EU Red Sea mission commander asks for 'more assets' to protect ships from Houthi attacks

Houthis have 'co-ordinated attacks' on international shipping with Iran, says EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell

Operation Commander Rear Admiral Vasileios Gryparis, left, in Brussels with the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. EPA
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The operation commander of a European naval mission to protect ships transiting through the Red Sea from Houthi attacks said on Monday that he wants to increase its assets to expand its area of operation.

The EU naval mission, named Aspides, operates in an area that is “twice as big as the land mass of our 27 member states”, Greek Admiral Vasileios Gryparis told reporters in Brussels.

For this reason, it has focused on the high-risk area in the south of the Red Sea, where shipping has decreased by 50 per cent since the Houthis started launching drone attacks against commercial ships on October 19 in response to the war in Gaza.

“If we increase assets and our presence then we might be able in the near future to deploy the assets to the rest of the area of operation,” said Admiral Gryparis.

Aspides has its headquarters in Greece and has four frigates from Germany, Italy, France and Greece, as well as personnel from 19 EU countries. It is up to EU countries to decide if they want to deploy more warships to the mission.

The operation has escorted 68 vessels and repelled 11 attacks since its launch on February 19, according to the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. “It’s a mission that has a certain and important level of engagement and risk,” said Mr Borrell, speaking alongside Admiral Gryparis.

The EU Council has allocated €8 million ($8.6 million) for the common costs for the one-year, renewable mission. “We have to balance the cost of action with non-action,” said Mr Borrell. “This €8 million doesn’t include national-borne cost like the salaries. But compare this cost with the cost of doing nothing.”

Around 30 per cent of global container ships and 21 per cent of the globe's energy transit goes through Bab Al Mandeb, said Mr Borrell. “It's a vital vein for us. We cannot let this part of the world be without protection, it is our strategic interest and we act as a security provider.”

However, Mr Borrell was reluctant to link the conflict in Gaza to the attacks, saying the Houthis targeted ships “indiscriminately”.

“For the Houthis, there is a [relation between] the attacks they are performing and the war in Gaza,” said Mr Borrell. “From our side, we just want to ensure freedom and security of navigation, and we hope that we could control the situation and this will not expand to a wider geographical zone.”

“They are co-ordinated with Iran,” he said. “They have a partnership of convenience. But control of Houthi decision-making power is something that we don’t know. Certainly the Houthis have been gaining capacities and autonomy.”

Houthi forces said on Sunday that they had launched rockets and drones at British, US and Israeli ships. The US and the UK have launched retaliatory aerial bombardments on Houthi military targets on land in Yemen.

The EU has not taken part in these operations and has highlighted that Aspides is a purely defensive operation.

It is still “very early” to measure the impact of Aspides on Houthi attacks, said Admiral Gryparis. “In absolute numbers, we might see noticeable small reductions. But you have to bear in mind that they have the capability to always to choose the time and place.”

From a military perspective, Aspides is a “difficult” operation, he added. “We have to wait all the time, being shot at,” he told reporters. “We are patient and we stick to our mandate.”

Aspides has improved its co-ordination with other naval missions in the area to protect commercial shipping from Houthi attacks and avoid cases of friendly fire, said Admiral Gryparis. The US navy's Combined Task Force 153 operates in areas adjacent to Aspides.

“We have a better co-ordination so far with [the US-led] Operation Prosperity Guardian and we have a common operational understanding in the whole area,” he added.

“If we are getting the same threats, we have to issue the same warnings so everybody is aware – OK in that direction you have now a missile oncoming, or a swarm of drones,” said Admiral Gryparis, speaking to The National on the sidelines of the press conference.

In late February, a German ship came close to mistakenly shooting down a US drone. The incident happened a week before the first fatal Houthi attack against a merchant ship, in which three seafarers were killed.

Updated: April 09, 2024, 11:47 AM