December 17, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

What would a maritime security force mean for the Red Sea?

The Iran-backed Houthi attacks have only escalated in the past week by firing on Eilat, having begun in October to match the Hamas massacre.
December 17, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

What would a maritime security force mean for the Red Sea?

The Iran-backed Houthi attacks have only escalated in the past week by firing on Eilat, having begun in October to match the Hamas massacre.

Reports indicated yesterday that a new task force could form in the Red Sea. Howard Altman at The War Zone wrote that “during his visit to the Middle East next week, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will announce the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a new international effort deal with Houthi threats.”

The Iran-backed Houthi attacks have only escalated in the past week by firing on Eilat, having begun in October to match the Hamas massacre. They have now escalated to try to interdict shipping to Israel, threatening commercial ships in the Red Sea.

On December 15, the Houthis harassed the commercial vessel Alanya and launched a drone targeting the Al-Jasrah, which broadcast a mayday call to seek help fighting a fire caused by the attack. The Houthis then attacked the Palatium 3 with a ballistic missile. The USS Mason went to assist, and US Central Command noted that “the latest round of attacks is yet another demonstration of the great risk to international shipping caused by these Houthi actions.”

The very next day, the USS Carney intercepted 14 drones in the Red Sea and the British warship HMS Diamond also shot down a drone. The attacks have brought together the US, French, and UK navies; last week, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said the Houthis have crossed a redline.

Now, shipping companies have begun to pause or alter operations. The BBC reported that “the world’s largest shipping group, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), has announced it is diverting its ships away from the Red Sea because of an increased threat of attacks.” It also noted that “French company CMA CGM took a similar step a day after Danish shipping giant Maersk and German transport company Hapag-Lloyd suspended Red Sea journeys,” while CTech reported that “half of shipping routes to Israel through the Red Sea halted due to Houthi threat.”

Shipping companies suspend operations in the Red Sea

According to another report, Maersk, a Danish shipping company with some 14% of the trade, diverted and then suspended shipping in the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, Arab News and Iran’s Press TV reported yesterday that Hong Kong-based shipping company OOCL also suspended shipping to Israel via the Red Sea.

These decisions are beginning to add up: When the Houthi attacks began, they were not taken seriously, and Israel preferred to concentrate on the war in Gaza.

Israeli air defenses, such as the Arrow and Iron Dome missile intercepters and F-35 fighters have shot down Houthi-launched ballistic and cruise missiles and drones. These threats also affect Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. However, the Houthis then escalated their attacks to target ships – specifically all those headed for Israel.

Now, because the Houthis had initially claimed they would target Israel-linked ships, the threat was seen as one affecting global shipping companies, because many companies are not directly linked to Israel, but rather have complex ownership or are flagged to third countries, such as those flying a Liberian or Bahamas flag.

The Houthis hijacked the Galaxy Leadership in mid-November, a ship owned by Ray Shipping, which is partly Israeli-owned.

The hijacking of ships can be prevented by putting armed guards on them. However, the missile and drone threat to ships is more serious, and ships don’t want to risk crew or vulnerable cargo, such as fuel. The US, UK, and French have ships in the Red Sea. For instance, the USS Carney and HMS Diamond are there now. The USS Mason has also assisted ships in distress and played a key role. The French warship Languedoc also downed a drone last week.

Austin’s visit to the region is important for the coordination required regarding the maritime threats. US Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. C.Q Brown is set to arrive with Austin. US Central Command head Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla was also in Israel as recently as last week, after traveling to Iraq and Syria. CENTCOM said that “after traveling through the CENTCOM area of operations earlier in the week, Kurilla traveled to Israel to meet with key leaders. While in Tel Aviv, he met with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, Air Force Chief Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Ronen Bar.”

Stars and Stripes noted that the Austin-Brown trip comes “as Iranian-backed militants on Saturday launched a wave of attack drones against ships in the Red Sea,” while Politico reported that “top Biden administration officials are actively weighing options to strike back at Houthis in Yemen after the Iran-backed group launched new attacks on naval and commercial ships in the Red Sea on Saturday.” The USS Dwight Eisenhower aircraft carrier and strike group is in the Gulf of Aden, the report added.

The War Zone piece noted that Austin, along with Brown, “will announce Operation Prosperity Guardian, which will be similar to the existing Task Force 153.” Al-Arabiya reported on Tuesday that “US officials have said they are looking at ways to expand an existing task force, Combined Task Force 153, which currently has its base in Bahrain. CTF-153 currently has 39 member nations, but the US defense official said talks involving the 12 nations are centered on what they may be able to contribute to the current task of securing maritime navigation.”

Task Force 153 is part of the Combined Maritime Forces, which includes four task forces in the region. The 39 countries are part of this larger umbrella group, including Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Turkey, UAE, United Kingdom, United States and Yemen.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy