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Navies are coming to shipping’s aid. Will it work?

Neither area protection nor convoys will be easy to pull off

Shipping received an international response with the launch of Operation Prosperity Guardian. But what it will look like, and how much comfort the industry can therefore take, is still far from clear

THE US will lead a group of countries in a naval taskforce dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect shipping in the Red Sea. But will it work?

The International Chamber of Shipping welcomed the move in a statement on Tuesday, saying it expected the taskforce to have “a significant impact on the Houthis’ ability to target and attack merchant shipping”.

But it is not clear just how the unimaginatively named operation will work, and what it will do differently. US, French and British ships have helped ships attacked in the past week, which already operate under the multinational Combined Maritime Forces. That force even has its own Task Force 153, focused on Red Sea security.

They have been successful so far, with no crew injured and little damage to ships.

Risk Intelligence analyst Dirk Siebels told Lloyd’s List said a focus on airborne drone or missile attacks could tempt the Houthis to return to attacking ships with drone boats, which have been highly effective in the past.

Navies can intercept drone boats, but they need to be close to ships to protect them. Drone boats are also hard to spot given there is so much legitimate small-boat traffic in the area.

In a lengthy blog post, Siebels said convoys were another option, but this meant ships having to slow down.

“When you can transit the Red Sea at 20 knots on a containership, do you want to slow down to 12 knots to join a convoy with a couple of bulk carriers?” he said.

“Moreover, merchant ships would be even more concentrated than they are now, creating a gathering of potential targets.

“When an aerial drone swarm then exhausts the air-defence system of the escorting naval vessel, what does the response against more drones look like?”

Large-scale area defence requires a big radar and many missiles, which European ships may not have.

Air defence costs money, too. “Shooting down a $20,000 drone with a missile that costs north of $500,000 is not a good look for the defence budget of most countries,” Siebels added.

The international nature of shipping begs the question of whether US ships would receive priority for protection.

The fog of war is making it hard to sift through incident warnings by the UK Maritime Trade Operations, a Royal Navy outfit that reports pirate and other attacks, without providing much detail about them.

The force has had relatively little to do for the past five years. It would be surprising if it has the resources to keep up with the new workload.

Siebels said with so many small boats in the area, and so many understandably jumpy seafarers, incidents will be reported that would not normally be reported. Fishermen often carry firearms in the area, and the coast guards of Yemen and Eritrea do not look like normal coast guards.

One incident reported an attempted boarding, and a ship chased by two small boats. It later turned out the boats were never closer than two nautical miles from the ship. 

A big shipowner approached by Lloyd’s List about an attack said it was not sure if it was even targeted. A missile landed in far-off waters without the ship noticing until the Houthis later claimed the attack.

But the attacks do not need to always hit their targets to deter a big share of maritime traffic. Container trade to Israel could be hit if more ships follow Evergreen and OOCL in stopping services to and from the import-dependent country.

What can shipowners do? Well-drilled crews and quick firefighting helps, as the Hapag-Lloyd boxship Al Jasrah (IMO: 9732321) showed on Friday, December 15.

“A drone is not going to sink a vessel but a fire might have much more serious ramifications,” Siebels said.

Having the means to quickly replace the crew of an attacked ship would help it resume service and care for the crew, who may well be traumatised by their experience.

The US was set to meet with governments on Tuesday and said more details of Operation Prosperity Guardian would be revealed soon.

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