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Operation Prosperity Guardian: A Maritime Shield in Troubled Waters or a Flotilla Adrift?

Published December 25, 2023
7 months ago

The recent surge of hostility in the Red Sea has put international maritime traffic on high alert. The Red Sea, a critical commercial artery connecting the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean, has witnessed escalating tensions due to attacks from Yemeni Houthi rebels. These events have sparked the creation of Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), a naval force led by the United States intended to assure safe passage for ships traversing these troubled waters.

With global heavyweights like Maersk resuming shipments under the promise of OPG's protection, the narrative seems to be one of resumed confidence in Middle Eastern sea routes. However, OPG's very foundation is showing cracks. The withdrawal of France, Italy, and Spain, initially pegged as key members of this coalition, raises substantial doubts about the force's future effectiveness.

The development and swift destabilization of OPG highlight the complex geopolitical dynamics at play. The US's efforts to piece together an alliance against the Houthi threat initially appeared a robust response to ensure the continuous flow of commerce and oil through this strategic choke point. The Bab el-Mandeb strait, only 29 km wide at its narrowest, is under the shadow of military might, with over 35 warships from non-bordering nations and additional regional forces lying in wait.

However, the strategic landscape is not just shaped by the presence of military vessels but by political will and international cooperation. The US's predicament of having a substantial naval presence but limited resources for dedicated mission tasking is complemented by political apprehensions about engaging Yemen solo, which could be perceived as indirect support to Israeli forces in the Middle Eastern context.

The safety convoys by OPG are not redundant pageantry. Their necessity is emphasized not just by the Houthi attacks but also by the historical presence of piracy off the coast of Somalia which led to the initiation of the Combined Task Force 150 and later, the CTF-153, featuring international cooperation from over 30 countries. Anti-piracy missions were an extension of collective efforts to maintain open and secure sea lanes, highlighting the international stakes involved in keeping such critical passages free from hostile forces.

The escalation of violence with daily hits on tankers and container ships elevated what was a regional concern into a matter worthy of global attention. Shippers, facing a staggering additional cost of $2 billion a month due to rerouted supply lines around Africa, clamored for a solution.

Despite the urgency and clear economic incentives, political realities paint a grim picture. The lack of enthusiasm is palpable as the mission's member nations number less than originally anticipated. While China's neglect to join was expected owing to its independent naval task force in the region, the absence of anticipated support from regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt sends a concerning signal.

Now, with a coalition that is thinner than forecast, the mission is on shaky ground. Yet the dynamic can swiftly change if OPG manages to provide efficient and secure escort to commercial shipping, reigniting the faith in the shortest route through the Suez Canal. The momentary relief felt by Maersk and potentially other shipping magnates rests on a precarious balance, poised to tip back into the favour of the long African circumnavigation should the situation deteriorate.

If successful, OPG will function as more than an escort service—it will serve as a deterrent against future escalations and assert the collective resolve of participating nations to maintain a status quo favoring uninterrupted commerce and peace. But with its success hanging in the balance, the Red Sea remains a litmus test for the feasibility of international maritime defense coalitions in the face of shifting alliances and persistent threats.

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