Nine Nations Join U.S. Maritime Protection Mission in Red Sea

A U.S.-Bahraini naval exercise in 2021. Of the Middle East's regional maritime powers, only Bahrain is joining the effort (USN file image)

Published Dec 18, 2023 5:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Secretary of Defense has announced a new coalition of the willing for the protection for maritime commerce in the Red Sea, responding to a month-long campaign of missile and drone attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebel militia. 

The Houthi rebel group began attacking international shipping last month in response to the Israeli operation in Gaza. On Nov. 20, a group of its fighters hijacked an Israeli-linked car carrier in the Red Sea and diverted it to the port of Hodeidah. Over the intervening weeks, Houthi units have attacked merchant shipping with drones and missiles, and they have expanded their list of target objectives to include all vessels headed for Israeli seaports. 

The U.S. leads a longstanding international coalition based out of Bahrain, called the Combined Maritime Forces. While American (and more recently British and French) warships have been on scene to defend shipping from airborne attacks, the other partners in CMF have been absent. Media sources have reported a region-wide reluctance to confront Houthi rebels because of the risk of upsetting their Iranian sponsors, possibly dragging Tehran into the Israel-Hamas conflict or derailing a nascent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

On Monday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that a subset of CMF partners would finally participate in maritime security in the Red Sea under the coalition's banner. CMF's existing CTF 153 has jurisdiction over the area, but the new task force will have a new name, Operation Prosperity Guardian. 

"This is an international challenge that demands collective action. Therefore, today I am announcing the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces," said Austin in a statement. 

The list of 10 participants includes the U.S., United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain. 29 other members are absent, including regional interests Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Djibouti. Egypt, the largest naval power in the Middle East and the top financial beneficiary of Red Sea-Suez shipping, is also conspicuously missing.

The Pentagon and the White House have come under increasing pressure to take some form of action to address the Houthi threat, and without a policing force, direct strike options were reportedly on the table. The situation was increasingly kinetic: on Saturday, an American destroyer shot down 14 Houthi drones, and on Monday, a Norwegian-owned tanker caught fire after it was struck by an "unidentified object" on its port side. Multiple operators have announced plans to avoid the Red Sea and Suez Canal altogether, including MSC, Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd and BP, among others.