Red Sea Attacks Continue, India Enhances Naval Posture (Updated)

With anti-ship strikes now taking place farther south in the Indian Ocean, India is deploying destroyers and maritime patrol aircraft.

byThomas Newdick|
India Warship
Government of India
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With the recent spate of attacks on commercial shipping now extending far out from the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the Indian Navy has announced the deployment of warships and maritime patrol aircraft to “maintain a deterrent presence” out into the Arabian Sea.

The move comes after a suspected drone attack on the tanker M/V Chem Pluto about 120 miles off the Indian coast over the weekend, which Washington has now blamed squarely on Iran. The damaged ship is now pier side in Mumbai. You can read our coverage of that incident here.

Editor's note: Info on the latest attack can be read at the bottom of the post.

The Indian Navy’s response to the attack in the Indian Ocean comprises at least three guided-missile destroyers and patrols by long-range P-8I aircraft — the Indian version of the P-8A Poseidon. The destroyers involved include the Project 15A class vessels Kolkata and Kochi and the Project 15B class Mormugao.

For the first time in the conflict, the U.S. government blamed the attack explicitly on Iran, although the foreign ministry in Tehran said that claim was “worthless.”

Yemen-based Houthi militants have been launching attacks on shipping since the start of Israel’s war on Hamas, a campaign that has been widely seen as being connected with Iran, which backs both the Houthis and Hamas. Tehran has repeatedly denied any involvement in the attacks. Beyond the current Gaza conflict, however, there has long been a covert anti-shipping war fought between Iran and Israel, something we have reported on for years now.

The Chem Pluto had been on its way to the Indian port of New Mangalore, from Al Jubail in Saudi Arabia, when it came under attack on Saturday. The chemical tanker was underway with a crew of 21 Indians and one Vietnamese. Despite some official confusion as to whether the attack was a missile or drone strike, the Indian Navy now says that an analysis of the area of attack and debris likely indicates a drone attack.

Broadly similar damage has been seen in the aftermath of previous anti-shipping attacks that have been blamed on Iran.

The question of how the tanker may have been targeted by a drone is something that The War Zone has addressed in its previous reporting and it is noteworthy, too, that different target seeker options have recently been showcased on Iranian one-way attack drones.

As well as Houthi and claimed Iranian maritime activity, India has also been facing a growing threat from piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

Earlier this month, Somali pirates hijacked the Bulgaria-owned and Malta-flagged bulk carrier M/V Ruen, while it was 380 nautical miles east of the Yemeni island of Socotra. The vessel was shadowed by the Indian Navy as the pirates brought it, together with its crew, to the semi-autonomous Somalian state of Puntland.

The Indian anti-piracy effort in the region now also involves a guided-missile destroyer.

Elsewhere, Houthi rebels continue their campaign of drone and missile attacks on shipping moving through the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden. This has already prompted some major companies to reroute their cargo vessels around the southern tip of Africa, involving a much longer voyage and a significant hike in fuel costs.

Those attacks have also seen the launch of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an American-led coalition to defend commercial shipping in the region, via joint patrols in the vicinity of the Bay el-Mandeb. This was something that The War Zone was first to report upon.

Although a total of 20 countries have pledged to take part, there are growing questions about the viability of Prosperity Guardian. Notably, not many of the countries involved have committed ships or aircraft to the operation, while some nations have indicated that they will not place their assets under direct U.S. control.

However, some commercial ships still using the Red Sea are now being seen moving with naval escorts. In the past, The War Zone has looked at the benefits of these kinds of convoys, although those we have seen so far in Prosperity Guardian are small, with just a handful of ships involved.

The most recent major incident in the Red Sea occurred on December 23.

A fairly complex attack began with a pair of Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles being fired into international shipping lanes in the southern part of the Red Sea from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. No ships were reported to have been impacted by the missiles.

Later the same day, four drones originating from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen were shot down as they headed toward the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Laboon (DDG-58), patrolling the southern Red Sea as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian. All four drones were downed by the Laboon and there were no injuries or damage.

