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We must be clear about our Red Sea response

January 16, 2023 | Jennifer Parker

Image: A RAF Typhoon aircraft returns to berth at RAF Akrortiri following a strike mission on Yemen's Houthi rebels. Getty Images.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong is visiting the Middle East this week. Presumably by accident, rather than by design, Wong’s visit coincides with the one-month anniversary of the establishment of the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian and comes days after Australia supported the US and British-led strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen.

While finding a solution to ending the conflict in Gaza must be the immediate priority for Middle East security, avoiding further flashpoints in the Middle East must also be on Wong’s agenda. The consistent and reckless Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping since November is one of these flashpoints.

Two months ago, the Houthi militia began an unrestricted campaign against merchant shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Despite the Houthis’ desire to link this campaign against seafarers to the conflict in Gaza, they have targeted ships linked to more than 50 countries, continuing to target seafarers from across the globe, despite international condemnation.

The Red Sea is of course a vital economic trade route, but what is happening in the Red Sea, and the international response, also sends an important message to those who may wish to threaten maritime security and freedom of navigation across the globe, including in the South China Sea.

And they will be watching, not only how a minor player in maritime affairs such as the Houthis can have such a dramatic impact on global trade, but also what capabilities the US and its allies and partners respond with. This includes Australia’s subdued response.

Personnel and joint statements are important but, in the end, they cannot defend merchant ships or protect seafarers.

The US establishment of the allied coalition’s Operation Prosperity Guardian in December in response to Houthi attempts to blockade the Red Sea was an important development, a defensive operation aimed at protecting merchant shipping transiting this critical waterway. The original operation press release flagged 10 participants, which now reportedly has grown to more than 20. Most recently, Singapore has agreed to support the operation with personnel.

A key challenge of Operation Prosperity Guardian is the lack of assets to protect shipping, with most participants agreeing only to send personnel support. Notable exceptions to this are Greece and Denmark, which have committed to sending ships, although the timeframe for this is unclear.

Sri Lanka also has recently agreed to support the operation and committed to sending a ship to the region, and although what that ship will do and where it will operate given Sri Lankan Navy capabilities is unclear, the sentiment is important.

Australia declined to send a ship to support the operation, choosing to support the headquarters with additional personnel instead. Australia was a founding member of the Combined Maritime Forces in 2001. It was also one of the few countries that joined the call to establish the International Maritime Security Construct in response to Iranian attacks on and seizures of merchant shipping during the 2019-20 Gulf crisis, sending HMAS Toowoomba to protect merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz in 2020. Given this history, Australia’s decision not to send a ship is sending a message.

Defence of shipping and convoy operations are ship-intensive operations; all the goodwill in the world will not protect a merchant ship from an incoming missile. Australia must be careful to avoid the perception that its lack of commitment of a ship to this operation is not interpreted as a lack of capability.

That’s a dangerous perception given obvious regional tensions continuing to manifest in the maritime domain, most notably the recent unsafe and unprofessional actions of a People’s Liberation Army naval destroyer towards HMAS Toowoomba in November, resulting in injuries to Australian sailors.

With a paucity of ships and a ratcheting up of attacks by the Houthis, the mission in the Red Sea to protect merchant shipping could remain defensive for only so long. Defending one of the world’s busiest waterways was always going to be unsustainable without a transition to offensive action.

Following a UN Security Council resolution condemning Houthi actions in the Red Sea, and noting the right of states to defend their vessels from attacks, the US and Britain undertook strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen.

The US was at pains to highlight that these strikes were not part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, likely because not all members of that operation were supportive of offensive action. While Australia clearly was, the exact nature of the support Australia provided could only have been limited.

One month on from its establishment, the future of Operation Prosperity Guardian is unclear. The lack of assets to protect shipping and challenges in destroying the Houthis’ capability, despite US and British resolve, make it difficult to assess when shipping through the Red Sea will return to normal levels.

What is clear is that the maritime domain, and freedom of navigation within the maritime domain, will continue to be increasingly contested. Demonstrating not only the resolve but also the capability to respond to those who may wish to threaten these principles will be crucial to protecting Australia’s strategic interests.

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