Western navies increase response to rebel threat to Red Sea shipping

USS Carney
USS Carney, a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, is pictured transiting the Suez Canal in late November, en route to the Red Sea. Since arriving on station in the Red Sea, Carney has been conducting operations to protect commercial shipping transiting the region. (Credit: US Navy)

Western navies are increasing their collective response to the maritime attacks being conducted by Yemeni-based rebels against merchant shipping operating in the southern Red Sea.

Four warships from three different navies now appear to have conducted operations to protect commercial ships sailing in the region.

Two US Navy (USN) DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, USS Carney and USS Mason, the French Navy Aquitaine-class FREMM frigate FS Languedoc, and the UK Royal Navy (RN) Type 45 destroyer HMS Diamond are all reported to have shot down missiles or uncrewed air systems (UASs) launched from the Yemeni coastline against commercial shipping and other targets.

The Yemen-based Ansar Allah (Houthi) rebels have stated their intent to target shipping sailing to Israeli ports, reflecting the wider regional security implications of the Israel-Hamas war that broke out on 7 October.

Since mid-November, Houthi rebels have been attempting to seize or strike commercial shipping operating in the southern Red Sea, and have fired cruise missiles and UASs north up the Red Sea towards Israel.

The RN became the latest Western navy to conduct operations in response. The UK government announced on 16 December that Diamond – whose deployment to the region to participate in the response operation was announced on 13 December – had fired a Sea Viper missile to take out a UAS being used to target a merchant ship.

As well as countering single-round attacks, Western naval ships are also countering attacks involving multiple incoming projectiles (particularly UASs). In a social media posting on 17 December, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said that, on 16 December, Carney had successfully engaged 14 UASs that were launched as a “drone wave”. “The UASs were assessed to be one-way attack drones, and were shot down with no damage to ships in the area,” the CENTCOM statement said.

As the threat grows in volume and as the Western naval response grows in return, the United States is assessing the establishment of a Red Sea-based task force to counter the threat, under what is being termed Operation ‘Prosperity Guardian’. The pressing requirement is being underlined by the fact that several commercial shipping companies have already decided to temporarily re-route shipping south, around the Cape of Good Hope.

The USN-led, Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) already has an operational task force – Combined Task Force (CTF) 153 – that covers the Red Sea. However, its focus is on maritime security and regional capacity building. Providing air-defence capability is a different requirement.

by Dr. Lee Willett