EU prepares for long-haul Red Sea mission after first fatalities

Aspides is 'most dangerous' naval operation undertaken by Europe so far, analysts say

The British-registered cargo vessel Rubymar sinks in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. EPA / Yemeni Al-Joumhouriya TV
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The EU must ready itself for a long-term, dangerous mission in the Red Sea as Houthi attacks resulted this week in the first fatalities of their months-long campaign of harassment of ships travelling through one of the world's busiest trade lanes, experts told The National.

This is the most dangerous naval operation undertaken by the EU so far,” said Alessandro Marrone, defence programme director at Italian think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali.

The death on Wednesday of three sailors – two Filipinos and one Vietnamese – aboard the Barbados-flagged, Greek-operated True Confidence was a “tragedy that was unfortunately likely to happen”, said Mr Marrone.

Named Aspides, “shields” in Ancient Greek, the EU's defensive naval mission in the Red Sea was deployed almost three weeks ago with a one-year renewable mandate.

French, German, Greek, Spanish and Italian warships are currently in the area. A Belgian frigate is reportedly expected to depart Zeebrugge port on Sunday to join Aspides.

European warships have destroyed Houthi drones on a number of occasions, in some cases before the formal launch of the mission.

The Red Sea area is becoming increasingly crowded, however, and there are increasing risks of potential incidents of friendly fire. On January 28, a German warship mistakenly fired at a US drone.

Also present in the maritime region is a US-led defensive mission called Prosperity Guardian, which includes up to eight frigates, and at least a dozen Indian warships east of the Red Sea deployed to fight piracy.

The Indian navy has been assisting stricken ships and evacuated the surviving 20 True Confidence crew members this week. Four suffered serious burns.

The incident signalled the increasing risks associated with sailing through the Red Sea after the Rubymar cargo ship sank on February 18, days after being hit by a Houthi missile off the coast of Yemen.

An anchor dragging from the Rubymar was probably the cause of the damage to undersea communication cables on Tuesday, said the US government. The damage affected 25 per cent of the data flow through the Red Sea.

The Houthi attacks, which started shortly after the start of the Gaza war in October, have caused insurance costs to soar and forced some vessels to take a detour around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

“Increased costs have so far been absorbed by the market but they have the potential to create disruption,” said Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Indian naval officer and director of New Delhi-based think tank the Society for Policy Studies.

“These non-state attacks pose a really complex challenge for navies around the world and merchant shipping in general.

Military naval deployments are about “maintaining a presence and sending a signal that major powers aren’t going to allow this disruption to go beyond a certain point”.

The rapid international deployment following the Houthi attacks may have contributed to keeping the economic impact under control, said Mr Marrone. Yet he also said the awareness of the new risk undertaken by European navies is currently quite low in the continent's capitals.

Mr Marrone estimated the total number of European personnel deployed between headquarters in Larissa, Greece, and at sea at about 1,000.

“The risk is relatively low because warships are well equipped. But it's not a zero risk. It's a conflict against quasi-state actors,” he added.

More needs to be done for greater co-ordination between partners to avoid a repeat of the January 28 German-US incident.

“There is a high risk of friendly fire because each mission has a different chain of command,” said Mr Marrone.

Indian Navy in dramatic sea rescue of True Confidence crew

Indian Navy in dramatic sea rescue of True Confidence crew

Speaking on Friday at the launch of a Cyprus-headed maritime aid operation for Gaza, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that she was in regular contact with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and King Abdallah II of Jordan.

“The situation in the Red Sea is particularly concerning with maritime security deteriorating day after day and critical infrastructure damaged due to repeated Houthi attacks,” said Ms von der Leyen.

Navies deployed in the Red Sea must be ready for a “long-term commitment”, said Mr Marrone.

“Even if the war in Gaza will decrease in intensity, there will still be tensions,” he said, pointing to the Houthis links to Iran.

“This is more than short-term crisis management,” he said.

“Europeans will need to foresee rotational warships and rotational troops to make sure they have stocks of naval ammunition – missiles, torpedo, artillery shells. That entails a certain political and military effort.”

A representative for the EU External Action Service did not answer questions about how long Aspides is expected to last or the total number of its personnel.

“Any decision is then taken by unanimity of all member states,” the representative said.

“The member states are also equipping the mission based on their decision and capacities in line with the mandate and the needs of the mission.”

Updated: March 10, 2024, 3:24 AM