US struggling with Operation Prosperity Guardian in Red Sea

Jan 8, 2024
Gulf of Aden area, political map. Deepwater gulf between Yemen, Djibouti, the Guardafui Channel, Socotra and Somalia, connecting the Arabian Sea through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait with the Red Sea.

Few countries are offering ships and reportedly a significant number  want their support to remain secret!  The token Australian response has turned out to be not out of keeping with that of many similar countries.

In  an earlier P & I article (The Red Sea: Think it through before jumping! December 22, 2023) I argued why the Albanese Government should not rush in to provide an RAN ship to participate in the hastily conceived US led coalition of the willing (“Operation Prosperity Guardian” OPG) as Opposition leader Dutton and his coterie of arm chair strategists were stridently demanding – and continue to do so.  Unsurprisingly , despite the global importance of the Red Sea attacks, it has been instructive to observe how difficult the US has found forming this hastily conceived grouping – both in locking in membership and determining its objectives and rules of operation.

Despite US media boasts about the  long queue for membership (from initially as many as 20 “allies and partners”) the actual result has been pretty patchy with few countries offering ships and reportedly a significant number  wanting their support to remain secret! Reminding us that a key takeaway from the Vietnam War was that what countries were prepared  to say in public proved to be far more reliable than what they offered in private.

In this case, the token Australian response has turned out to be not out of keeping with that of many similar countries:
Middle East : no regional countries other than Bahrain ( where OPG is based!) . Egypt has even warned the US publicly about the whole venture. The Saudis are in the process of extricating themselves from a long and costly war against the Houthis which they do not want complicated by a campaign against the Houthi.

Europe : Given the size of its merchant marine , Greece was quick to commit a naval ship to the OPG though details of its control and command  are not readily available. The British have also sent a destroyer to OPG.

France, Italy and Spain are sending ships to the region to protect their own national interests – not as part of OPG but in cooperation .In their haste to expand the OPG, the US announced prematurely that Spain had joined which irritated the Spaniards.

Norway, Netherlands and Denmark are not sending ships only token personnel to OPG HQ.

Germany is still considering but  commitment of a ship is unlikely for constitutional reasons.

EU is also considering whether to expand its earlier anti piracy Coalition ( Atalanta) to allow EU ships  under EU not US command.

Others :
Canada : No ship but 3 staff officers to OPG HQ

India and Pakistan sending ships to the Arabian Sea but not under OPG group

The Seychelles, though announced as a member by the US, has stated officially that it will not be contributing ships (as it has none with requisite capacity) or personnel – only exchanging information.

Japan and the Republic of Korea not listed as members of OPG – despite the level of their cargo traffic using the route.

Singapore , not included in early membership. It has long term close security connections with Israel and just installed a new Israeli missile on its Navy ships. Singapore flagged Maersk cargo vessel attacked by Houthi last week.

The reasons for this poor response are many and varied but the principal one is the reluctance of many countries to place their ships in any “US led” organisation in the current volatile Middle East scene which could so easily spill into a much wider US vendetta against Iran and its proxies and even beyond. The clumsy way that the US rushed to create this new coalition as in the Australian case where the USN so publicly requested an RAN ship for the group – circumventing the accepted normal intergovernmental procedures for such sensitive defence matters – and in the confusing way the USN spokesperson set out such a confused set of its objectives – to protect international shipping and repel Iranian influences throughout the region.

Drawing on the above, commentators in some countries noted that the Houthi initially linked any stoppage of the shipping attacks to a cessation of Israel’s horrific destruction of Gaza and its Palestinian civilians.  Some countries are very concerned to avoid being caught up in military action against the Houthi which could be interpreted (especially by the US in its propaganda war) as defending the continuing massive US arms and munitions support for the unrelenting Israeli military butchery in Gaza –  against which they have now voted several times in the UN only to be vetoed by the US.. All the more, as is all too likely, if the OPG slips into the next phase of counter striking the Houthi land based sites which could then slip further into actual boots on the ground, they will not stop their attacks on shipping owned or associated with Israel  until the latter  agrees to a ceasefire in Gaza.

