Battle stations for EU task force in Red Sea

European fleet of six warships has been in action three times fending off Houthi drones attacks

Italian destroyer Caio Duilio intercepted a Houthi drone on Saturday as part of the EU's protective force in the Red Sea. Alamy
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The EU flotilla ordered to protect shipping transiting the Red Sea has been at the heart of the action after crews were called to battle stations to defend against Houthi attacks.

French, German and Italian warships opened fire on Houthi drones launched at the fleet of European frigates and destroyers, which began Operation Aspides, the Greek name for “shield”, two weeks ago.

The task force of six warships is working separately from the US-led fleet that has bombed the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, something that has raised concerns over co-ordination.

The fleet has already experienced several attacks, with the most recent on the Italian navy’s Caio Duilio destroyer that shot down an attacking Houthi drone on Saturday.

Last Wednesday, the Hessen was the target of two drones that got to within about 3km of the German frigate when it opened fired, with a short-range missile shooting down one drone before the warship used its 76mm main gun to destroy the other.

Despite emphasising an entirely defensive posture, the EU ships were drawn into action almost immediately when the operation began on February 19 after a French warship intercepted two attack drones.

“Clearly the EU ships are putting themselves in the right place, between the missiles and drones and the ships that they’re trying to protect,” said former Royal Navy commander Tom Sharpe. “That’s fine as long as they deconflict with what the US and UK ships are doing.”

However, the pitfalls of having two separate fleets on the same task were highlighted when on Tuesday last week the Hessen’s radar picked up a large drone.

Fearing a threat, the warship opened fire with two advanced long-range SM-2 missiles but missed due to a technical fault, the German navy reported. It is understood to be the first time the German navy has opened fire on a hostile target since the Second World War.

It later transpired that the target was a US MQ-9 Reaper drone that had turned off its transponder. Communications between the US and Germans had also failed to work.

But the incident has highlighted the confusion of operating two western navies in the same waters.

Cdr Sharpe said the lack of co-ordination was both “insane and dangerous”, which the Reaper incident had highlighted, and could be a threat to airliners.

“We've got various ships doing their own thing, plugged into their own networks,” he told The National. “Aspides should essentially join with Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is also entirely defensive.

“That would make it a lot more effective in terms of asset management, logistics support and surface warfare management in protecting Red Sea shipping.”

Concerns over co-ordinating the two fleets, whose countries are all part of Nato but have a separate chain of command, have also been raised by the International Chamber of Shipping that represents 80 per cent of the world's merchant tonnage.

“Our questions about co-ordination across the various operations in the region have partly been answered,” the ICS’s John Stawpert told The National.

“But our biggest concern is clarity to shipping in terms of reporting of incidents. We would like to see a single phone number concept for a master to contact in an incident and are working with various militaries to realise that.”

Despite the Reaper drone incident, he suggested that there was now “good communication and co-operation between the tactical level” between the fleets.

EU ministers have been keen to emphasise that the mission is purely defensive and will not target Yemen itself.

“The rules of operation are strictly self-defence,” an EU official said.

This is in contrast to the to fleet of a US aircraft carrier, other warships and British destroyer, along with RAF jets based in Cyprus, that have struck Houthi missile and command centres on several occasions since January in Operation Poseidon Archer.

The Red Sea is one of the world’s major trade arteries, carrying a third of global container traffic, as well as 9 million barrels a day of oil shipments, a tenth of global demand.

There has been a large drop in traffic in waterway since the Houthis began their bombardments in support of Hamas after the October 7 attacks on Israel.

The additional six warships have been welcomed by the ICS as increasing the “protective dome” over the region, as well as intelligence gathering.

“This has increased reassurance to shipping because there's now more assets that would be able to come to your aid,” said Mr Stawpert.

Updated: March 04, 2024, 2:49 PM