Dec 18, 2023 - Politics & Policy

U.S. launches new global mission to defend Red Sea shipping lanes from Houthi attacks

 U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a virtual Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) meeting at the Pentagon on November 22, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia.=

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, last month. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Monday the expansion of a multinational maritime security force to protect ships in the Red Sea from missile and drone attacks from Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Why it matters: "The recent escalation in reckless Houthi attacks originating from Yemen threatens the free flow of commerce, endangers innocent mariners, and violates international law," Austin said in a statement.

  • The attacks in the key commercial shipping route have prompted BP and other companies to halt cargo transits through the Red Sea.

Details: The new security initiative, named Operation Prosperity Guardian, comes under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and the leadership of its Task Force 153, which focuses on security in the Red Sea.

Behind the scenes: The Houthi threat to international maritime shipping was a key issue in the talks Secretary of Defense Austin held in Israel on Monday.

  • A senior Israeli official said Austin told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that the U.S. is concerned the situation in the Red Sea could turn into an economic war that will escalate into a physical war.
  • A U.S. official told Axios Austin didn't take off the table in his talks about the possibility that the U.S. will use force against the Houthis.
  • Austin said at a press conference in Tel Aviv that he is going to hold on Tuesday a virtual meeting with counterparts from the region and around the world to discuss the Houthi threat and stressed the U.S. will act to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and .
  • "Secretary Austin highlighted that this is an international problem that requires an international response," a U.S. official said. "That's why the U.S. is building a coalition to address the threat and help safeguard freedom of navigation through this vital international waterway."

What's next: Israeli and U.S. officials said Austin was expected to announce on Tuesday the establishment of a revamped maritime task force that will escort ships in the Red Sea and deter Houthi attacks.

State of play: Since the Israel-Hamas war started, the Houthis have launched more than 70 drones and ballistic missiles towards Israel, which is more than 1,000 miles away from Yemen, the IDF said.

  • In recent weeks, the Houthis escalated their attacks and started targeting commercial ships in the vicinity of the Bab el-Mandeb strait in the Red Sea, which they claimed were owned by Israeli companies or were heading to Israel.
  • The Biden administration has sent messages to the Houthi rebels in Yemen via several channels recently warning them to stop their attacks on ships in the Red Sea and against Israel, two U.S. officials said.

Go deeper: What to know about Red Sea attacks disrupting shipping

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