European Red Sea Naval Task Force Set To Launch Monday

As the Iranian-backed Houthi militia continues attacking ships in the Red Sea region, another international protective task force is set to begin operations on Monday.

Created by the European Union, Operation Aspides (Greek for shield) will be commanded by Italy and headquartered in Greece. It is unclear at the moment how many nations will provide assets, but the German Navy’s Type 124 Sachsen class air-defense frigate FGS Hessen set sail Feb. 8 from Wilhelmshaven to join Aspides, according to Janes. Greece, France and Italy have also agreed to participate, according to EU News, but it is unclear whether that means providing ships, aircraft or both.

“Three ships would be ready, although the EU ‘hopes to have four ships operational’ by Monday,” the outlet reported. Seven EU countries —France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Denmark and Greece – already have assets in the region, though it does not mean they will necessarily participate in Aspides.

This is the second international task force created specifically to deal with threats from the Houthis. In December, the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) was launched, with the U.S., U.K., France, Denmark and Greece agreeing to provide warships. As we previously reported, France said it would not operate under U.S. command while Italy has a ship in the Red Sea not part of OPG, highlighting the challenging nature of these international efforts. Such concerns may have helped spur the creation of the European task force.

Separate and apart from OPG, the U.S. and U.K. have launched attacks on Houthi ground targets.

By having their own task force, the Europeans will further distance themselves from those kinetic actions. Like OPG, Aspides will be defensive in nature, according to EU President Josep Borrell.

“It is a shield in order to act in purely defensive mode to protect merchant vessels, and two non-executive tasks of ‘accompanying’ to deter with [its] presence and to strengthen maritime situational awareness,” Borrell told reporters last month.  

“It will be deployed at sea, with ships and air assets, proportional to the threat we are facing. This mission Aspides will not conduct any operation on land – only at sea, in a purely defensive mode,” he added. “Our goal is to establish and launch this mission Aspides, at the latest on the 19th of February. I hope and I am sure it will [be]. We will. Member States are strongly committed to that. Not of all of them will participate but no one is going to obstruct it.”

Ambrey, a U.K.-based maritime security firm, welcomed the news about Aspides.

“Prosperity Guardian has been under a lot of pressure to succeed since the beginning of crisis,” said Joshua Hutchinson, a former Royal Marine commando now serving as the company’s Managing Director of Risk and Intelligence. “It’s great to see Operation Aspides come to fruition to defensively support commercial vessel transiting through the Red Sea. Whilst the OPG clearly has gaps, with two close attacks in the last 24 hours,  Aspides should help fill them and provide more security and assurance for commercial vessels.”

While the U.S. has carried out numerous planned and preemptive attacks against Houthi targets in Yemen, the group continues to attempt strikes on shipping. The most recent reported incident took place on Feb. 15, when an anti-ship ballistic missile was launched at the M/V Lycavitos, a Barbados-flagged, U.K.-owned bulk carrier, according to U.S. Central Command.

In addition, between the hours of 3:10 p.m. and 8 p.m. local time, CENTCOM forces “successfully conducted two self-defense strike against three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen that were prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea.”

That same day, CENTCOM announced that a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, forward deployed to the region, “seized advanced conventional weapons and other lethal aid originating in Iran and bound to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen from a vessel in the Arabian Sea on Jan. 28.”

The U.S. Coast Guard Sentinel class fast-response cutter USCGC Clarence Sutphin Jr, “located the vessel and boarded it in the Arabian Sea. The boarding team discovered over 200 packages that contained medium-range ballistic missile components, explosives, unmanned underwater/surface vehicle (UUV/USV) components, military-grade communication and network equipment, anti-tank guided missile launcher assemblies, and other military components.”

Amid these whack-a-mole attacks on Houthi targets in Yemen, the U.S. also carried out a cyber attack on an Iranian spy ship, reportedly the M/V Behshad, a bulk carrier being used as a floating support base, which had been collecting intelligence on ships transiting the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, NBC News reported Thursday.

“The cyberattack, which occurred more than a week ago, was part of the Biden administration’s response to the drone attack by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan and wounded dozens of others late last month,” NBC reported, citing anonymous officials.

“The operation was intended to inhibit the Iranian ship’s ability to share intelligence with Houthi rebels in Yemen who have been firing missiles and drones at cargo ships in the Red Sea, the officials said. U.S. officials say Iran uses the ship to provide targeting information to the Houthis so their attacks on the ships can be more effective.”

The Behshad, as we previously discussed, was always a likely target of any U.S. response to the Tower 22 attack: “There are other targets that could be acted upon, like Iran’s support ship/sea base, the MV Behshad, that has been on station for many months in the Red Sea and has just repositioned itself in the Gulf of Aden, just as anti-ship strikes started to be focused there last week. That vessel is very likely providing direct intelligence support for the Houthis in their anti-ship missile campaign. Israel struck the ship that was on station before the current one replaced it, so there is a precedent for such an act.”

 

The Behshad took over intelligence gathering duties from the M/V Saviz, which was attacked, most likely by Israel, in 2021. It is currently anchored about three miles northwest of a Chinese military base in Djibouti, Africa, according to the Marine Traffic website. The Iranians claim it is being used in counter-piracy missions and warned the U.S. not to attack it.

Former CENTCOM commander, retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, called the Behshad “a floating operations – intelligence center.”

“They gather information and make it available to the broader Iranian threat network,” Votel, now a distinguished senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told us. “For the Houthis this likely included information on international vessels transiting critical waterways – like the Bab al Mandeb and the Red Sea. It is also likely that it was providing at least some operational guidance and details that enable the Houthi attacks. This could be information like speed, bearing, ports of origin, cargo , etc.”

The vessel, he added, “probably also has a broader mission of gathering information that goes back to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp IRGC-Qods Force (QF) leaders that keeps them apprised of information across the broader Middle East maritime environment. It could be tracking/monitoring movement of lethal materials from Iran to proxy locations.”  

Any cyber attack against it “could take a variety of forms – denial of service; jamming of transmissions; corrupting or manipulation of data; or, disrupting vessel operating systems,” said Votel, adding that he has no direct knowledge of what transpired.

The Iranian spy ship M/V Behshad, seen in a Feb. 5 satellite image anchored about three miles northwest of a Chinese military base in Djibouti, Africa. (Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies)

The former CENTCOM commander said it would not be surprising if the Behshad has placed itself near a Chinese military base in hopes of protection via proximity to the installation.

“Like we often see with terrorist organizations – civilian infrastructure is often used to mask operations and make military targeting more difficult,” said Votel. “It would not surprise me if the IRGC-QF directed positioning of this vessel near sensitive, populated, or heavily transited areas to protect their asset.”

U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, now deputy commander of CENTCOM, told CBS News 60 Minutes on Thursday that IRGC forces are on the ground in Yemen, working side-by-side with the Houthis “advising them and providing target information.”

Though the European Union is still working out the details for Operation Aspides, having another task force with ships and aircraft providing cover for commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea region will surely be welcomed.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard's work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.

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