COLOGNE, Germany — German air defense frigate Hessen set sail Thursday from the country’s northern port city of Wilhelmshaven toward the Red Sea, marking Berlin’s contribution to a growing international naval protection force for cargo ships transiting the crucial commercial route.

The ship’s official destination is the Mediterranean Sea for now, as the crew awaits national and European Union mandates that would task the commander with pushing for the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, where Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been attacking merchant vessels with drones and missiles for months. Backed by Iran, the militants claim to be acting out of solidarity with Hamas in Gaza, where Israel is battling the militant group.

The Red Sea mission is different from the ship’s most recent deployment involving NATO duties in the North and Baltic seas because the likelihood for combat action is high, Cmdr. Volker Kübsch, the Hessen’s commanding officer, was quoted as saying in a German Navy statement.

The Hessen is one of three Sachsen-class ships in the service’s fleet, and the only type deemed survivable enough for the task. Navy Chief Vice Adm. Jan Christian Kaack said the ship’s prospective deployment under the EU’s Aspides mission would last “for a few months,” suggesting the fleet is too small to remain in the Red Sea much longer through the second half of the year.

Meanwhile, Houthi attacks against merchant ships have continued despite American and British strikes aimed at curtailing the group’s weapons-launching capabilities.

The commander of British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond, one of the first on the scene in December as part of the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian, described the situation in the Red Sea as “fraught,” according to a BBC report. “Ships in the force are firing on a daily basis,” Cmdr. Pete Evans said Feb. 6.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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