December 19, 2023 | FDD's Long War Journal

U.S. forms coalition to counter Houthi threat on international shipping; Houthis appear undeterred

December 19, 2023 | FDD's Long War Journal

U.S. forms coalition to counter Houthi threat on international shipping; Houthis appear undeterred

One month after the Iranian-backed Houthis began attacking international shipping and U.S., British, and French warships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, an international coalition called Operation Prosperity Guardian has been formed to counter the Houthi threat. Houthi attacks have ground international shipping to a halt transiting the Red Sea through the Suez Canal as multiple shippers are now bypassing the dangerous waterway.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian on Monday and described it as “an important new multinational security initiative under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and the leadership of its Task Force 153, which focuses on security in the Red Sea.”

The Houthis appeared undeterred by the coalition’s formation. After claiming credit for two drone attacks on Monday before Austin’s announcement – one on a container ship, one on a Norwegian-owned vessel – the Houthis reportedly threatened another ship off the coast of Djibouti on Tuesday, near the entrance to the Red Sea. The Houthis, a Yemen-based but Iran-backed militia, have claimed these attacks come as a result of Israel’s response in Gaza.

“Our war is a moral war, and therefore, no matter how many alliances America mobilizes, our military operations will not stop,” Mohammed Al-Bukaiti, a member of the Houthis ruling council, told The Washington Post.

U.S. special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, who visited the Gulf last week, asked Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar to convey warning messages to the Houthis. If delivered, they fell on deaf ears. Austin implored the international community to join Operation Prosperity Guardian and combat the Houthi threat.

“Countries that seek to uphold the foundational principle of freedom of navigation must come together to tackle the challenge posed by this non-state actor launching ballistic missiles and uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) at merchant vessels from many nations lawfully transiting international waters,” Austin stated.

Yet only eight countries have announced their participation in the coalition, despite the fact that nearly one-sixth of the world’s shipping – and 10 percent of all oil – transits through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. Member nations for Operation Prosperity Guardian “include the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain,” according to Austin.

Notably absent from the coalition are countries like Egypt, which is losing nearly $30 million a day in Suez Canal transit fees; Saudi Arabia, which uses the waterway to ship oil; and China, which ships goods to Europe.

In a subsequent press release by the Department of Defense, the U.S. military stated that the Houthis have “conducted over 100 one-way uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and ballistic missile attacks, targeting 10 merchant vessels involving more than 35 different nations.” Absent in the statement is multiple attacks on U.S., French and British warships as they responded to distress calls from ships that have come under fire from the Houthis.

It is unclear if Operation Prosperity Guardian will serve an offensive mission to counter Houthi drones, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, and other capabilities such as helicopter assaults. The plan is not currently to act on the defensive as escorts to merchant vessels as they transit the Bab al Mandeb Strait. A Dec. 19 Department of Defense press release indicated that Austin, in “a virtual ministerial with Ministers, Chiefs of Defense, and senior representatives from 43 countries” urged them to “restore security in the Red Sea to deter future Houthi aggression.”

Not leaving crew and cargo to chance, BP said Monday that it has “decided to temporarily pause all transits through the Red Sea,” including shipments of oil, liquid natural gas and other energy supplies, describing it as a “precautionary pause.” Other shipping companies are instead routing vessels around the bottom of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope for precaution – which could add at least 7-to-10 days to a journey.

The Biden administration has resisted targeting Houthi offensive military assets as it fears dragging the region into a wider war. Iran, in an attempt to drive the U.S. from the region and weaken Israel, has increased the pressure through its terror proxies and allies.

The Houthis, as part of Iran’s Axis of Resistance, as well as Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, have been targeting U.S. forces to drive America from the region, as well as to support Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.

The Houthis possess ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as drones, and have used all three weapons systems against commercial vessels and U.S. warships since Hamas launched its deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. [For more background on the Houthis, see: Houthis strike commercial vessel, target French warship.]

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

Issues:

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