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Elevated security risks in the Red Sea challenge collective response

MariTrace, 8 January 2024

Snapshot of laden cargo (blue) and tanker (red) vessels underway in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, 5 January 2024. Red icons: incidents from November 2023 to January 2024. Source: MariTrace.

A joint statement by the US and thirteen other countries, released on 3 January, appears to issue a final warning to the Houthi to cease their attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea and to release detained vessels and their crews - or face "consequences". A White House spokesman noted that any potential action “would be done in a “very smart way" that avoids prolonged, direct conflict with Iran. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, head of U.S. Navy operations in the Middle East, pointed out that any military action would be separate from Operation Prosperity Guardian, announced on 19 December. On 4 January, an armed unmanned surface vessel launched from Yemen approached US Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea, to within a few miles before detonating - possibly in response to Tuesday's joint statement. This incident marks the first time that the Houthi have utilised an unmanned surface vessel in their current campaign, with the last known use occurring in January 2017 in a strike on Royal Saudi Navy frigate Al Madinah. The Houthi are thought to have at least four types of ‘Tawfan’ Water Borne Improvised Explosive Devices in service, all developed after 2016 and based on converted patrol craft that were earlier donated to the Yemeni Coast Guard by the UAE.

While governments and regional security alliances work out a commensurate response to the recent phase of attacks in the Red Sea - which began on 19 November with the hijacking of GALAXY LEADER - commercial shipping costs and insurance rates have been severely affected. Shipping companies responded to the elevated risks in mid December by diverting vessels on alternative routes. An announcement by global shipping giant Maersk confirming temporary suspension of transits through the Red Sea was revised on 2 January to indefinite suspension, following an attack on 30 December on MAERSK HANGZHOU and further updated on 5 January. Oil companies have responded similarly, with BP among the first to suspend all Red Sea transits, effective 18 December. There is, as yet, no joint statement by shipping companies.

Despite the evident increased risks, there does not yet appear to have been a significant drop in commercial traffic that correlates with the attacks in the Red Sea - with one exception: container ships. MariTrace analysed transit data for seven vessel types (Bulk Carriers, Chemical Tankers, Container Ships, General Dry Cargo, LNG Carriers, LPG Carriers and Tankers) for the year to December 2023. Count of container ships in the Red Sea (south of 18N) declines significantly after 16 December.

Count of container ships in the Gulf of Aden / Red Sea, H2 2023. Source: MariTrace.

Comparing the count of tankers to containerships that are generally observed in the area, there are about 60% more tankers in the region in a typical year than containerships. Where we have been able to identify the type of vessels being targeted, we see more than twice as many containerships involved in incidents than we do tankers. While tankers might appear to be an easy target (owing to their size, relative lack of defences and cargo), research following the Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq war concluded that the ability of non-state actors to directly affect global trade and power relations by attacking tankers is limited. Attacks on tankers in 2019 did not succeed in sinking vessels. Weapons - even improvised UUVs - are expensive. The Houthi may have concluded that the effect that may be achieved by intimidating cargo vessels is more cost-effective than targeting oil tankers.

Attacks in the Red Sea are generally thought to be a spillover effect of the ongoing war in Gaza. While supply chain disruption is - as yet - unlikely to reach the levels experienced during the COVID pandemic, the increased insurance and voyage costs, particularly for cargo vessels, are likely to affect the UK, US and European consumer goods market, exacerbate global inflation and elevate food prices in the UK within the coming few months. Recognising the threats to freedom of navigation, regional stability and the global economy, a meeting of the UN Security Council on 3 January reiterated a call for de-escalation “to ensure the safety of our seafarers, freedom of navigation and stability of supply chains”. Formulating and delivering a collective response will likely test international security alliances and rule of law - while also challenging commercial and government actors to jointly serve as security guarantors for commercial vessels transiting this increasingly volatile region.

No AI was used in the writing of this article. MariTrace analysis and reporting is based on open sources; all information is human-curated and assessed via multi-phase, structured methods using industry-standard techniques to check for provenance, bias and accuracy.

To discover how MariTrace can support risk assessment for your specific operational needs, please contact us.

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