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Industry associations release updated guidelines for commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

MariTrace, 6 February 2024

On 5 February seven industry associations updated their security guidelines for commercial ships navigating the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Why have industry guidelines been updated now?

The timing of the new guidelines by BIMCO, CLIA, ICS, IMCA, INTERCARGO, INTERTANKO and OCIMF takes place in the context of ongoing attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the most recent of which was a missile attack on an oil tanker, MARLIN LUANDA, on 26 January which started a fire onboard (all crew were confirmed safe on 27 January) and two attacks on 6 February that fortunately did not result in damage to either vessel. Attacks launched from Yemen are continuing despite military intervention by UK and US in the form of airstrikes on infrastructure believed to be aiding Ansar Allah in their selection of targets. Commercial traffic in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has declined after mid December and commercial firms continue to find alternative routes avoiding the Red Sea, adding considerable cost to routine transits.

Count of vessels in the Red Sea (south of 18N) and Gulf of Aden (west of 60E), November 2023 to February 2024. Source: MariTrace.

The threats to shipping do not (yet) fall within the legal definition of interstate conflict. Combined Maritime Forces patrol vessels and others are operating in a surveillance and protective role, not a war-fighting role. The new guidelines are careful to remind ship operators that the ship’s master retains ultimate responsibility for the safety and security of vessel and crew.

At the time of writing, the latest incidents suggest that the targeting of vessels by Ansar Allah (widely referred to in global news media as ‘the Houthi’) remains unclear. On 9 December 2023, the Houthi had warned they would consider all ships with links to Israel as legitimate targets. This was later revised to include all ships that have visited, or may visit, ports in Israel’s territorial waters; and most recently, all ships connected with interests in the UK and the US. The Houthi are believed to be supported by weapons and information from Iran. However, the accuracy of their targeting information is in doubt and it is possible that they are relying on outdated or erroneous commercial vessel data in the selection of their targets. The revised guidelines assess that the risk of misidentification remains likely and the threat level to ships that have any link with Israel, the UK or the US remains high.

Where are the threats to commercial ships coming from?

Threats to vessels currently include direct strike by anti-ship missiles, targeting by water-borne improvised explosive devices, belligerent drone activity and mines near to port entrances on Yemen’s coast. Drones and missile attacks have occurred in the hours of darkness and during daylight. For onboard watchkeepers, visually detecting an approaching drone or small craft at night is very difficult. Ships may also be at risk of attack mounted via helicopters during daylight hours. The guidelines also state that unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) have been reported, but so far not in connection with attacks on commercial ships. The targets selected in the airstrikes launched by the US and the UK on 11 January, 22 January and 3 February are not fully disclosed in official reports; however, open-source data indicates their probable locations, from which the threat perimeter can be inferred.

Threats to commercial shipping are from missile and drone launching sites in the western part of Yemen and western area of the Gulf of Aden. Source: MariTrace analysis based on open sources.

Presence of Combined Maritime Forces in the region

At the time of writing, two operations are underway: joint military strike operations launched from UK and US ships with support from six other countries; and Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is a US-led effort distinct from military operations and intended to ensure freedom of navigation. The Indian Navy is actively patrolling the IRTC under a continuing regional security remit. A Japanese destroyer (JS AKEBONO) has also operated in the area around Djibouti during January. At least six US Navy warships , one French Navy and one UK Royal Navy warship are currently known to be in the area. Joint strikes led by the US and the UK were launched on 11 January, 22 January and 3 February and to date, the joint patrol are thought to have intercepted or struck at least three boats, ten ground-based military objects, two radar sites and 39 anti-ship missile launchers. Battle damage assessment is ongoing and the results of the joint actions are yet to be seen.

The US Navy, CENTCOM and CMF overseeing Operation Prosperity Guardian have advised that the threat level to merchant ships between 12N and 16N remains very high, especially to any with links to Israel, US, UK. If contacted on VHF by ‘Yemeni Navy’ and instructed to change course to Al Hodeidah or other ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, ships are advised to: (1) ignore the VHF call and continue if safe to do so; (ii) call for a coalition warship on VHF 16; and (iii) describe the incident in movement reporting to UKMTO and NAVCENT NCAGS. Ships transiting with AIS off should provide position reports to NAVCENT NCAGS and UKMTP every 2 to 3 hours to ensure military aware of presence.

Voyage planning

With reference to ICS best management practices (BMP5), the revised guidelines remind ship operators who are planning a passage through Red Sea south of 18N and Gulf of Aden to conduct complete ship and voyage specific threat and risk assessment including advice from their flag state. The revised guidelines augment standard voyage planning advice with additional measures for commercial vessels that have recently called at Israeli ports, suggesting that information released about vessel movements should be restricted (i.e. do not allow crew to post on social media). Ship owners and operators who have recently acquired a ship are reminded to check their data for the past three years and update their AIS information to ensure current ownership data is correct: outdated information could be used in targeting. Private vessels (e.g. yachts) are not covered in the revised guidelines and should undertake independent risk assessment at the advice of their insurers and security teams.

AIS on or off?

The revised guidelines point out that, in the incidents observed to date, the outcome does not appear dependent on whether AIS is on or off during transit through the high risk area: ships have been attacked in both modes. IMO Circular A1106(29) para 22 states that, “If the master believes that the continual operation of AIS might compromise the safety and security of his/her ship or where security incidents are imminent, the AIS may be switched off.” Turning off AIS may make it harder for attackers to track ships but it also makes it more difficult for Navy / CMF patrols to render assistance to ships that are experiencing an active threat or that are under attack. Events of the past two months show that limiting AIS information or switching AIS off is unlikely to prevent an attack. Ships are likely tracked using multiple source and turning off AIS will not prevent detection. The updated guidelines suggests that ship operators may wish to limit AIS information to mandatory fields only and omit next port of call data.

Routing considerations

The Bab el Mandeb Strait is narrow: ships passing through the Strait in the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) are within 10NM from the Yemeni coastline. At the time of writing the Maritime Security Transit Corridor (MSTC), introduced in 2017 (collectively, the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), Bab el Mandeb TSS, TSS west of Hanish Islands and a two way route connecting IRTC (established in 2009) and Bab el Mandeb TSS) remains unchanged. Ship owners and operators are advised to regularly evaluate risks to their ships including navigation and collision avoidance and to plan accordingly. The possible consequences of deactivating AIS, LRIT and radar should be carefully assessed. Commercial ships have been observed utilising a ‘waiting area’ north of 18N in the Red Sea and east of 48E in the Gulf of Aden. Reference US Maritime Alert 2024-001B and separately to the industry revised guidelines, US CENTCOM recommends that U.S.-flagged and U.S.-owned commercial vessels remain North of 18N in the Red Sea or East of 46E in the Gulf of Aden, until further notice.

Routing considerations in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. Graphics: MariTrace.

Onboard measures – ship hardening

Hardening measures described in BMP5 can be applied onboard particularly at locations on deck where attackers from armed helicopters could land. To date, the use of citadels / safe areas has proven to be successful in preventing hijackers from taking control of ships and provides valuable time for Naval vessels to reach the area to provide assistance. Citadel use requires careful preparation and training and understanding of implications for operations: crew are advised to refer to BMP5 guidelines. Tankers should ensure that the inert gas systems are available for immediate use at all times while transiting the area. For owners / operators considering the use of armed guards, a complete risk assessment is required in particular managing rules of engagement: the lawful use of armed guards in an area of armed conflict by a non-state actor is extremely complex.

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 to use vessel tracking features in MariTrace and enquire about risk assessment for your specific operational needs, please contact us.

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