The Pentagon announced on Tuesday the creation of a new international mission working to counter attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen on commercial vessels in the Red Sea. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced 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.”

The seriousness of the attacks, several of which have damaged vessels, has led multiple shipping companies to order their ships to hold in place and not enter the Bab el-Mandeb Strait until the security situation can be addressed. The U.S. Central Command reported two more attacks on commercial vessels on Monday. A strike by an attack drone and a ballistic missile hit a tanker off Yemen at roughly the same time a cargo ship reported an explosive detonating in the water near them, the U.S. military said.

“This is an international challenge that demands collective action,” Austin said, issuing a statement early Tuesday while in Bahrain. “Operation Prosperity Guardian is bringing together multiple countries to include the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain, to jointly address security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with the goal of ensuring freedom of navigation for all countries and bolstering regional security and prosperity.”

Austin added that the recent Houthi aggression “threatens the free flow of commerce, endangers innocent mariners, and violates international law.”

The U.S. is still actively seeking member countries to join the mission and increase the number of navies present and participating. 

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“The Red Sea is a critical waterway that has been essential to freedom of navigation and a major commercial corridor that facilitates international trade,” Austin’s statement said. “Countries that seek to uphold the foundational principle of freedom of navigation 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.”

While in the Middle East, Austin held a virtual conference on Red Sea maritime security, underscoring how attacks “already impacted the global economy and would continue to threaten commercial shipping if the international community did not come together to address the issue collectively.”

U.S. military officials briefed participants that the Houthis had conducted over 100 one-way, uncrewed aerial systems and ballistic missile attacks, targeting 10 merchant vessels involving more than 35 different nations. They highlighted that the Houthis had taken merchant vessel Galaxy Leader and its 25-member international crew hostage on Nov. 19. The Pentagon said the crew remain “unjustly detained in Yemen.” 

During the conference, participants discussed how the attacks are a flagrant violation of international law, and the Houthis must cease their aggressive actions, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryde said in a readout. Currently, 10-15% of global trade passes through the Red Sea, and international shipping companies are having to reroute through the Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to the delivery of key goods and materials, including oil and gas. 

Austin in Tel Aviv

There are about 400 commercial vessels transiting the southern Red Sea, an area roughly the size of Washington, D.C., to Boston at any given time, a senior military official told reporters who are traveling with Austin in the region. Under the new mission, the military ships will not necessarily escort a specific vessel but will be positioned to provide umbrella protection to as many as possible at a given time, the official told the AP on the condition of anonymity. 

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Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator and spokesman, challenged the U.S.-created coalition on Tuesday, saying the Iranian-backed rebels would continue targeting Israel-linked vessels. 

“The American-formed coalition is to protect Israel and militarize the sea without any justification, and will not stop Yemen from continuing its legitimate operations in support of Gaza,” he wrote on X, adding that the Houthis’ attacks “are not a show of force nor a challenge to anyone.”

“Whoever seeks to expand the conflict must bear the consequences of his actions,” Abdel-Salam said. 

Two U.S. Navy destroyers — USS Carney and USS Mason — are currently moving through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to help deter and respond to attacks from the Houthis. The move to set up the expanded operation came after three commercial vessels were struck by missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen on Dec. 3. 

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is separately imploring the United Nations Security Council to take action against the Houthi attacks. 

Austin shakes Israeli Defense minister's hand

To date, the U.S. has not struck back at the Houthis operating in Yemen or targeted any of the militants’ weapons or other sites. On Monday, Austin did not answer a question as to why the Pentagon had not conducted a counterstrike.

One notably absent participant in Operation Prosperity Guardian is China, which has warships in the region, but those ships have not responded to previous calls for assistance by commercial vessels, even though some of the ships attacked have had ties to Hong Kong, the military official told the AP. Several other countries have also agreed to be involved in the operation but prefer not to be publicly named, a defense official said on the condition of anonymity told the AP. 

The new maritime security mission will be coordinated by the already existing Combined Task Force 153, which was set up in April 2022 to improve maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. While the task force has primarily provided a headquarters structure to date, the goal of the new mission is to provide ships and other assets to carry out the protection. There have been 39 member nations in CTF 153, but officials were working to determine which of them would participate. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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