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US-led naval force might not end Houthi ship attacks

By James Stavridis

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has announced a new military effort in the Middle East: Operation Prosperity Guardian. It will bring together a coalition of nations to safeguard the dangerous waters of the Red Sea, North Arabian Sea and western Indian Ocean from surprisingly sophisticated attacks by Iranian-sponsored terrorists from the Houthi rebellion in Yemen.

In recent weeks, the Houthis have conducted an escalating series of attacks against merchant shipping using drones, ballistic missiles and commandos on helicopters and speedboats. As a video released by the Houthis shows, these well-equipped teams move with military precision.

The new mission is aptly named, as it is designed to protect the 15% of global shipping that passes through the region. The US Navy will command it through Task Force 153, a counterpiracy flotilla based in Bahrain. So far a robust group of nations have signed on: local states Bahrain and the Seychelles, as well as North Atlantic Treaty Organization members Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the UK. In addition, nearly 40 countries already participate in Task Force 153 and many are likely to soon join Operation Prosperity Guardian.

US warships are already patrolling the waters, and two of them — the guided-missile destroyers USS Mason and USS Carney — have been under more or less daily attack, shooting down dozens of drones and rescuing several commercial ships. In mid-November, the Houthis successfully captured one private ship, a vehicle carrier called the Galaxy Leader, and are holding it and 25 mariners hostage in a port on the Red Sea. Tensions and attacks are likely to continue to escalate, largely at the behest of the Iranian theocracy.

I know these waters well. In addition to numerous deployments as captain of a guided-missile destroyer and as commodore of a squadron of destroyers, I led a carrier strike group in the region as a one-star rear admiral. When I was NATO’s military commander in the early 2010s, we put together a task force to fight Somali pirates off the horn of Africa. Those experiences lead me to believe this new mission will ultimately be successful — if the force follows some basic tenets.

First, we need to fully understand what is driving this surge in attacks. The Houthi rebels are supplied, organized, trained and encouraged by Tehran. They claim their attacks are in response to the Israeli counterattacks on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but a more likely explanation is that they are probing for weaknesses to set up future attacks by Iran against Western interests. The assaults will also likely cause oil prices to rise, benefitting the Iranians, and perhaps increase Western pressure on Israel to pare back its attacks in Gaza.

Thus the US and its partners may have to do more than put additional warships on defensive patrol. We must be prepared to go on offense: to carry out offensive strikes against targets ashore, perhaps using Tomahawk missiles and attack aircraft from the carrier USS Eisenhower, now patrolling the Gulf of Oman. Such strikes would be legitimate under the law of war and should be proportional, meaning against Houthi infrastructure on the southern Arabian peninsula.

If this doesn’t have a calming effect on Houthi activities, it would be entirely appropriate to strike the sponsor — Iran — especially its maritime infrastructure in the north Indian Ocean and the Gulf. This could include oil and gas platforms, port facilities and patrol vessels of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Obviously, we must do our utmost to avoid further escalation, but both the Houthis and Tehran must see there is a real price to pay.

A second element of Operation Prosperity Guardian must be a fully integrated intelligence picture. The sea space that the maritime operators must cover is remarkably vast. The Red Sea — from the Suez Canal to the Bab el Mandeb on the horn of Africa — is the size of California. To cover the rest of the North Arabian Sea and the approaches to the Red Sea, you can add another chunk nearly double the size of Alaska. Even if you had 20 warships on patrol — a very high number for a maritime mission — it would be like 20 police cruisers trying to cover America’s entire Pacific Coast.

The key here is wide-area surveillance. This can be accomplished with satellite information and long-dwell drones — most of the nations signed up operate such craft. But the key will be coordination among the new partners: All of this data needs to be fed into the task force command center, which will probably be in the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet in Manama, Bahrain. I’ve been there many times and it is a state-of-the-art facility with not only drone and satellite intelligence capabilities, but also human intelligence, mobile-phone monitoring, open-source analysis, and lots of allied data streams all coming together.

The US and coalition partners had plenty of practice at such cooperation this during the height of the Somali piracy operations, although that was admittedly a far easier opponent than the Houthis.

Third, the US should work hard at expanding the circle of allies and partners. The Saudis are not yet formally associated with Operation Prosperity Guardian, but they could be crucial members given their extensive network of naval bases on the Red Sea. The United Arab Emirates, also not onboard as of now, has capable warships and solid intelligence-gathering capabilities. The catch is that the two Gulf Arab nations have differing views on how to approach the Houthi problem — the UAE is calling for strong military action against the rebels, while Riyadh wants a more measured approach. They need to be persuaded to put this spat aside and deal with the immediate crisis.

There could also be direct European Union participation in the task force: It has had an active counterpiracy mission, Operation Atalanta, since 2008.

Finally, given that the targets are largely commercial shipping, the US will need to engage with the private sector more extensively. This can best be done by working with the largest shipping companies — Maersk, MSC and British Petroleum have all paused operations in the Red Sea — through the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency headquartered in London. During counterpiracy operations a decade ago, the IMO was a key convener in private-public cooperation. Onboard security teams will have to be considered, for example, and that can only be done by the shipping companies themselves.

Countering well-trained, well-armed Houthi rebels guided by Iran will be difficult. But Operation Prosperity Guardian, using the lessons of Somali counterpiracy and updating them for new threats, is a step in the right direction.

(Published 20 December 2023, 04:45 IST)

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