Armed guards on ships 'helping to foil Houthi attacks in Red Sea'

At least half a dozen warships from the US, Britain, Greece and Denmark are patrolling designated areas to escort shipping

Houthi fighters storm the Galaxy Leader. Armed guards on civilian vessels are understood to have deterred other Houthi attacks with shipping levels in the Red Sea remaining at high levels. Reuters
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Ships with armed guards using anti-piracy tactics are having a deterrent effect on Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, leading shipping analysts have told The National.

Using methods developed against pirates from Somalia, several vessels are now carrying security personnel equipped with weapons and using high-grade intelligence provided by the US-led naval task force to combat the Houthis, an Iran-backed militant group from Yemen which has disrupted and attacked trade vessels trying to pass through the region in recent weeks.

Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is protecting Red Sea transits, is co-ordinating its warships to shepherd ships through the area that has witnessed a surge in Houthi attacks since the start of the Israel-Gaza conflict.

They've gone back to the piracy rules of citadels and armed guards on the upper deck
Tom Sharpe, former Royal Navy commander

The task force’s presence has seen up to 90 per cent of normal traffic passing through the area with just major shipping companies such as Maersk going the much longer route via Africa.

Prosperity Guardian offers a defensive umbrella as do other assets in the region which is helping mitigate the Houthi threat,” John Stawpert of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), told The National. “I can't go into detail but there are measures that are being taken by shipping lines to mitigate those threats.”

The shipping manager said that several boats were now carrying “extra security personnel that are on board” and it was understood that a number of them are armed.

“This is a legacy from Somali piracy where armed guards were used with reasonable frequency because they did have a deterrent effect,” he said. “If the ship is especially vulnerable, armed guards might be considered and that's the issue in the case of the southern Red Sea.”

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has insisted the Red Sea shipping crisis has not escalated amid plans to send a new warship to the region, while also playing down recruitment issues in the Royal Navy.

Mr Shapps told MPs that HMS Richmond, a type 23 frigate, is only being deployed to the Gulf region to replace British vessels already patrolling the Red Sea.

The UK has already sent HMS Diamond and HMS Lancaster to the region to protect container ships from assaults by the Houthis

Mr Shapps said: “Richmond is actually sailing to the region because both Diamond and HMS Lancaster are already there and eventually will need to be swapped out.

“So it is not an escalation in terms, but I do want to repeat … to the country that we will not tolerate trade being impacted globally in the manner in which the Houthis are currently impacting it.

“It will have ramifications on everybody’s bills and the flow of free trade and goods and it must come to a halt.”

Back to piracy years

Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy commander, argued that if “two ex US marines with AK47s” had been on board the Galaxy Leader they would have prevented its hijacking by Houthi fighters using a helicopter in November.

Small arms might also be able to defeat the newly emerging surface drone attacks, “but basically, they've gone back to the piracy rules of citadels and armed guards on the upper deck”, he said.

However, the former warship captain warned that given the Houthis are armed with cruise and ballistic missiles as well as suicide drones, these presented a threat that civilian ships could not mitigate.

At least half a dozen warships from the US, Britain, Greece and Denmark are now in the Red Sea patrolling designated areas to escort shipping.

“Prosperity Guardian is coordinating the fighting architecture of the warships who are all on the same circuit, whether air defence or command and control,” said Commander Sharpe. “But it is still in its early stages with a lot of work need to decide who’s looking after which ships.”

Mr Stawpert said there was “still an awful lot of trade going through the Red Sea” because the task force was intercepting a lot of attacks.

In particular an incident on December 31 in which 10 Houthis were killed and three of their fast boats sunk after they fired on a US helicopter had acted as a significant deterrent.

Andrew Mitchell, Britain's Minister for Development and Africa, would not specify whether the UK would attack the silos from which the Houthis launched their missiles against shipping vessels, when asked about this during an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on Monday.

“We will not accept the fettering of international rights of navigation," he told MPs.

Somali strikes

While the ICS did not have a position on whether Houthi missile and radar sites should be targeted in Yemen he suggested that the tactic had worked well before.

“Striking the attackers at source certainly in Somalia had an effect on their ability to to operate. That was one of the key tripwires in reversing the trend of Somali attacks.”

However, Commander Sharpe suggested that the Houthis “are getting too much power and influence out of this for their own good” and will potentially escalate attacks unless the Iranians tell them not to or the US launches strikes against them.

“But the US has had every possible excuse and opportunity to do so for months for months yet nothing has happened,” he said.

Updated: January 09, 2024, 9:49 AM