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Red Sea - situation update

Geopolitical tensions in the Red Sea have increased since the commencement of the Israel-Gaza conflict and this is particularly relevant for assets with links to Israel, the US, and UK transiting the region.

Published 21 November 2023

Updated 12 March 2024

Following the attack on the Galaxy Leader on 19 November 2023, there have been further incidents in and around the southern Red Sea region, Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. The first fatal attack took place on 06 March 2024 on True Confidence leading to the death of 3 seafarers. There has been an increased military presence in the Red Sea which has led to the interception of missiles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and there have also been retaliatory strikes against the Houthis by navies of the US and UK.

With their permission, we republish below information extracted from Risk Intelligence’s recent threat assessment circular for our Members with vessels deployed in the region, along with a timeline of key developments.

Threat update

  • Following the attacks and attempted attacks against civilian and naval vessels in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since November, US and UK military forces – supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands – began to conduct strikes against targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen during the night from 11 to 12 January (local time). Several additional strikes have been conducted since under Operation Poseidon Archer. For political reasons, this operation is separate from the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian which is aimed at deterring and defending against further attacks against commercial shipping. Direct military action against targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen followed a joint statement on 3 January. This document was co-signed by Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea and Singapore.

  • Starting with the seizure of the Galaxy Leader, Risk Intelligence has identified 42 targeted attacks by Houthi forces against individual vessels in the Red Sea/Bab el Mandeb/Gulf of Aden area. This is lower than the number of attacks cited by the US military which does not provide an overview to show incidents classified as 'attacks on commercial vessels'. Interceptions of drones and missiles were possibly counted as additional attacks, but this remains speculation without any evidence. Drones and missiles may have been used to target warships or merely used as a "show of force" in at least some of the interceptions.

  • Looking at all 42 attacks in detail, no preference for attacks against southbound or northbound vessels can be identified for attacks in the southern Red Sea. In addition, 15 ships have been targeted in the Gulf of Aden since the beginning of January.

  • Summary of the incidents that have taken place in the last 30 days can be found here . Reference can also be made to UKMTO’s website and periodic reports by the Office of Naval Intelligence of the US Navy for an overview of the recent incidents in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

Traffic situations in Bab-el-mandeb straits

Houthi attacks against maritime traffic have caused a significant decrease in ship transits through the Bab el Mandeb. It is unlikely that traffic will see a further decrease after the current level has remained more or less constant since late January. After two subsequent weeks with slight increases in Bab el Mandeb transits, the number of ships fell again slightly. Transits during the past week were 53% lower than during the same timeframe in 2023, the gap has remained almost constant since late January.

It is too early to say whether a sustainable increase in maritime traffic will take place in the coming weeks. While such an increase is possible due to the increased presence of naval vessels, commercial pressure on ship owners and operators is more likely to be a relevant factor.

Tiered affiliation risk

  • Overall, the threat level to vessels directly owned by Israeli companies had been severe since the beginning of the Houthi campaign. Such vessels therefore largely stopped transiting the Red Sea. Houthi forces then expanded their potential targets and have justified them in some cases with only remote links to Israel.

  • Military action by the US and the UK has led to another expansion of the Houthis' target pool, underlined by widely-publicized threats particularly against the US. This has resulted in a severe threat level for vessels directly linked to the US and UK. For other countries directly supporting military strikes under Operation Poseidon Archer, the threat level is at the same level, although it should be noted that the Houthis have not yet made any specific threats against these countries.

  • For merchant ships linked to countries solely taking part in or supporting Operation Prosperity Guardian or Operation Aspides which both have a purely defensive focus, the threat level is assessed as lower compared to countries participating in offensive military actions against the Houthis. For all other commercial vessels, the same threat level applies.

  • For vessels not related to countries taking part in Operation Prosperity Guardian or Operation Aspides, this is largely due to the potential for merchant ships being targeted due to misidentification or use of outdated information in publicly available databases. Proximity to kinetic attacks or proximity to interceptions of drones and missiles by military forces could also lead to collateral damage.

