On November 19, the Bahamas-flagged commercial vessel Galaxy Leader was boarded via helicopter and hijacked before being taken to the Yemeni port of Hodeidah. The Iranian-backed Yemeni militant group Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, claimed responsibility for the attack. Since October, the group has launched missile and drone attacks at U.S. forces in the region and Israeli targets in response to Tel Aviv’s ongoing military operations in Gaza, and in the weeks since over 15 commercial ships have come under attack from Houthi militants.
In the wake of the Houthi attacks, many shipping giants announced the rerouting of hundreds of container ships away from the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, opting to traverse South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope instead. The reroute adds an expected 10 to 14 days of travel, increasing the transit time by up to 40%. Consequently, freight rates and war insurance costs skyrocketed, as ships abandoned one of the world’s most prominent waterways.
In response, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on December 18 the formation of 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 like 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 future corrections to reach policymakers’ intended aspirations.
- Garamone, Jim. “Ryder Gives More Detail on How Operation Prosperity Guardian Will Work.” U.S. Dept. of Defense, 21 Dec. 2023.
- Sharma, Gaurav. “Will Operation Prosperity Guardian Restore Confidence In Red Sea Transit?” Forbes, 27 Dec. 2023.
- Stavridis, James. “US-Led Naval Force Might Not End Houthi Ship Attacks.” Bloomberg, 19 Dec. 2023.
- U.S. Dept. of Defense. “Statement from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Ensuring Freedom of Navigation in the Red Sea.” U.S. Dept. of Defense, 18 Dec. 2023.