U.S. Navy operated at this pace for a couple months?” The admiral’s response was telling: “I think you’d have to go back to World War II where you have ships who are engaged in combat. When I say engaged in combat, where they’re getting shot at, we’re getting shot at, and we’re shooting back.” Cooper described the engagements that have occurred since late 2023 with Houthi drones and missiles targeting shipping. The employment of these weapons continues to become more sophisticated with reports indicating that the Houthi launched at least 28 drones on one day in early March alone.

To better understand the conflict between the Houthis and the naval powers protecting shipping in the region, it is important to revisit competing ideas about naval strategy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One side emphasized traditional fleets and naval power while the other including a group originating in France known as the Jeune École (young school) posited an alternative approach to naval warfare. It relied on small flotilla craft armed with torpedoes to put traditional fleets at risk and expose their commercial shipping to relentless attack. Today, the United States and its naval partners possess the traditional fleet, while it could be argued that the Houthis are reimagining the Jeune École for the 21st century.



Approaches to Naval Strategy

At the dawn of the 20th century, much had changed since the last great war with a significant naval element had ended with the defeat of Napoleon. New technologies had transformed warfare at sea, but just how was a topic of endless debate. Following the publication of The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890, Alfred T. Mahan had become the most widely recognized commentator on naval affairs. A decade and a half later, Mahan asserted, “Naval History bears witness to two continuous streams of belief; one in the superior efficacy of big ships, the other in the possibility of reaching some cheap means of offence, which will supersede the necessity of large vessels.” Specifically, he lamented:

No disappointment kills this expectation; experience is powerless against it, and is equally powerless to repress the theory, continually recurring, that some class of small vessel, with peculiarly redoubtable qualities, will be found to combine resistlessness with cheapness, and so put an end to the supremacy, never heretofore shaken, of the great ship of the order of battle … the control of the sea will pass to the destroyer.

Mahan described a palpable tension between those who claimed that history no longer provided an effective guide for understanding the contemporary maritime environment, and those who believed that history, if used judiciously, could offer insight into contemporary conditions. Mahan fell into the latter group. Most notable Anglophone writers of the period tended to agree, including Julian Corbett.

Mahan and Corbett argued for the continued relevance of a balanced fleet. In time of war, the fleet’s mission was to secure “command of the sea,” defined by Corbett as “establishing ourselves in such a position that we can control the maritime communications of all parties concerned.” This required the use of the navy to defeat or blockade rival fleets and then use brute force to regulate commercial and military activities at sea.

Enter the Jeune École

The Jeune École hailed from France in the last decades of the 19th century. Its members included individuals from the navy, government, and the press. Among the latter, Gabriel Charmes played a powerful role in propagandizing its ideas. Auguste Gougeard, a retired naval officer, became one of the first advocates to reach a powerful governmental position when he was appointed minister of marine for a few months in 1881 and 1882. The central figure, however, was Théophile Aube. He attained the rank of admiral and eventually served as minister of marine.

Together, adherents of the Jeune École recognized Germany as France’s primary enemy. Because of the immediacy of this contiguous land threat, the French army received the priority. In contrast, the French navy would never obtain enough funding to symmetrically challenge Britain’s Royal Navy for command of the sea — instead, advocates of the Jeune École developed a strategy to confront Britain on the cheap. Unlike Mahan and his supporters who looked to the relevance of history, they claimed that new, relatively inexpensive technologies had revolutionized naval warfare to the point where history no longer provided a guide. Promoting small inexpensive flotilla craft, Aube explained, “A squadron, being more or less a collection of ironclads, is no longer the guarantee of naval power.” Gougeard added, “It is, and always will be, quite ridiculous to risk 12 to 15 millions, or even more, against 200,000 or 300,000 francs, and six hundred men against twelve.” The risk to warships costing millions and crewed by hundreds would need to be balanced against the aggressive use of much smaller vessels costing a fraction of that amount and crewed by a handful. Advocates of the Jeune École thought that they could drive the British fleet from the French coast.

Preventing the Royal Navy from blockading French ports would allow French commerce raiders to escape into the oceans where they could inflict catastrophic shocks on British commercial shipping by sinking vessels along with their passengers and crews. Given the importance of trade for the British economy, members of the Jeune École thought the economic effects on Britain would be decisive. According to Charmes, “Economical rivalry will be hotter than military competition.” He speculated that “the premium on insurance against losses at sea would become so high that navigation would be impossible.”

