A picture taken during a tour organized by Yemen's Houthi rebels on November 22, 2023, shows the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by Houthi fighters two days earlier, at a port on the Red Sea in Yemen's province of Hodeida.

A picture taken during a tour organized by Yemen's Houthi rebels on November 22, 2023, shows the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by Houthi fighters two days earlier, at a port on the Red Sea in Yemen's province of Hodeida. AFP via Getty Images

Red Sea protection effort faces early hurdles

Though the Pentagon says 20 nations have joined Operation Prosperity Guardian, almost half have preferred to remain unnamed.

Since October, Houthi militants have launched missile and drone attacks at U.S. forces in the region and Israeli targets in response to Tel Aviv’s military operations in Gaza, and in the weeks since more than 15 commercial ships have come under attack from Iranian-backed Yemeni militant group. And on Nov. 19, the Bahamas-flagged commercial vessel Galaxy Leader was boarded via helicopter and hijacked before being taken to the Yemeni port of Hodeidah.

These attacks have led many shipping giants to reroute hundreds of container ships away from the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, opting to round South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope instead. The reroute adds 10 to 14 days of travel, increasing the transit time by up to 40%. As ships have abandoned one of the world’s most prominent waterways, freight rates and war insurance costs have skyrocketed.

On Dec. 18, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational security mission to ensure safe transit through the region, under the aegis of the existing Combined Maritime Forces’ Task Force 153. Though the Pentagon claimed a united effort made up of 20 nations, commitment from allies has seemed trepidatious, with almost half preferring to remain unnamed. Some named partners will only contribute minimal personnel, with Norway sending up to 10 staff officers and the Netherlands offering only two. While the Dept. of Defense stated its expectations for the coalition to grow over time, at first glance, the group lacks named participation from several key allies, including Turkey, Germany, Egypt, South Korea, and Japan. Some partners such as Italy, India, and France have opted to send ships to the region on their own initiative, distancing themselves from the U.S. umbrella. While these deployments may contribute to Prosperity Guardian’s ultimate success, they show that even some close allies are hesitant to join the U.S. effort publicly.

While Washington has hoped that the new operation could have similar success to international anti-piracy efforts in Somalia, there are clear differences in the Houthi threat to shipping. Namely, the operations in Somalia received a clear international mandate, with all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council offering support, while no such coalition has manifested in the wake of the current situation. This owes to the intrinsically political nature of the Houthis’ attacks, with their express citation of the Israeli operation in Gaza as the cause for their escalation. With the U.S. offering firm support to Tel Aviv during the war, many states are deeply hesitant to join an initiative that can be seen as taking a partisan side in the conflict. This is particularly true of Middle Eastern and North African states with broad public support for Palestine, and European countries with significant pro-Palestinian electorates.

Despite some failures, Prosperity Guardian has still managed to attain some of its early goals. It has put together a force that, along with associated operations from different nations, may be enough to deter Houthi attacks and limit their impacts on international shipping. On Dec. 24, Danish shipping giant Maersk Line, citing the U.S.-led task force, announced its intention to resume some shipping through the Red Sea, with other firms such as France’s CMA CGM beginning a cautious return as well. If Prosperity Guardian can ensure commercial confidence in the route, it could prove successful, though irrespective of its gains, the lack of public support should concern U.S. policymakers.

The question also remains as to how long the U.S. can maintain a significant deployment in the region as new crises emerge and stretch Washington’s resources, potentially enabling a resurgence of Houthi attacks in the future. Without persistent long-term commitment from multiple partners, freedom of navigation and safe transit of the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea cannot be guaranteed. The lack of a clear international mandate and reluctance from key allies pose challenges to the sustainability of Prosperity Guardian and the operation may require significant corrections to reach policymakers’ aspirations.