Red Sea Maritime Coalition Much Bigger Than Originally Disclosed

The newly minted international maritime effort to defend against ongoing attacks on Red Sea shipping by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen is much larger than originally announced.

So far, 19 nations have signed onto what has been dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), instead of the initial nine that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin introduced on Monday, Lara Seligman of Politico reported. That’s because most of the nations don’t want to go public, she reported, citing a senior administration official.

Asked about why the 10 unnamed nations have chosen to remain anonymous, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that was their decision.

“I’ll leave it up to them to be able to describe it one way or another since – because not all want to become public,” he told reporters. “I doubt you’re going to get much more out of them.”

The original announcement for OPG included only one Gulf nation, Bahrain. As we discussed in a previous story, while the Saudis have a huge stake in what happens in the Red Sea, they are both trying to end a long and costly conflict with the Houthis and mend fences with regional rival Iran.

Egypt, which owns the Suez Canal, also has a major interest in the success of OPG, with nearly $10B a year in revenue earned from canal operations. 

It is unknown whether either of those nations are involved in OPG.

Earlier on Tuesday, Austin held a virtual conference with ministers, defense chiefs, and senior representatives from 43 countries, as well as the European Union and NATO to discuss the Houthi threats

Along with Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), General Erik Kurilla, and the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Austin briefed participants on how the Houthis had conducted over 100 drone and ballistic missile attacks, targeting 10 merchant vessels involving more than 35 different nations.

They also highlighted that the Houthis had taken the Merchant Vessel Galaxy Leader and its 25-member international crew hostage on November 19; the crew remain unjustly detained in Yemen.

Participants discussed how the attacks are “a flagrant violation of international law, and the Houthis must cease their aggressive actions,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said in a statement. “Currently, 10-15% of global trade passes through the Red Sea, and international shipping companies are having to reroute through the Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to the delivery of key goods and materials, including oil and gas.”

Austin also urged participants to join U.S.-led and other international initiatives and work with USNAVCENT and the 39-member Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) to restore security in the Red Sea and deter future Houthi aggression. Austin pointed to CMF’s Task Force 153 — charged with international maritime security and capacity-building in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden — as an existing multi-lateral platform that could be leveraged to deter attacks under the CMF.

The Type-45 destroyer HMS Diamond, which already downed a Houthi drone, will join OPG, U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapp said, according to Politico. After a video conference between Austin and Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, Italy agreed to join and said it would deploy the Bergamini/FREMM class frigate Virginio Fasan, which is equipped with MBDA Aster-15 or Aster-30 surface-to-air missiles. The ship was scheduled to begin patrolling the Red Sea as part of the European anti-piracy Atalanta operation by February but is now expected to transit the Suez Canal on December 24, Politico reported.

Austin’s virtual meeting came a day after he officially announced the creation of OPG, a previously-nine-nation effort to protect Red Sea shipping, first reported on by The War Zone.

Top Biden administration officials are actively weighing options to strike back at Houthis, two U.S. officials told Politico.

The Pentagon has in recent days moved the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group from the Persian Gulf into the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen, to support a potential U.S. response to attacks, said one of the officials, both of whom were granted anonymity to speak about sensitive plans. The military has also provided options to commanders to strike the Houthis, the official said.

Iranian offered thinly veiled threats in response to the creation of OPG.

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy has established a voluntary unit with scope to carry out marine military operations, according to a top commander, according to the Iran International news outlet.

Local sailors will be allowed to carry out missions on vessels armed with rockets, said IRGC Navy Commander Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, adding that the naval Basij has been organized after the successful formation of the maritime Basij in the Persian Gulf.

According to local reports, he said the maritime Basij in the Persian Gulf includes 55,000 voluntary forces with 33,000 vessels, noting that the second phase will be established in the Caspian Sea.

Tangsiri said the naval Basij involves large boats and launches that can sail as far as Tanzania. The shadow navy will have a presence in a series of coastal villages in southern Iran which have been equipped with military vessels.

“The Basij forces use those vessels that are furnished with weapons such as 107mm rockets, and fire them when necessary,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Houthis said they would ‘sink’ US warships.

“We have capabilities to sink your fleet, your submarines, your warships,” a top Houthi official said, according to the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency. “The Red Sea will be your graveyard.” 

The Houthis also threatened to attack oil and gas fields in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as any ships transporting oil, should either of those Gulf nations join Operation Prosperity Guardian. That would mark a return to attacks the Houthis have carried out on Saudi Arabia in the past, which you can read more about here.

Houthi leader Mohammad Al-Bukaiti said that his group is ready to make sacrifices for civilians in Gaza.

“Even if America succeeds in mobilizing the entire world, our military operations will not stop unless the genocide crimes in Gaza stop and allow food, medicine, and fuel to enter its besieged population, no matter the sacrifices it costs us,” he said.

Shipping companies like Maersk, however, are glad to see the new maritime coalition.

“It is very positive to see global governments reacting promptly with joint efforts on international maritime security and capacity building in the area,” Maersk Chief Infrastructure Officer Rabab Raafat Boulos said of Operation Prosperity Guardian in a statement to The War Zone. “While we are eager to understand the announced measures in more detail, we applaud this initiative as an acknowledgment of the importance of free, unhindered global supply chains.”

“With the line of impacted vessels building fast in the area, progressing with speed will be key for the coalition in order to minimize direct negative impact on global trade.”

As we previously reported, Maersk was the largest shipping company to pause the transit of vessels into the Red Sea in the wake of last week’s near-miss yesterday on the Maersk Gibraltar. As December 18, Maersk said it had about 20 vessels that had paused transits out of which half were waiting East of Gulf of Aden and the rest waiting South of Suez in the Red Sea or North of Suez in the Mediterranean Sea.

Its vessels in the region will join those from other companies now traveling around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. “They will continue their voyages on the diverted routes as soon as operationally feasible. Impacted customers will be informed directly with further details.”

“For all future vessel sailings planned through the area, a case-by-case assessment will take place to determine whether adjustments need to be made – including diversions via the Cape of Good Hope and further contingency measures.”

It’s a trip that adds thousands of extra miles and increases costs and shipping times as a result.

Aside from the names of most of the countries involved, much about OPG remains unknown. We don’t know how it will operate or if the rules of engagement will go beyond those already in place. We also don’t know if the existence of the OPG will actually deter any actions or if it will incite them, and, especially if the latter is the case, will there be kinetic strikes against the Houthis and who will carry those out.

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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.