The White House announced the potential establishment of a naval task force to accompany commercial ships in the Red Sea. This proposition comes in the wake of three vessels being targeted by missiles launched by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The Yemeni government, which Saudi Arabia supports, received an invitation from the United States of America to participate in a multinational military coalition to confront the attacks of the Houthi group in the Red Sea and the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait. A Yemeni government source was quoted: “The Yemeni government intends to participate, with a formation of its naval forces and coast guard, in a multinational operations force to protect navigation in the Red Sea.”
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the United States has been actively discussing the formation of these escorts with allies, although concrete plans still need to be finalized. He described this initiative as a logical response to the threats.
According to the U.S. military, ballistic missiles launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels hit three commercial ships. Simultaneously, a U.S. warship intercepted and destroyed three drones in self-defense during a prolonged attack. These events signify an escalation in a series of maritime assaults in the Middle East linked to the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
These naval forces will not be the first of their kind in the region, as the establishment of a joint naval force was announced in 2022. The Joint Task Force (153) is considered one of the joint mechanisms to enhance regional security and stability and confront threats of all kinds. It is part of the Combined Maritime Force (CMF), which was established in 2001 to confront the threat of international terrorism with cooperation between 12 countries before it later expanded to establish the Joint Task Force “153” on April 17, 2022, which is concerned with maritime security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, includes 39 member states including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Emirates, Jordan and the United States of America, and its headquarters is located in Bahrain.
The attacks by the Houthis pose a significant threat to the traffic flow along one of the world’s essential maritime routes, consequently impacting global trade on a broader scale. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, approximately 8.8 million barrels of oil traverse through the Red Sea and the narrow Bab al-Mandab Strait; 30% of the world’s oil cargo passes through the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait every year, falling within the Houthis’ operational range. This particular route is one of the most critical chokepoints in global trade. These ships are laden with oil and natural gas sourced from the Gulf and destined for Europe, the United States, and China.
Moreover, the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait form a crucial pathway for overall commercial shipping, facilitating the transportation of millions of tons of agricultural produce and various goods to markets worldwide annually, accounting for approximately 12% of global trade. While the Houthis directly execute the attacks, the ultimate responsibility lies with their Iranian supporters, according to the West and the US, suggesting that the group acts under their influence and guidance.
The announcement of the formation of this force comes in security contexts that combine traditional and non-traditional threats and to keep pace with political developments and regional and international crises that pushed the United States to take action to confront their repercussions. Increasing security challenges and international competition in the region, as the Red Sea region has increasingly become a scene for illegal activities and acts of piracy that threaten global navigation and for the interventions of regional and international powers whose competition in this region has increased. There are several factors behind a situation like this, most notably the lack of stability in most of the Red Sea countries and the security gap left by the absence of influential regional entities or institutions that regulate relations and cooperation regarding the use of the seas and the issue of maritime security. The events of the Al-Aqsa Flood also affected the existing situation in that region. All ships owned by Israel have become at risk of being hijacked or targeted, as has happened on several occasions recently, and this would cast a shadow on the Israeli economy, which began to suffer since the military operation in Gaza early last October.
The old conflict over maritime competition and control of water bodies, which began a long time ago, has resurfaced again, and this time, its stage will be the Red Sea and the focus of attention. In general, it can be said that the formation of this force suggests Washington’s determination to play a greater role in the region. Therefore, it is moving towards that square to become more effective and in control of the maritime scene than before. This means besieging competing powers whose opportunities will be less and whose activities will be more difficult.