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Operation Prosperity Guardian: Use it or lose it

With military budgets under strain and the Royal Navy lacking sufficient personnel to crew its new frigates, don’t rely on infinite government largesse

Say thank you to the navies that are working together to keep the Red Sea open for business. Not to mention the thousands of seafarers putting themselves in harm’s way to ensure the world keeps trading

WHEN an explosion rocked Japanese tanker M.Star (IMO: 9515436) in the Strait of Hormuz in 2010, the authorities in the United Arab Emirates were unusually quick to attribute the blast to a freak wave caused by an earthquake.

Or it could have been a mine left over from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Or a whale strike, or the impact of a floating container. But it absolutely definitely wasn’t the result of a suicide attack by an explosives-laden speedboat, the industry was reassured.

Oddly enough, the photographic evidence clearly showed a concave dent consistent with just such a tactic, which had previously been deployed on Euronav VLCC Limburg off the coast of Yemen in 2002.

Most shipping professionals at the time were sceptical of the official line, and the cynicism turned out to be justified. It has since been conclusively shown that this was a terrorist strike.

What the M.Star and Limburg casualties highlight is the difficulty of protecting vessels against asymmetric warfare of the type being deployed by Houthi insurgents in the Red Sea right now.

In December, many voices in the shipping industry — from BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping to Lloyd’s List — called for the deployment of naval assets to ensure the continued flow of trade this key waterway.

In January, we have it, in the shape of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a US-led coalition designed to counter Houthi threats to maritime commerce with Israel. Collectively, we should be more grateful than we may appear to be to outside observers.

Despite the naval rollout, many liner companies, most prominently Maersk, have decided to give the key waterway a swerve and divert east-west voyages round the Cape of Good Hope, despite the additional 10 days that can add to transit times.

Cynics will point out that this is soaking up a lot of excess capacity. This has the happy corollary of pushing rates somewhat higher than where there would normally be at this time of year, while enabling transit disruption surcharges of up to $450 a box. What’s not to like?

That said, the Red Sea is not redundant and the majority of owners and charterers are not rerouting. Risk assessments are not uniform and calculations vary from sector to sector. Decisions are being made on a case-by-case basis, with marine insurance playing its usual unsung but invaluable role.

War risk rates have this week softened slightly but have not dramatically diminished. Market sources cite a lack of clarity on the details of OPG, as well as a slightly diminished attack frequency.

But from a statistical point of view, there remains more chance of a car carrier fire being caused by lithium ion batteries than hijack by Yemeni Islamists.

The latest crisis in the Middle East has so far had little meaningful impact on oil prices. There has been no sign of disruption to flows and traders figure that there is enough crude on hand to deal with any supply hiccups.

Don’t take that for a long-term prediction, though. We could be just one missile away from a very different scenario. As Libya demonstrated this week, output can fall away at any time.

Wednesday’s twin bombings at a commemoration service for a military commander in Iran, another major producer of crude, will add to jitters.

The technology available to insurgents has moved on since the Limburg and M.Star era, of course. Speedboats are out and drones are in. Missiles priced at millions of dollars can take out these $20,000 devices. But to mangle a metaphor, that’s not a lot of prevention of bang for the buck.

Yet military budgets are under strain everywhere, not least on account of the sizeable sums of support for Ukraine. Britain’s Royal Navy has so few recruits that it is having to decommission two warships simply to be able to crew its new class of Type 26 frigates.

We know no better than anybody else what happens next. But the disruption has been ongoing for over a month and a quick fix looks unlikely.

The question is whether this effort is financially sustainable in the long run, especially when populist politicians can point out that big name liner companies are not taking advantage of the protection that is being furnished at considerable expense.

Remember also that every ship that does transit the Red Sea either way is carrying not just a cargo but typically some two dozen human beings, who are putting themselves in harm’s way to keep the world trading.

Combined Task Force 153 is doing what it can. There is no guarantee it will succeed every time.


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