The Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen struck three commercial vessels with missiles in the southern Red Sea on Dec. 3, according to U.S. Central Command. In response, Washington is working to form a maritime task force to ensure the safe passage of ships.
But rather than creating a new task force from scratch, the Biden administration should use the existing Combined Task Force 153 to urgently build a larger international effort to protect commercial vessels sailing near Yemen and to interdict Iranian weapons smuggling to the Houthis. That could help deter and defeat attacks as well as defend freedom of navigation and the unimpeded flow of commerce through one of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints.
To understand why this is the best approach, it is helpful to consider the context.
Here’s what happened on Sunday: The U.S. Navy’s Arleigh-Burke class destroyer Carney responded to distress calls from commercial vessels transiting international shipping lanes in the Red Sea. During the hourslong ordeal, the Unity Explorer, the M/V Number 9 and the M/V Sophie II were struck by missiles launched from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen. While attempting to assist the commercial vessels, Carney detected and was forced to destroy three UAVs menacing the ships.
“These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security. They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world,” CENTCOM said in a statement on Dec. 3
Unfortunately, this is not the first threat to commercial vessels from the Houthis.
The International Maritime Security Construct issued a warning on Nov. 16 for vessels traveling through the vital Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea just two days after the Houthis threatened to attack international shipping.
That warning proved prescient.
On Nov. 19, the Houthis hijacked the Galaxy Leader, reportedly a Bahamian-flagged, British-owned, Japanese operated vessel, which had Filipino, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Mexican crew members. On multiple occasions last month, the Houthis used drones and missiles to threaten vessels, forcing U.S. naval vessels to down drones in several instances.
To be clear, Houthi aggression is not solely America’s problem. The three vessels attacked on Dec. 3 were connected to 14 separate nations.
So how are the Houthis able to resource and conduct these attacks? Answer: Iran.
Referring to the Dec. 3 attacks, CENTCOM said it has “every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran.” The next day, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan was more direct. “The weapons here are being supplied by Iran,” he said. “Iran, we believe, is the ultimate party responsible for this.”
So what’s to be done?
Sullivan mentioned the need for a “maritime task force of sorts involving the ships from partner nations alongside the United States in ensuring safe passage of ships in the Red Sea.” The good news is that Washington doesn’t need to create a new task force; there is an existing task force within Combined Maritime Forces, namely CTF 153, that can provide a running start.
CTF 153′s existing mission is to “focus on international maritime security and capacity building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden.” Established in 2022, the task force already includes 15 member nations. Notably, Egypt led the task force for six months, concluding its term in June 2023.
Given their interests in the Red Sea, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel should contribute. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are obvious candidates as well, given their relationship with the United States, their interest in unfettered freedom of navigation in the Middle East as well as their CMF membership. Among others, G-7 countries — namely Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom — should also support the task force, given their economic interests in the region and their membership in CMF.
Such broad participation can lessen the burden for any one country and send the unambiguous message to the Houthis and their patron in Iran that attacks on commercial vessels will not be tolerated.
Washington should also explore whether this newly expanded task force ― or some subset of it ― could also interdict arms Iran is smuggling to Yemen, in addition to ensuring the safe passage of commercial vessels sailing through the Red Sea. After all, if the Houthis continue to enjoy the reliable supply of weapons from Tehran, one can expect such attacks to continue.
The Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea constitute an attack on the regional and global economy as well as any nation that relies on unfettered maritime freedom of navigation to sustain its economy and conduct international trade.
Indeed, Houthi attacks on commercial vessels is a multilateral problem that requires a multilateral solution. An expanded CTF 153 in the Red Sea supported by dozens of nations could help.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, where Mike Daum is a research analyst.