The US-led military ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ is a multinational coalition formed in December 2023 to respond to Iranian-backed Houthi rebels based in Yemen attacking ships in the Red Sea. The objective is to end attacks on commercial vessels and blockage of the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden. Houthi’s objectives are to pressure Western allies to force Israel to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza. 15% of European and 12% of global sea trade passes through these chokepoints. That includes 30% of world shipping container movements. Most major shipping companies have diverted this trade to different longer routes leading to a rise in trade and oil prices.
Scale of Houthi Attacks
The Houthis initiated a series of attacks on Southern Israel and ships in the Red Sea on 19 October 2023 when USS Carney shot down three land attack cruise missiles and several drones headed for Southern Israel from Yemen. A succession of such attacks against Israel continued, aimed mainly at the city of Eilat. Attacks on shipping commenced on 19 November when Galaxy Leader, a car transporter headed for India, was boarded and hijacked by Houthi troops in a MIL-17 helicopter. The scale of shipping attacks and hijackings accelerated, including an oil tanker full of phosphoric acid, a chemical tanker on its way from Malaysia to Italy with a cargo of palm oil and several container ships. Many ground attacks and 26 shipping attacks have, so far, been made. When ships of the 12-nation US-led operation countered the hijackings and attacks, they were attacked by the Houthis. On 10 January, US ships and HMS Diamond countered the largest attack, bringing down 21 missiles and drones. The weapons used in these attacks include anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, various attack drones and fast patrol boats. Most are supplied by Iran or by North Korea through Syria. UK has now sent HMS Richmond to join the operation.
Effect of Attacks
Several of the world’s largest container ship companies, including Maersk and MSC, announced they would reroute their vessels away from the Red Sea. The attacks have also enormously driven up shipping costs, as companies face longer routes, higher insurance premiums and a scarcity of containers. The average global cost to transport 40-foot-long containers has almost doubled since November. It is anticipated that disruption to trade will continue through March. The UN Security Council have reacted by approving a resolution demanding an end to the attacks. On 11 January the Iranian Navy seized an oil tanker associated with a Greek shipping company in the Gulf of Oman, prompting fears the disruption could escalate and spread to the Gulf.
Operation partners and European concerns
The US assigned their aircraft carrier, Dwight D Eisenhower, to lead this force with accompanying destroyers USS Laboon and Gravely. The UK initially assigned the destroyer, HMS Diamond. Norway and Greece later offered ships, while other nations offered lesser support. Canada offered personnel support. European nations are concerned that the operation will escalate the Middle East conflict. France and Italy will keep their frigates (Languedoc and Virginia Fasan) under national control. Spain has used its frigate, Victoria, in EU-led Operation Atalanta originally established to counter Somali ship hijackers and has proposed a similar EU-led operation is created to cover the Red Sea. Denmark and others are considering their position. European governments are worried that their electorates are becoming increasingly critical of Israel and do not want to be drawn into further conflict.
Pacific Nation Concerns
India is concerned that aligning itself with the US could make it more of a target. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made it clear they have no interest in the project. Sri Lanka is prepared to send a few patrol boats.
The Australian press is making this a major political issue with a Federal election between the Labor government and Liberal/National Coalition due on or before 27 September 2025. Headlines such as “In a shrinking world even the Red Sea is part of our region” and “Red Sea warship decision a disgrace” appeared days after Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, refused a US request to send a solitary warship. This was just days after the US Congress agreed to sell Australia three Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS pact. It was criticised as a decision that contradicted Australia’s long-standing defence strategy. For decades, Australia has supported its allies in conflicts overseas that potentially affected the security of its sea and flight paths that it relies heavily on for the survival of its trade in goods and services.
In truth, the Australian Defence Forces and, especially, the Navy is currently under-equipped to support US requests to assist with its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. Their total Defence Force is only 60,000 men and women and only one of their three relatively up-to-date Hobart class destroyers would have been suitable for the Red Sea mission. This is mainly due to a lack of efficient defence spending during the Kenneth Rudd and Julia Gillard governments in 2010 to 2013, following the global financial crisis. Julia Gillard tried to temper this with an Australian/American Alliance, initially allowing 250 US marines to train for six months annually at Darwin in the Northern Territory. This has been considerably extended to allow the US Air Force and US Army access for training and joint operations. While this is to reflect China’s rising economic and military influence in the region (it is about to commence sea trials of its 3rd and first home-built aircraft carrier), there is concern about Australia being drawn into a future conflict between the US and China over Taiwan.
The Western Dilemma
Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I wrote about NATO’s Dilemma. The Western world now has a further dilemma confronting its governments. The US and UK are now considering further action that may include direct attacks on Houthi radars and weapon installations in Yemen. So far, they have supported Israel’s struggle against Hamas but should not now support Israel’s campaign that has killed thousands of innocent Palestinians and devastated Gaza. Israel’s response is that we live in an upside-down world and such collateral damage must be expected to counter terrorism. But increasing protests in Western cities question whether breaches of fundamental human rights can ever be tolerated in a democracy.
Recent news is that the UK government has decided to join the US forces in bombing more than 60 locations in Yemen from which, they claim, the Houthi have been mounting their attacks on the Gulf shipping.