US unveils international force to defend Red Sea. Here’s what we know.

by Tommy Grant

WASHINGTON, LONDON and PARIS — Several nations have announced their contributions to Operation Prosperity Guardian, a new multinational security initiative in the Middle East to help protect merchant ships in the Red Sea area from drones and missiles.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin formally announced the effort Dec. 18, after previously hinting that collective action is required to protect civilian ships in the region.

To date, Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched at least 100 attacks with one-way drones and ballistic missiles, targeting 10 merchant vessels that represent more than 35 different nations, according to a readout of a virtual meeting between security group participants.

“Operation Prosperity Guardian is bringing together multiple countries to include the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain to jointly address security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with the goal of ensuring freedom of navigation for all countries and bolstering regional security and prosperity,” Austin said Dec. 18.

He noted this effort will fall under the purview of the Combined Maritime Forces — a multinational maritime partnership based in Bahrain — and its Task Force 153. The CMF is made up of 39 nations, and its various task forces help secure the Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Some task forces also focus on countering piracy across the region as well as and training and partner-building activities.

About 20,000 commercial vessels transit the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden every year, according to the French Navy. Task Force 153 specifically covers the Red Sea and was established in 2022 to address human trafficking and smuggling of both legal materials like coal and illegal weapons and drugs, Defense News previously reported.

The readout of Austin’s meeting noted that task force “could be leveraged to deter attacks under the CMF,” but the Defense Department declined to provide additional information.

Here are some details about forces participating in Operation Prosperity Guardian. (The Spanish Defence Ministry did not respond to Defense News’ request for information.)

Britain

Britain has committed a Type 45 destroyer equipped with air defense weapons to the international task force.

The Defence Ministry announced Dec. 19 the destroyer HMS Diamond will lead the Royal Navy’s contribution to Operation Prosperity Guardian.

HMS Diamond has been in the region for a little more than two weeks and moved to the Red Sea on Saturday. It was almost immediately called into action to shoot down a suspected Houthi drone aimed at a commercial ship in the area. This was first time the Royal Navy shot down an aerial target since the Gulf War in 1991.

“This is an international problem that requires an international solution. That is why HMS Diamond has joined Operation Prosperity Guardian,” Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said while announcing the work with the security group.

British forces have been on hand with a small fleet of ships in the region. For example, the military operates a flotilla out of Bahrain that includes the frigate HMS Lancaster, three mine-hunting vessels and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ship.

Italy

Italy will do its part to counter “destabilizing terrorist activity” by sending the multimission frigate Virginio Fasan to the Red Sea, the country’s Defence Ministry said in a statement.

Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto and Austin discussed maritime security in a video call Tuesday, including options for securing shipping routes to avoid economic repercussions and “dangerous impacts” on commodity prices.

“It’s necessary to increase the presence in the area in order to create the conditions for stabilization, to avoid environmental disasters and also to avoid a resurgence of the inflationary push,” Crosetto said in the statement.

France

The French multimission frigate Languedoc has been patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the southern area of the Red Sea since Dec. 8 to secure freedom of navigation, the French Navy said in a Dec. 15 statement.

The Languedoc shot down two drones coming from the direction of Yemen that appeared hostile on the second day of its patrol duty. The frigate destroyed a drone threatening the Norwegian oil tanker Strinda on Dec. 11, before moving in to protect the stricken tanker and prevent a hijacking, according to the Navy. A fire aboard the Strinda was brought under control without injuries.

Norway

Norway will dispatch as many as 10 staff officers to the Combined Maritime Forces, the Norwegian Defence Ministry said.

Marita Isaksen Wangberg, a ministry spokesperson, told Defense News the country isn’t sending any vessels.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands plans to contribute two staff officers to the operation. The country doesn’t have any vessels in the area at this time, and the contribution of ships is under review, Navy spokesperson Alex Kranenburg told Defense News.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.

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