It is unclear when there will be a lasting increase in Red Sea shipping traffic

2024/05/31 at 9:56 PM

Judging by the effectiveness, the actions of warships of international naval forces in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to protect merchant ships from attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels can be assessed controversially. Negatively because they did not lead to the restoration of normal maritime traffic along this route. Positively because there is no escalation of the attackers’ actions. Owing to this, some goods moved between Asia and Europe still take this shortest route. Houthi attacks are already being recorded weekly.

Source: Pixabay

As a result, maritime trade did not stop, despite the threat. Although the longer route is more expensive, consumers pay slightly more per unit of goods. Maritime transport has proven once again that it is extremely efficient and therefore cheap. Freight rates have stabilised as shipping lines become accustomed to the “new normal”.

In turn, in the opinion of Dr Dirk Siebels, senior analyst at the Danish security intelligence company Risk Intelligence, the navies were able to demonstrate their capabilities in an operational context. However, success at the tactical level is very different from the strategic level. This would assume a return to normal levels of trade traffic in the Red Sea. The problem is that this requires mainly diplomatic action, and this process is still destabilised by some countries that have direct or indirect influence on the Houthi’s actions. It is therefore impossible to predict when there will be a lasting increase in shipping traffic in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Single attacks

One of the last recorded Houthi attacks was an attempt on 19 May to shell a Panamanian-flagged tanker belonging to a Greek shipowner. As reported by Ambrey, a consulting company dealing with maritime security, on 23May, reports from the captains of two unnamed ships about missile attacks were received. They were located 68 nautical miles southwest of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah and about 33 miles south of Mokha. In the second case, the missile hit the water 300 metres behind the ship’s stern.

Calculated risk?

Compared to early December, the number of merchant ships passing through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait has decreased significantly. Most large container carriers diverted their ships around the Cape of Good Hope, both for fear of possible loss of their vessels and cargo, as well as for more expensive insurance. However, not everyone.

In other transport segments, especially the bulk carrier and tanker markets, there is much less concentration than in the container industry. Therefore, many companies of various sizes, calculating the level of risk and profits, decide to sail through the Red Sea. As a result, traffic data is relatively stable. Since mid-January, they have ranged between 40 and 50 per cent of transits through Bab-el-Mandeb, compared to the same period last year.

Assessment of warship operations

Operations of international naval forces in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are hampered by various shortcomings, says the quoted Danish expert. At the tactical and operational level, problems included ammunition shortages, lack of coordination between allied countries and equipment shortages. This was the result of starting the operation under time pressure to prepare and plan countermeasures.

Moreover, cooperation between naval forces and merchant shipping is limited and often confusing in implementation. For example, as much as 80 per cent of commercial ships, which were targeted by Houthi attacks, did not turn off their AIS identification system, despite the navy’s recommendations to do so. Despite these negative media reports, naval forces can also point to a large number of intercepted missiles and drones, as well as dozens of commercial ship escorts. “However, it would be unreasonable to expect no errors or problems. At the same time, it is at least questionable whether current naval operations can be successful at a strategic level,” emphasises Dirk Siebels.

Politics gets mixed up

Politicians also faced a dilemma: how to respond militarily to Houthi attacks? Should military operations be purely defensive or also offensive? Will strikes against Houthi targets lead to another escalation in the Middle East? There is still no final agreement on the answers to these and related questions. The U.S. government launched Operation Prosperity Guardian in December, first of a defensive nature, and in February also attacking Houthi ground infrastructure facilities.

Despite its multinational nature, countries in the region with a vested interest in ending the attacks quickly, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were not willing to contribute. In turn, only a few European countries chose not to participate in the U.S.-led operation and ultimately agreed to Operation Aspides, launched in February – with a more stringent defence focus. In effect, there were two command centres in the same region: MSCHOA and UKMTO.


Allied naval missions can be high-value operations, especially from the perspective of sailors who rarely have a choice about whether to sail through the Red Sea, an expert says. However, many previous military operations have focused tactically on day-to-day activities and much less on influencing long-term prospects. The number of vessels escorted was considered a success. However, many of these ships would probably have sailed through the Red Sea anyway.

A long-term military mission in the region would likely be necessary to significantly reduce the Houthi threat. But would it be possible to check whether the threat to merchant vessels has been sufficiently reduced? It is currently impossible to predict when there will be a lasting increase in the Red Sea shipping traffic. However, such an increase will most likely be dictated by commercial considerations rather than the presence of warships.

“Frigates and destroyers may be reassuring to sailors but they cannot intercept every incoming missile or drone. More importantly, the current level of naval operations is unsustainable in the long term. Other solutions are needed to address this threat,” concludes Dirk Siebels. His quotes and statements were published by the Maritime Executive title.

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