Austin announces US-led security operation focusing on Red Sea, Gulf of Aden after Houthi attacks on commercial shipping

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin looks on during a joint press conference with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at Israel's Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, Israel December 18, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin looks on during a press conference at Israel’s Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, December 18, 2023.Violeta Santos Moura/ReutersCNN — 

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Monday announced a new US-led operation focusing on the “security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden” following recent attacks by Houthi forces on commercial marine traffic in the region.

“I am announcing the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and the leadership of its Task Force 153, which focuses on security in the Red Sea,” Austin said in a statement.

Austin, who was in the region for meetings with senior Israeli officials to discuss the Israel-Hamas war, said countries “must come together to tackle the challenge posed by this non-state actor launching ballistic missiles and uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) at merchant vessels from many nations lawfully transiting international waters.” The multinational operation includes the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 31, 2023.

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“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. “The Red Sea is a critical waterway that has been essential to freedom of navigation and a major commercial corridor that facilitates international trade.”

The announcement came after the USS Carney responded Monday to a distress call from a commercial vessel after it was attacked by “multiple projectiles” in the southern Red Sea, a US military official said.

The ship, the Swan Atlantic, “was attacked by a one-way attack drone and an anti-ship ballistic missile launched from a Houthi-controlled area in Yemen,” according to US Central Command.

The chemical/oil tanker, a Cayman Islands-flagged ship, called for assistance after the attack, and the USS Carney, the closest US warship, responded to assess damage, CENTCOM said Monday night. About the same time as the attack on the Swan Atlantic, a second commercial ship in the Red Sea was targeted by Houthi militants, CENTCOM said.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attacks on both vessels, which they claimed were linked to Israel. The Houthis also said that “no harm will be dealt” to ships heading to ports around the world, “except for Israeli ports.”

Houthi forces in Yemen have been targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea, claiming the attacks as revenge against Israel. Oil giant BP announced Monday that it would pause all shipments through the Red Sea due to the “deteriorating security situation,” marking the latest shipping firm pausing routes through the channel.

On Saturday, the USS Carney shot down 14 drones launched from “Houthi-controlled areas” of Yemen, according to US Central Command. The unmanned aircraft systems “were assessed to be one-way attack drones and were shot down with no damage to ships in the area or reported injuries,” CENTCOM posted on X on Saturday.

Last month, the USS Thomas Hudner shot down multiple one-way attack drones launched from Yemen. And in another instance, two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen toward the USS Mason in the Gulf of Aden after it responded to a distress call from another commercial tanker that had come under attack by five armed individuals believed to be Somali.

The US has responded to attacks in recent months by launching strikes in eastern Syria and Iraq, targeting weapons depots and storage facilities used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxy militia groups.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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