New naval task force could be formed to protect Red Sea, US says

Yemen's Houthi militias have launched a series of attacks on tankers allegedly linked to Israel

US Navy ships at a base in the Bahraini capital Manama. AFP
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US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan this week announced a new naval task force could be set up to safeguard commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

It comes after Yemen's Houthi rebels launched a series of attacks on tankers and car carriers linked to multinational companies the group accuses of having ties to Israel.

It led to a tense stand-off in the waterway, which carries about 10 per cent of the world’s oil supply and a similar proportion of non-oil trade through the Bab Al Mandeb at the sea’s southern end.

The US bolstered its presence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean after the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war on October 7, sending two aircraft carriers, the Gerald R Ford and the Dwight D Eisenhower, each accompanied by support destroyers and cruisers.

Supporting ships include the USS Carney, a destroyer that can shoot down missiles, the USS Bataan, which can carry troops and helicopters, the USS Carter Hall, and the USS Thomas Hudner.

The US has responded to the attacks, as well as Houthi ballistic missile attacks on Israel, by using the Thomas Hudner and the Carney to shoot down drones and missiles.

Those ships were part of another force that had recently been in the Arabian Sea, Combined Task Force 150, sent to deter Iranian aggression.

What is a naval task force?

The Combined Task Force 150 is one of five naval task forces in the Middle East, most with a multinational composition, part of an attempt to share the cost of patrolling the region’s waterways.

All fall under the command of the US-led, 38-nation Combined Maritime Task Forces, based in Bahrain.

A naval task force is a grouping of ships with a specific mission, ranging from waging full-scale war, such as during the US-led invasion of Iraq, to protecting civilian shipping or responding to a disaster.

These task forces have faced threats such as Somali piracy, terrorism and the smuggling of drugs and weapons.

Why would the US create a new task force?

Given that five naval task forces are already present in the Middle East, including two powerful US aircraft carriers and supporting ships, the US and its allies are not short of naval power in the region.

However, there are two main reasons why Washington may have decided it needs yet another.

The first is that the new task force would be specifically designed to protect shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

The existing maritime task forces in the Middle East were formed for specific missions, such as countering piracy or smuggling.

Houthi attacks, using drones and ballistic missiles need specific defences, including ships equipped with high-altitude missile defences.

“A new task force to protect shipping in the Red Sea would probably be an effort by the US to prevent an expansion of the conflict,” said Zoe Ciaccio, an analyst with Dragonfly Intelligence, a risk consultancy. "The US has signalled [particularly strongly in recent weeks] it is highly intent on avoiding the conflict expanding from Gaza.

“Washington is probably seeking to better secure shipping lanes, while avoiding being drawn into a military retaliation, either involving itself or Israel, against the Houthis in Yemen."

The second is that the US wants its allies to assist in its maritime objectives – and share the financial cost of them – as much as possible.

While the US is by far the world's strongest naval power, it often talks about “burden sharing” – the desire for its allies to help out.

This partly for financial reasons – deploying an aircraft carrier alone costs more than $1 billion a year from the US budget.

With US aircraft and naval support costing so much to deploy, the US is keen to share the expenses of naval operations through the region, said Ms Ciaccio.

“Sharing the financial burden of protecting commercial shipping is highly likely to be a key consideration by Washington," she said. "That is particularly since – at least in our assessment – vessels that do not have ties with the US, or even Israel, are also at high risk of exposure to Houthi attacks."

Yemen's Houthis release footage of cargo ship seizure

Yemen's Houthis release footage of cargo ship seizure

Which naval task forces are in the Middle East?

The first maritime task force in the region was Task Force 150, sent to the region during the First Gulf War in 1991, between an international coalition and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

Following the conflict, the force remained in the region during a relative lull in tensions.

But it would later find a critical role in stopping the smuggling of ballistic missiles and drugs, and stopping attacks by Somali pirates, who would go on to become the major security threat in the Red Sea.

It soon expanded – becoming a Combined Task Force – to involve ships from Spain, Germany and Japan, in 2002, casting a net further afield in 2005 to bring in Pakistan, France and the UK on rotation.

The increase in regional threats since the US invasion of Iraq led to the formation of Task Force 151, which also included Canada, and took part in missions against Al Qaeda.

Around the same time, the US navy’s Task Force 152 became a combined force in the Arabian Sea, bringing in regional commanders and navies, headed at various times by Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait.

In 2009, as the piracy attacks persisted, a new task force under UN authority was established. Combined Task Force 151 built on the task force of the same number, with 20 countries pledging to contribute ships and aircraft.

Since 2009, these task forces have divided the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean into various zones, each of which was patrolled by a particular ship or group of vessels.

The rate of Somali pirate attacks have dropped from well over a 100 a year to rare occurrences today.

In April last year, a new task force joined the Combined Maritime Task Forces, Task Force 153, which was recently commanded by Egypt, to patrol the Red Sea, the Bab Al Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden, consisting of up to eight ships.

Another task force, 154, was formed in May to focus on multinational training efforts.

Updated: December 05, 2023, 4:43 PM