27th Feb 2024


EU aiming to send three destroyers to Red Sea

  • The EU mission is to focus on the Bab Al Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea (Photo: obt.inpe.br)
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The EU is aiming to send at least three warships to the Red Sea by March to help stop Houthi attacks on commercial vessels.

"To be efficient, the force generation objective should be at least three anti-air destroyers or frigates with multi-mission capabilities for at least one year", as well as "airborne early-warning capabilities", with "satellite support", the EU foreign service said in a proposal on Wednesday (10 January), seen by EUobserver.

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  • French frigate FS Courbet on patrol in Red Sea under EU's 'Atalanta' anti-piracy mission (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Their main job would be "accompaniment of maritime shipping with a high priority for EU interests".

But the new EU mission would also have a more aggressive element in its mandate "to prevent missile and/or drone attacks from impacting merchant vessels".

"The assets should be able to protect the merchant vessels against multi-domain attacks. This protection would mainly consist in suppressing the various types of incoming missiles and drones directly targeting merchant vessels as well as preventing merchant vessels to be seized," the EU said.

Its area of operation for security escorts would cover "the Red sea, the Bab Al Mandeb Strait, the Arabian Sea, the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf ... with a special focus on transit in the Bab Al Mandeb Strait."

But its area for the more aggressive "executive task" of taking out Houthi threats "will be limited to the area south of the latitude of Muscat (Oman in the Arabian Sea)".

Zooming in on details, the mission commander would decide on a case-by-case basis which commercial ships merited the EU's help.

"The recognition of the need for protection can originate from various sources: the flag of the vessel, or the nationality of the owner, or of the crew members, cargo, customer, or insurance, among other reasons," the EU said.

"The operation commander prioritises the requests for accompaniment in accordance with its assets and the European interests at stake, including in relation to the nationalities, but not only," it added.

The EU could also "authorise like-minded third states to participate" in the task force, its blueprint noted, saying: "Norway in first place … could be invited".

The US already launched a similar operation called Prosperity Guardian on 18 December, together with the UK and a handful of European nations.

And the new EU mission would exchange information with the US-led coalition at almost the highest levels of classification.

"The [EU] operation would ... be authorised to share maritime security information up to SECRET with Prosperity Guardian," the EU template proposed.

Diplomats are currently discussing the project, with a view to agreement by EU foreign ministers on 19 February and a "fast-track" launch "towards the end of February 2024".

The Iran-backed Houthi rebel group, which de facto rules Yemen, began firing on commercial vessels last October in protest at Israel's war on Gaza, causing sky-high costs for shipping lines.

There were now "almost daily" attacks using "ballistic but also anti-ship cruise missiles, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Unmanned Surface Vehicles, and small boats", the EU said.

"December was a turning point, with an unprecedented increase in Houthi attacks against commercial ships and with a clear escalation of tensions at the end of the month," it said.

In one incident described in the EU paper: "According to US CENTCOM [military command], on 31 December, US navy helicopters returned fire in self-defence, after small boats attempted to board the container ship Maersk Hangzhou".

Iran also sent a warship to the area on 1 January, a 54-year old frigate called the Alborz, prompting fears of escalation.

But the EU played down the prospect of an Iran-US or Iran-EU clash.

"Iran ... keeps its actions below the threshold of direct military conflict to avoid being dragged into open confrontation, as the North Western Indian ocean is also important for Iranian shipping," the EU analysis said. 

"It is likely that the main purposes of the presence of the Iranian warship in the Red Sea are to monitor maritime traffic, including Western navy ships, and to provide Houthis with information. The Iranian ship will almost certainly not conduct any kinetic actions against Western warships in the Red Sea, given also its limited capacities," it added. 

"It is highly likely that the Houthis will continue attacks on maritime flows rather than targeting Israeli territory," the EU's threat-assessment also said.

'Pro-Israeli coalition'

Meanwhile, most Gulf Arab countries, with the exception of Bahrain, have stayed out of the US-led Red Sea operation "partially to keep distance from what is perceived by segments of their populations to be a pro-Israeli coalition," the EU noted.

But Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE "are expected to react favourably to a new EU mission as this will increase maritime safety and predictability in trade, with a subsequent positive impact for Gulf exports," the EU said.

This was due to Europe's "history of a balanced and careful approach [in Middle East diplomacy] with values that should establish a safer environment to de-escalate", the EU foreign service said.

Some EU naval powers, such as Denmark, Greece, and the Netherlands, are taking part in the US operation, but others, notably Spain, have stayed out — while voicing criticism of Israel's conduct in the Gaza war.

Spain has also vetoed use of the EU's existing anti-piracy 'Atalanta' mission off Somalia to fight the Houthis, which the US had initially requested.

But while the EU foreign service acknowledged lack of unanimity in previous talks on the Red Sea crisis, it now invited malcontents to consider "constructive abstention under Article 31" of the EU treaty, so as not to block a joint decision on the Houthi challenge.

And it spelled out the stakes if Europe failed to show up.

"Risks of the EU not taking action" included "weakening political and operational credibility vis-à-vis regional countries, major international actors, and the shipping industry", it said.

They also included "shortfalls or increased dependency in its strategic supplies … negative impact on the European economy, including price increases".


Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza

Despite the high risk of dying from war, starvation or disease, Gazans are still not allowed to enter Egypt. Except those who bribe the authorities. And the EU mission EUBAM Rafah cannot be deployed due to security reasons.

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