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Maintaining a defensive-only posture in the Red Sea is risky

BY KEVIN DONEGAN AND LOBO DISTINGUISHED EXPERT SAM MUNDY

As published by Al Malala

The longer Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea are allowed to continue, the greater is risk of escalation. Global trade flows are being disrupted and the threat to them could get worse if action in not taken.

There is an opportunity to stop the attacks now and deter the firing of missiles toward vessels in the future. But it will take more than the establishment a new maritime task force and sending it out on patrol.

Here, writing for Al Majalla, two senior US naval former officers –– Vice Admiral (Ret.) Kevin Donegan and Lieutenant General (Ret.) Sam Mundy –– round up what is happening, and suggest in detail what can be done about it.

Current clashes

Iranian-backed Houthis have launched almost daily swarms of missiles and drones at commercial ships in the Red Sea, making direct hits and incapacitating multiple commercial ships.

Recently, the Houthi leadership publicly announced that they will continue to attack all ships int the Red Sea that it views as supporting Israel, due to the war in Gaza. As a result, energy multinational BP has paused all Red Sea transits and other shipping firms, including Danish giant Maersk, have begun diverting shipments around the Cape of Good Hope, off South Africa, which adds over seven days to voyages, costing millions of dollars more.

Read more: Houthi attacks on global shipping show widening of Gaza war

US Navy vessels, and those of other nations, are being forced to employ self-defence weapons to counter the Houthi attacks almost daily. Soon the Houthis may increase the pressure by using drone boats and naval mines in the attacks. They have used both in recent years against Saudi ships and infrastructure.

The US Navy is immensely capable, but no defence can guarantee success against this volume and persistence of attacks, particularly across the long expanse of the Red Sea. Left unabated, there is a high risk that one of these attacks will make it past US defensive systems and result in significant loss of life or further restriction of the free flow of commerce through a vital part of the world.

 

APAP

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, front left, walks next to the commanding officer of the USS Gerald R. Ford, Navy Capt. Rick Burgess, front, during an unannounced visit to the ship on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

The US Navy is immensely capable, but no defense can guarantee success against this volume and persistence of attacks, particularly across the long expanse of the Red Sea.

What’s at stake?

In 2021, the Ever Given container ship got stuck sideways in the Suez Canal, and the world saw and felt the devastating impact on the global supply chain from the blockage of the flow commerce of less than a week.

With 12% of the world trade flows using the Suez Canal, the magnitude of economic impact of its closure was estimated by several sources at over $10bn dollars per day.   The Red Sea is the southern gateway to the Suez Canal – ships will avoid transiting the Suez in either direction if the Houthis bottle up the Red Sea with persistent attacks.

Since the global supply chain has not fully recovered from the combined stresses of that event along with impacts of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, these illegitimate Houthi attacks provide nations within the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” led by Iran, with outsized influence over the world’s economy and a distraction from the conflict in Gaza.

Who are the Houthis and what is their real relationship with Iran?

The Houthis are not a nation state. They are terrorist group that forcibly overthrew the recognised and elected government of Yemen.  They are also fully supported with sophisticated land and maritime attack weapons by Iran. For years they have used these weapons to launch strikes on military and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and into the Red Sea.

 

ReutersReuters

Houthi military helicopter hovers over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship as Houthi fighters walk on the ship’s deck in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023.

The new US multinational task force:  Prosperity Guardian

In response to these attacks the US has launched a new multinational maritime task force –Prosperity Guardian – to escort and protect commercial ships transiting through the Red Sea.  This task force will be commanded by the US Admiral leading the standing Combined Maritime Coalition out of Manama, Bahrain.

To date the Pentagon has said over 20 countries have agreed to participate alongside the US. That includes the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, Australia, and Spain.

Unfortunately, some countries ­– including Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Australia – have announced plans to send only staff officers and not ships. Others, like the Seychelles, will only participate in information exchanges. Complicating matters, nearly half of the other countries involved do not want to go public with their participation due to national sensitivities.

More significantly, the key regional powers – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt –  are currently not participating. China declined, and continues to protect only vessels under its own flag.

Read more: Gaza is Biden’s other defining foreign policy issue

Armed military escorts aren’t enough

The sheer number and frequency of commercial ships using through the Red Sea make it virtually impossible to escort all vessels.

The length of the Red Sea and western Yemeni coastline mean commercial ships must dwell within range of the Houthis’ lethal missiles and attack drones for far too long, which extends the distance of the Task Force’s escort duties.

Additionally, Prosperity Guardian’s members will have country-imposed limits, or caveats, on which ships they are allowed to defend and what actions they can take in response to an attack.

The result is that there are too many commercial ships in the Red Sea, too few warship escorts, and too many capable Houthi weapons for all ships to be protected and commerce to flow as normal if these attacks continue.

In early October 2016, the Houthis attacked the USS Mason, a destroyer operating in the Red Sea.  Within days, the USS Nitze launched a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles, destroying multiple Houthi anti-ship radar systems.  This swift and certain  response made clear that the US would take action to protect it ships and maintain security through the Bab al Mandeb strait.  Equally important, it sent a message that future attacks could expect to receive a swift punishment if they endangered US forces.

 

The Red Sea is the southern gateway to the Suez Canal – ships will avoid transiting the Suez in either direction if the Houthis bottle up the Red Sea with persistent attacks.

 

What should the US do now?

Alongside Prosperity Guardian’s protection of shipping, the source of the attacks needs to be neutralised, or there needs to be a deterrent against future action.

The Houthis must see that further attacks against US forces and international shipping will invite focused wrath on what their leadership values most.

In detail, the US should:

Directly message Houthi leadership that further attacks on or near a US ship will result in swift retaliation including offensive actions. This message should be delivered directly and without ambiguity, but not in public. The Houthis know full well that the US is capable of acting against of terrorists in Yemen, they witnessed first hand the effectiveness of counter-terrorism efforts there – against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in 2016 – and backed down.  Recent statements by Houthis leaders notwithstanding, we believe they will again.

Continue to lead and build on the proven success of multi-national Task Forces like Operation Prosperity Guardian led by US Fifth Fleet. To bolster the Task Force’s effectiveness and international appeal, the US must work quickly to convince other Gulf countries to join.

To these military actions, the UN should be petitioned to condemn, outright, the Houthis’ illegitimate attacks on merchant shipping.

And finally, the US should reinstate the Houthis’ designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.

Not stopping attacks in the Red Sea risks further escalation and continued devastation to the global supply chain and disruption of the world’s economy.  Maintaining a defensive-only posture also risks the preventable loss of life of sailors and marines that are protecting commercial shipping in the Red Sea.