As anticipated, China have moved without any fanfare to strengthen its naval presence in Djibouti from where it is already conducting protection of its ships travelling in the region. This is similar to the action they have taken with the earlier Somali anti-piracy programs. Interestingly, the Global Times has reported a Chinese academic discounting the opportunity for a possible diplomatic role with Iran to try to settle the Houthi down and allow international shipping safe passage through the Red Sea(including significant Chinese traffic). The scene in Iran has now been significantly disrupted by the recent explosions in Kerman and the uncertainty about who was responsible – despite the hasty US claim that neither they nor the Israelis were involved.

Meanwhile the OPG is taking time to get itself organised as confusion remains about its goals and modus operandi as Houthi attacks  are continuing. All of which directly affect the choice of ship owners about diversions around the Cape. The more challenging aspects of this situation range across:

  • the complexity and size of the international shipping traffic using that area – including the kaleidoscope  of ownership of the vessels, where they are registered, how they are flagged and their cargo destination or source. This is vividly illustrated by the Danish Maersk Company ( the world’s largest container shipping company) which seemingly has  hundreds  of separate subsidiary companies in so many countries around the world – eg. Maersk US. And several more under Maersk Greater China.
  • Houthis attacks have been continuing with some protection operations by OPG and separately by the French and others. The US mounted a large carrier based operation with F18 support last week to protect 4 US vessels carrying US Defense cargos (possibly to Israel?) and a smaller one since to protect a Singapore based Maersk container ship using helicopters  to destroy a small boat attack. The USN would be hard pushed to maintain that significant level of force in the area for very long  as its other carrier in the region ( the “Ford” in the Eastern Mediterranean initially to provide support in the event of an outbreak of hostilities in Lebanon)) is overdue to return to the US for  R&R as well as maintenance and refit. And is already on its way back to the US.
  • Different ship types present different risk levels and hence different levels of protection. Broadly speaking, tankers appear more  prepared to take the risk of running the gauntlet (with the exception of LPG carriers) while container ships were quickest to divert via the Cape. This was largely determined by the insurance  value of the contents on container vessels being much higher than that for tankers. Though it was also reported that the container companies were rapidly chasing up empty containers in  the Mediterranean ports to meet the huge shortage of containers east of the Red Sea, which they may be prepared to try to get through. Additional costs of the 10-12 days extra sailing via the Cape is considerable and expanding by delays at bunkering ports around the Cape route (eg 6 days wait now in Dar ES Salaam).
  • There is also growing focus on the arcane world of global shipping finance and marine insurance. With some experts in those areas wondering out aloud about whose “Prosperity” will  actually benefit from the OPG protection ? Most agree that despite the hopefully positive impact it might have on the global economy and maybe the man in the street it will be the large shipping companies and insurance networks who will benefit directly the most. Raising the question of how much national defence budgets will have to bear the cost of actually providing this protection!

Perhaps the most curious development in recent days has been the Iranian deployment of one of its own naval vessels to the area. Checking of the sea tracking has revealed that an Iranian flagged cargo ship was sailing into a Yemeni port bearing a cargo owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. As this cargo is presumably destined for the Houthi and could likely contain missiles and drones to be used against international shipping could it become a target for OPG to block – thus raising another crisis point ?

The real dilemma for the US and its far from impressive OPG was best exemplified  with a determinedly bland statement by 12 assorted countries (including Australia with Singapore tagged on late!) warning the Houthi about the consequences of its attacks on international shipping. But it contained  not a single reference to OPG which presumably allowed the Americans to get the likes of Australia, Japan and Singapore and some Europeans to sign on to something the US are trying to dress up into a workable coalition. It represented also an appreciation by the Americans of the need to put in the hard preparatory yards of diplomacy in coalition building which was so cutely illustrated by having it issued on official White House stationery ( no mention of the President though it will likely be on his cv for the coming election!)

The statement issued the following warning to the Houthi:
Let our message now be clear: we call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews.  The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways. We remain committed to the international rules-based order and are determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!