Pentagon announces new international mission to counter attacks on commercial vessels in Red Sea (2024)

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — The U.S. and a host of other nations are creating a new force to protect ships transiting the Red Sea that have come under attack by drones and ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Tuesday in Bahrain.

The seriousness of the attacks, several of which have damaged vessels, has led multiple shipping companies to order their ships to hold in place and not enter the Bab el-Mandeb Strait until the security situation can be addressed.

The U.S. military’s Central Command reported two more of the attacks on commercial vessels Monday. A strike by an attack drone and a ballistic missile hit a tanker off Yemen, at roughly the same time a cargo ship reported an explosive detonating in the water near them, the military said.

“This is an international challenge that demands collective action,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement released just after midnight in Bahrain. “Therefore today I am announcing the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative.”

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There are about 400 commercial vessels transiting the southern Red Sea, an area roughly the size of Washington D.C. to Boston, at any given time, a senior military official told reporters who are traveling with Austin in the region.

Under the new mission, the military ships will not necessarily escort a specific vessel, but will be positioned to provide umbrella protection to as many as possible at a given time, the official said on the condition of anonymity to provide additional details not made public on how the new operation will work.

Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator and spokesman, challenged the U.S.-created coalition on Tuesday, saying the Iranian-backed rebels would continue targeting Israel-linked vessels off Yemen.

“The American-formed coalition is to protect Israel and militarize the sea without any justification, and will not stop Yemen from continuing its legitimate operations in support of Gaza,” he wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

He said the Houthis’ attacks “are not a show of force nor a challenge to anyone,” adding, “Whoever seeks to expand the conflict must bear the consequences of his actions.”

On Tuesday the shipping company Maersk announced that for now, it had decided to re-route its ships that have been paused for days outside the strait and Red Sea, and send them around Africa through the Cape of Good Hope instead — a much longer and less efficient passage. Maersk said it welcomed the international security effort, but at the present time, the much longer route would provide “more predictable outcomes” for its customers.

In the last four weeks, Houthi militants have attacked or seized commercial ships 12 times and still hold 25 members of the MV Galaxy Leader hostage in Yemen, Austin said in remarks Tuesday in a ministerial meeting on the new maritime mission. The U.S. is still actively seeking member countries to join the mission, and increase the number of navies present and participating.

The United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain have joined the new maritime security mission, Austin said. Some of those countries will conduct joint patrols while others provide intelligence support in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

One notably absent participant is China, which has warships in the region, but those ships have not responded to previous calls for assistance by commercial vessels, even though some of the ships attacked have had ties to Hong Kong, the military official said.

Several other countries have also agreed to be involved in the operation but prefer not to be publicly named, a defense official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss additional details of the new mission that have not been publicly announced.

The new maritime security mission will be coordinated by the already existing Combined Task Force 153, which was set up in April 2022 to improve maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden.

While the task force has primarily provided a headquarters structure to date, the goal of the new mission is to provide ships and other assets to carry out the protection. There have been 39 member nations in CTF 153, but officials were working to determine which of them would participate in this latest effort.

Separately, the United States has also called on the United Nations Security Council to take action against the attacks.

In a letter to council members obtained Monday by The Associated Press, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Houthi attacks targeting commercial vessels legally transiting the international waterways continue to threaten “navigational rights and freedoms, international maritime security, and international commerce.”

The 15 council members discussed the Houthi threat behind closed doors Monday but took no immediate action.

Two U.S. warships — the USS Carney and the USS Mason, Navy destroyers — are currently moving through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to help deter and respond to attacks from the Houthis.

The move to set up the expanded operation came after three commercial vessels were struck by missiles fired by Iranian-back Houthis in Yemen on Dec. 3. Those attacks were part of an escalating campaign of violence that also included armed and other drones launched in the direction of U.S. warships.

To date, the U.S. has not struck back at the Iranian-back Houthis operating in Yemen or targeted any of the militants’ weapons or other sites. On Monday Austin did not answer a question as to why the Pentagon had not conducted a counterstrike.

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Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Samy Magdy in Cairo and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that two Navy destroyers are currently in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

As an expert in international relations and maritime security, I find the recent developments in the Red Sea, particularly the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, to be of significant importance. The situation in the region, involving attacks on commercial vessels by Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, has led to a collaborative effort by the U.S. and several other nations to address the security challenges in the Red Sea, specifically in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

Operation Prosperity Guardian aims to protect ships transiting the Red Sea from drone and ballistic missile attacks originating in Houthi-controlled areas. The severity of these attacks has prompted shipping companies to hold vessels in place, disrupting global trade through this vital corridor. The newly formed multinational security initiative involves a collective response to the international challenge posed by the attacks.

One key aspect of Operation Prosperity Guardian is the umbrella protection strategy, wherein military ships will be positioned strategically to provide protection to as many commercial vessels as possible. This approach, as reported by a senior military official, does not necessarily involve escorting specific vessels but focuses on ensuring the security of the overall maritime environment in the southern Red Sea.

The situation has led to the rerouting of ships by companies like Maersk, opting for the longer route around Africa through the Cape of Good Hope. This decision is driven by the need for more predictable outcomes amid the ongoing security concerns. Houthi militants have conducted numerous attacks on commercial ships in the past weeks, leading to a heightened state of alert and the initiation of Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Several nations, including the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain, have joined the maritime security mission. While some countries will conduct joint patrols, others will provide intelligence support in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Notably absent from the participants is China, despite having warships in the region. The United States continues to actively seek additional countries to join the mission.

Operation Prosperity Guardian will be coordinated by the existing Combined Task Force 153, established in April 2022 to enhance maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden. This new mission signifies a shift from providing a headquarters structure to actively deploying ships and assets for protection.

The United States has also urged the United Nations Security Council to take action against the Houthi attacks, emphasizing the threat to navigational rights, international maritime security, and global commerce. However, as of now, the Security Council has not taken immediate action.

The deployment of two U.S. Navy destroyers, the USS Carney and the USS Mason, through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait aims to deter and respond to potential Houthi attacks. Notably, the U.S. has not conducted a counterstrike against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, raising questions about the Pentagon's strategy in response to the escalating violence.

In conclusion, the developments in the Red Sea underscore the complexity of maritime security challenges and the need for a coordinated, multinational response to safeguard vital international waterways. Operation Prosperity Guardian represents a concerted effort to address the immediate threats posed by Houthi attacks on commercial vessels and ensure the uninterrupted flow of global trade through the Red Sea.

Pentagon announces new international mission to counter attacks on commercial vessels in Red Sea (2024)
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