Obtaining effects from new weapons technologies lay at the heart of the Jeune École argument. For them, the marriage of small flotilla craft with the torpedo would be pivotal if not decisive because this would result in a cost-effective means that could put the largest, most costly warships at risk. Even those who questioned the ideas of the Jeune École admitted that the torpedo boat was a gamechanger. Corbett described how these small, torpedo-armed flotilla craft had obtained “battle power.” He claimed, “It is a feature of naval warfare that is entirely new. For all practical purposes it was unknown until the full development of the mobile torpedo.”

Philip H. Colomb, a retired British naval officer and an important commentator on naval power in the late 19th century, explained that the Jeune École “may be entirely wrong in their speculations, and entirely right in their practical advice, which has really little to do with their speculations.” Colomb agreed with the Jeune École that the French battle fleet stood no chance against the Royal Navy, and he also recognized the vulnerability of British commerce. However, Colomb thought the Jeune École’s technologically driven method for destabilizing Britain’s commercial position would be less effective than its adherents believed.

In hindsight, the Jeune École’s strategy was premature at best. They had identified several of the dominant naval power’s critical vulnerabilities, but the technologies of the 1880s proved incapable of exploiting them for decisive effect. Much later, the development of the submarine and what it accomplished in the world wars breathed new life into the Jeune École. In both of the world wars, Germany, as the weaker naval power, had employed the submarine in combination with the torpedo to obtain effects closer to those postulated by the Jeune École, but in both world wars, the dominant naval powers proved resilient. Conversely, the most effective submarine campaign in the world wars was executed by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, but by the time this campaign obtained its greatest effects, the U.S. Navy was becoming the dominant naval power, and submarines served as only one of several instruments to put Japanese shipping at risk.

Contemporary Relevance

The last great naval war ended in 1945 with the defeat of Imperial Japan. In the following decades, technological changes have transformed the international maritime environment, but what these changes mean for naval warfare remains unclear.

A bit of clarity is however possible by studying present day occurrences in the Red Sea. The Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, are a Shia militant group in Yemen. The group controls large areas of western Yemen. Since late 2023, the Houthis have employed various types of relatively inexpensive weapons technologies including air and sea drones as well as cruise and ballistic missiles to attack both warships and commercial shipping around the southern entrance to the Red Sea. It could be argued that the Houthis are putting a modern spin on the methods of the Jeune École.

At the time the Jeune École wrote, the world had become increasingly reliant on maritime commerce for the goods society needed to survive. Its exponents sought to turn this dependence on global shipping into a risk. Disrupting the sea lines of communication continues to have the potential to create outsized effects. One only needs to consider the cost resulting from a large container ship called the Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal in 2021. Though the container ship’s situation resulted from an accident, the Houthis are creating similar stress on global supply chains. This is being accomplished by the Houthis putting maritime shipping at risk through the employment of drone and missile technologies. The Jeune École did not expect to sink large numbers of merchant ships — rather, their object was the disruption of commerce and the increased costs of transport. Similar effects appear to be resulting from Houthi actions.

Turning to Houthi attacks on warships, the Jeune École identified the delta in cost between warships and ship-killing weapons. Since then, warships have become even more expensive and technologies to attack them have proliferated. On the surface, the Jeune École’s technological argument appears to be playing out, albeit with various types of missile and drones rather than torpedoes and flotilla craft.

However, defensive technologies also continue to advance which is something that the Jeune École failed to fully appreciate. This is an ever-recurring theme. One side, often the attacker, employs a new weapon with effect, and the defender harnesses other technologies to defeat it. Events in the Red Sea over the last few months point to the effectiveness of defensive technologies. Though defensive weapons have generally proven effective against the Houthi’s offensive weapons, the cost of using such weapons may in the long run prove prohibitive. Protecting ships with defensive missiles appears to be more expensive than the offensive missiles and drones used by the Houthis. This is a result of the defense addressing a more difficult problem set. Targeting large ships moving at slow speeds is easier than targeting fast-moving missiles. The defenders are, however, seeking new solutions with guns and even directed energy weapons. Much remains to be seen how the risks of using such alternative defensive means balance with their effectiveness.

Currently, engagements in the Red Sea have approximated a stalemate. The naval powers have proven effective at stopping the vast majority of Houthi attacks, albeit by expending costly defensive weapons. Yet, the attacks continue and the commercial costs increase. Historical cases involving the protection of commerce including examples from the Age of Sail and the world wars indicate that this type of stalemate generally breaks in the direction of the stronger naval power as long as it is willing and able over the long term to pay the costs of the defense.

We cannot, however, rely on the easy answer that the past always provides a guide in the present. It is important to consider whether the cost to commercial carriers and the latest technological advances work together to favor a Jeune École-type argument or if navies can sustain their presence and continue to effectively exercise command of the sea.



Kevin D. McCranie is the Philip A. Crowl Professor of Comparative Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought. The positions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Lau