WASHINGTON — The multinational Combined Maritime Forces in the Middle East will stand up a new Combined Task Force-153 to specifically address maritime threats in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The U.S. Navy will lead the task force initially, but will quickly hand leadership over to a regional partner, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the commander of U.S. 5th Fleet and Naval Forces Central Command, told reporters in an April 13 call.

Cooper, who also leads the Combined Maritime Forces organization, would not directly say the new organization is meant to counter the maritime threats posed by the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. Rather, he said the April 17 standup of CTF-153 will “strengthen the Combined Maritime Force, which is the world’s largest multinational naval partnership, and ultimately we’ll enhance security and stability in the Red Sea and the region.”

Combined Maritime Forces has already established three other combined task forces: CTF-152, which patrols inside the Persian Gulf; CTF-150, which operates outside the Persian Gulf and will now focus on the Gulf of Oman and Northern Arabian Sea; and CTF-151, which counters piracy across the entire 5th Fleet area.

Cooper said CTF-153 will operate from the Suez Canal through the Bab el-Mandeb strait and to the Yemen-Oman border and will address human trafficking and smuggling of both legal materials like coal and illegal weapons and drugs.

“The standup of this organization really reflects a regional consensus on the importance of maritime security in these bodies of water,” Cooper said. “We’ve had a proven record in recent examples of success when we focus in this organized way.

U.S. Navy Capt. Robert Francis, who commands U.S. surface ships in 5th Fleet, will lead CTF-153 with a staff of about 15 from aboard U.S. Navy command ship Mount Whitney, which typically serves as the U.S. 6th Fleet command ship out of Italy.

“The fact that we’re bringing what is traditionally the 6th Fleet flagship into 5th Fleet signals our very strong resolve and commitment to this region,” Cooper said.

Though he would not address which nations would join the new task force or who would take command next, he highlighted the Egyptian Navy as having joined the Combined Maritime Forces organization a year ago.

Cooper called them an “enormously capable navy; they’re growing their capability.” He said they tripled their exercise participation over the last year and know the Red Sea waters well.

The vice admiral said he expected two to eight ships to serve under the task force at any given time and said unmanned surface vessels being tested under 5th Fleet’s Task Force 59 organization could also support maritime security operations in the Red Sea at some point. Task Force 59 was stood up in September to oversee experimentation with unmanned craft in all domains in an operational theater.

Cooper said he doesn’t expect the CTF-153 standup to increase the presence of ships and aircraft in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, but rather it would make the ships there more effective, helping coordinate everyday activities from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others patrolling their coastal waters in concert with other naval forces.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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