The U.S. Naval Forces Central Command then received reports from two ships in the southern Red Sea that they were under attack. According to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM):

“The M/V Blaamanen, a Norwegian-flagged, owned, and operated chemical/oil tanker, reported a near miss of a Houthi one-way attack drone with no injuries or damage reported. A second vessel, the M/V Saibaba, a Gabon-owned, Indian-flagged crude oil tanker, reported that it was hit by a one-way attack drone with no injuries reported. The USS Laboon responded to the distress calls from these attacks. These attacks represent the 14th and 15th attacks on commercial shipping by Houthi militants since October 17.”

Another factor in the region is the presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), with satellite imagery suggesting that one of their Type 052D destroyers has been closely following the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. Shadowing U.S. and allied warships at this time could very well bring Beijing some major intelligence windfalls, especially in terms of how NATO warships engage drones and ballistic missiles in a combat environment. At the same time, China has been accused in the past of not helping out regarding Houthi attacks on shipping. As we have stated in the past, it is very unlikely they would pick a fight with the Houthis and certainly not Iran, and in doing so putting their base in Djibouti at risk as well as their vessels, when the U.S. and others will do it for them and have their assets tied up in the process.

The United States has not taken any action against the Houthis and has said it does not want a wider regional conflict with Iran. This comes as multiple reports state they are evaluating strike options. But striking the Houthis would also endanger the stability of the already rickety naval coalition. However, the U.S. has shown its willingness to launch attacks against other Iran-related militant groups in recent days.

On Monday, the U.S. military undertook retaliatory airstrikes in Iraq after a one-way drone attack on Erbil Air Base earlier the same day by Iran-aligned militants, including from the Kataib Hezbollah group, who have claimed responsibility. The drone strike left one U.S. service member in critical condition and injured two others, Reuters reports.

The Iraqi government condemned the U.S. airstrikes, which it said killed one serviceman and injured 18 other people, describing them as a “clear hostile act” and “an unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”

CENTCOM said the airstrikes were in “response to multiple attacks against coalition forces in Iraq and Syria.”

“Early assessments indicate that these U.S. airstrikes destroyed the targeted facilities and likely killed a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants. There are no indications that any civilian lives were affected,” CENTCOM added.

U.S. forces have repeatedly targeted Iranian proxy forces in Iraq and Syria following attacks on U.S. interests in the both countries since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war on October 7. For now, however, it's abundantly clear that restraint is the path being taken when it comes to the Houthis in Yemen.

UPDATE: 3:30PM EST—

Another attack has occurred, this time against MSC's container ship United VIII.

A statement from the company confirming the attack reads:

"MSC confirms that on 26 December 2023 the container ship MSC UNITED VIII was attacked while transiting the Red Sea. The vessel informed a nearby coalition task force warship of the attack and as instructed engaged in evasive maneuvers.

The incident occurred on 26 December 2023 at approximately 12:25 UTC while the MSC vessel was enroute from King Abdullah Port, Saudi Arabia to Karachi, Pakistan.

Currently, all crew are safe with no reported injuries and a thorough assessment of the vessel is being conducted.

Our first priority remains protecting the lives and safety of our seafarers, and until their safety can be ensured MSC will continue to reroute vessels booked for Suez transit via the Cape of Good Hope."

The last AIS position of the vessel was eight hours ago as it approached the southern end of the Red Sea:

Vesselfinder.com

The Houthis have put out a statement on the attack, as well, it reads:

"In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful God Almighty said: {O you who have believed, if you support you, Allah will support you and make your feet firm.} God Almighty has spoken the truth. A victory for the oppression of the Palestinian people, who until this moment have been subjected to killing, destruction, siege, and starvation. The naval forces of the Yemeni Armed Forces, with the help of God Almighty, carried out a targeting operation against a commercial ship, “MSC UNITED,” with appropriate naval missiles.

The process of targeting the ship came after its crew refused, for the third time, calls from the naval forces, as well as repeated fiery warning messages. The Yemeni Armed Forces Air Force also carried out a military operation with a number of drones against military targets in the Umm al-Rashrash area and other areas in occupied Palestine. The Yemeni Armed Forces affirm their continued support and support of the Palestinian people as part of their religious, moral and humanitarian duty. The Yemeni armed forces confirm the continuation of their operations in the Red and Arab Bahrain against Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine until the entry of the food and medicine needed by the Gaza Strip.

The Yemeni Armed Forces confirm what was stated in their previous statements regarding preventing the passage of all Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine, with their full concern for the continuation of maritime traffic to all destinations except the Israeli entity."

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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