The U.S. has announced a new maritime task force in the Red Sea as several countries try to protect commercial vessels under fire from Yemen-based rebels in key shipping channels.
Washington is leading a new international force, Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is designed to calm the nerves of shipping companies using the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, ensuring that the region “remains safe for commercial shipping,” despite increased Houthi rebel attacks, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
On Monday, Houthi rebels based in Yemen attacked two commercial shipping vessels in the south of the Red Sea, the U.S. military‘s Central Command (CENTCOM) said. Destroyer, the USS Carney, responded to a distress call from a Cayman Islands-flagged chemical and oil tanker, the Swan Atlantic, after it was attacked by a drone and an anti-ship ballistic missile, the U.S. said.
In a separate attack, another ship, the M/V Clara, reported an explosion close to the vessel, but did not request assistance or register any damage, CENTCOM said. A spokesperson for the Houthi rebels said on Monday they had attacked two vessels they alleged had links to Israel.
It was the latest in a slew of Iran-aligned Houthi attacks on commercial ships passing through the Red Sea. The drone strikes, and the rebels’ hefty supply of anti-ship ballistic missiles, don’t pose a significant threat to U.S. warships, but are a real worry for commercial vessels without the ability to intercept them.
This put the U.S. military in the difficult position of choosing how to protect commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Fabian Hinz, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, suggested to Newsweek on Monday that the U.S. had three options — to try and cover more of the Red Sea with naval vessels, to deter Houthi forces from further attacks or to go after the rebels’ stocks of anti-ship missiles.
Washington has opted for the first strategy under Operation Prosperity Guardian, which Austin described as “an important new multinational security initiative” on Monday.
Several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Norway, are cooperating with the U.S. and Bahrain to protect vessels making their way through the Red Sea.
Operation Prosperity Guardian builds on pre-existing Combined Maritime Forces in the Red Sea, and Task Force 153 based out of Bahrain, which was set up in April 2022.
The U.K. said on Saturday that Royal Navy warship HMS Diamond, recently deployed to the Red Sea, had shot down an attack drone likely heading for a merchant ship.
A host of companies have said in recent days that they are halting passage through the Red Sea, diverting vessels from the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. On Monday, oil giant BP said it was stopping oil shipments through the Red Sea because of “the deteriorating security situation.” This has added to fears of disruption of global supply chains.
Changing routes can add days or weeks to transit times, and a number of companies have redirected their vessels to travel via the Cape of Good Hope rather than the Suez Canal. A total of 55 vessels made the switch between November 19 and December 17, the Suez Canal Authority said, adding that 2,128 ships had passed through the canal in that period. Ships traveling between Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal and Red Sea save up to two weeks of transit time compared with other routes, the SCA said on Sunday.
Operation Prosperity Guardian will “jointly address security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with the goal of ensuring freedom of navigation for all countries and bolstering regional security and prosperity,” Austin said.
Ensuring global freedom of navigation is “a core interest of the United States,” and one they will feel compelled to protect.