The United States-led multinational naval force that was to protect and secure maritime traffic through the Red Sea from attacks by Yemeni Houthi rebels appears significantly weakened – even if not quite dead in the water – before it ever sailed together.
Less than a week after the announcement of Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), France, Italy and Spain have pulled out of the nearly fully-created force touted to include warships from more than 10 nations.
The decision to cobble together what is essentially an anti-Houthi coalition was almost forced on Washington. In early November, a US destroyer shot down several missiles fired from Yemen but the US tried to maintain a business-as-usual pose and not advertise that it was engaging the Yemeni group.
As long as the combative Houthis tried, unsuccessfully, to lob missiles at Israel, a country attacking Yemeni’s Arab and Muslim brethren, the US could maintain that the whole affair was not a serious regional escalation. But when their repeated attacks on ships headed to and from the Suez Canal threatened the security of international maritime routes, the US was forced to act.
The US Navy already has a huge number of ships in the region, so why would it need to ask friendly nations to contribute more?
One reason is that even with such a large force, the US cannot spare many ships for the task. The other is political unwillingness to be the only nation attacking Yemen as it would likely be interpreted, especially in the Middle East, as direct military action in aid of Israel.
US political and military dilemmas are largely conditioned by geography and Yemen’s control of the strategically important choke point where the Indian Ocean funnels into the Red Sea. The Bab el-Mandeb passage is only 29km (16 nautical miles) wide at its narrowest point.
Its approaches are bristling with warships: More than 35 from at least 12 nations that do not border the Red Sea are now in positions from which they could reach the strait in less than 24 hours. Nations along its African and Arabian shores have at least as many in their harbours.
Many of these ships were already in the region before 7 October. The northwestern parts of the Indian Ocean leading into the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb are probably the most notorious pirate-infested waters of the 21st century.
The civil war and breakdown of Somalia’s central government created maritime piracy on an unprecedented scale. Somali pirates venture out to sea in fast small boats, armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and intercept commercial shipping heading towards and from Bab el-Mandeb in three directions: from the Far East, passing south of India; from the Gulf, sailing around the Arabian Peninsula; and north to south along African shores.
Shipping companies demanded protection and the international community, aware of the need to keep shipping lanes open and secure, provided it. Every month, 200 ships cross the Suez in each direction carrying no less than 3 million containers.
Since 1990, the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) had been engaged in anti-piracy missions. More than 30 nations, mostly Western but also including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, Singapore and Turkey, took part and usually kept at least four warships on station, rotating every three to four months.
In 2022, a new force, the CTF-153, took over. When the latest war in Gaza started, the force was comprised of US destroyers USN Carney and USN Mason, Japanese destroyer JDS Akebono and a South Korean one, ROKS Yang Man Chun.
In anticipation of the arrival of stronger assets, the US ships immediately moved into the Red Sea, and both have on several occasions intercepted Houthi missiles and drones. The US Navy hurriedly deployed two aircraft carrier task groups – which include anti-aircraft and anti-submarine cruisers and destroyers, helicopter carriers, assault ships and other offensive and defensive assets – to the wider region.
It is almost certain that the White House did not immediately have a concrete action plan for involvement in the Gaza conflict, but the decision to deploy to the region naval and air power capable of taking on all potential adversaries was militarily prudent.
Meanwhile, the White House also engaged in diplomacy. The US and Iran exchanged indirect statements, assuring each other they did not seek confrontation. Iran announced that it had not been informed of the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, and the US did everything to avoid alienating Iran. In return, Tehran nudged the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah into refraining from a full-scale offensive. The de-escalation seemed to be working.
But then the Houthis, considered to be an Iranian proxy in much the same way as Hezbollah, decided to attack in the Red Sea, demanding Israel end its war on Gaza. They launched long-range missiles at Israel and naval missiles at US Navy destroyers that had entered the Red Sea.
Both operations failed, with all missiles and drones being on several occasions intercepted and shot down. The US Navy was convinced that its two destroyers could handle the situation, possibly being reinforced in time by a couple more.
But when tankers and container ships in the Red Sea started taking hits almost daily, the escalation was undeniable. Many of the world’s biggest shipping companies shifted from going through the Suez Canal to the longer and more expensive route around Africa. Commercial carriers now introduced a $700 surcharge on each container sailing the longer route.
Counting just those laden with Asian manufactured goods heading to Europe, the additional cost is a staggering $2bn per month. That increase gets passed on to the final customers – leading to inflation. In addition, the longer travel will soon cause distribution delays, shortages and general disruption of the economy, which every nation will feel.
The markets demanded action and the US optimistically believed it could assemble a robust force of up to 20 participating nations to carry out Operation Prosperity Guardian. Within days, high hopes were drowned in refusals. The Pentagon believed that China, a country with major interests in keeping open the sea lanes that take its exports to Europe, would join in, especially as it already has a self-supported task force of one destroyer and one frigate in the western Indian Ocean.
But Beijing replied that it had no interest in joining the OPG. Refusals also came from major Arab navies straddling Red Sea shores: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They hinted that they did not want to be seen engaging an Arab country in this situation. The US apparently showed understanding for their position, confident that it will have no problem in attracting enough ships.
Meanwhile, France, Italy and Spain have indicated they will not join a mission under US command – only if it is a European Union or NATO force. That leaves the US with the United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands, Greece, Canada and Australia as nations that are still, officially, on board with the OPG.
Most already have ships either in the Indian Ocean or in eastern Mediterranean and could reach the Red Sea within a few days, enabling the OPG to take charge and start escorting commercial shipping before the New Year.
The first reaction of the merchant marines came on Sunday when the Danish shipping major Maersk announced that its vessels would resume transit through the Red Sea under OPG escort. If OPG can provide safe passage, it would boost its support could influence conteiner companies like MSC and CGN, petroleum giant BP and others to return to the shortest route. But Maersk made it clear that it could return to the longer route around Africa depending on how safety conditions evolve.
Regardless of the number of participating countries, Operation Prosperity Guardian will not be just a simple act of escorting ships through the southern Red Sea. In the last few days there have been several worrying signs of a potential major escalation that could easily open another front involving major regional actors.