Vessel typeThreat typeThreat level
Vessels specifically linked to Israel through ownership, port calls, trade with and/or commercial relationship between Israeli companies and owners/operators Kinetic attack (missile, aerial/waterborne drone), possibly seizure and detention Severe
Vessels linked to the United States, United Kingdom and other countries involved in Operation Poseidon Archer Kinetic attack (missile, aerial/waterborne drone), possibly seizure and detention Severe
Vessels linked to other countries participating in or supporting Operation Prosperity Guardian or Operation Aspides Kinetic attack (missile, aerial/waterborne drone), seizure and detention Elevated
Other merchant ships in transit through the Red Sea / Bab-el-Mandeb Kinetic attack due to misidentification, potential proximity to the above threats ('collateral damage') Elevated

Since the beginning of the Houthi campaign in November, the US and several other governments have frequently stated that Houthi attacks against merchant ships have been 'indiscriminate'. This conclusion, however, has never been supported by available evidence. Based on an analysis of all recorded incidents since November and considering the military strikes against Houthi forces, Risk Intelligence assesses that the threat to merchant ships is closely linked to individual characteristics, broadly in line with the Houthis’ stated targeting parameters and their previous actions. Houthi forces are very likely to continue selecting specific targets rather than widen their campaign to indiscriminate attacks against civilian shipping.

Mitigation measures

Company Security Officers, and Masters and Ship Security Officers of vessels transiting or preparing to transit this region are advised to consider the following in their voyage specific risk assessment:

  • Analyze the commercial affiliation of the vessel to assess the threat level for the planned type of operation, using the table mentioned above.

  • Constant monitoring of the security situation, enabling vessels to avoid locations with recent or ongoing incidents.

  • Introduction/update of contingency plans on the company level to address the possibility of seafarers being injured, killed or kidnapped during a security incident. Drills should also be carried out involving shore management.

  • Crew briefings and scenario drills based on a valid and relevant anti-attack plan to ensure that incidents are reported and alarm is raised without delay when required. Drills should include scenarios with major damage and casualties.

  • Enhancement of firefighting, evacuation and damage control procedures, taking into account the possibility of significant damage as a result of direct targeting or collateral damage.

  • Enhancement of medical equipment to deal with multiple casualties.

  • Emergency contacts placed readily available on the bridge.

  • Briefing of the bridge team on hailing/harassment via VHF, prepared responses and immediate contact with naval forces in the respective area. (Local authorities' calls on VHF may be an act of spoofing or even targeting, underlined by several incidents in recent days which involved self-proclaimed 'Yemeni authorities' or the 'Yemeni navy' ordering merchant ships to alter course). Combined Maritime Forces also recommend ignoring VHF calls by "Yemeni navy" with instructions to alter course to Hudaydah or other locations in Yemen. When merchant ships are contacted, masters are advised to continue the voyage and call for a coalition warship on VHF Channel 16, stating current location, situation and intentions.

  • Preparation of citadel with emergency provisions and functioning satellite phone.

  • Depending on individual circumstances, embarkation of armed guards may be useful to mitigate specific risks, specifically in relation to the threat of boardings from small boats (e.g. Houthi forces, Somali piracy). However, the threat of direct targeting by missiles, aerial or naval drones used by Houthi forces in Yemen (southern Red Sea / Gulf of Aden) cannot be mitigated by embarkation of armed guards.

  • In general, existing BMP5 recommendations have been developed to deter piracy. While the guidance included in BMP5 is relevant to deter illegal boardings, it offers virtually no mitigation against current threats such as attacks by missiles, drones or – potentially – waterborne IEDs ('drone boats').

  • Ship operators should also consider issuing specific voyage guidance for transits through the Red Sea and/or the Gulf of Aden. This guidance should consider specific scenarios (e.g. aerial or waterborne threats, hailing on VHF) and include actions for the crew to minimise the impact of any security incident.

  • Ships with AIS powered on, as well as off, have been attacked. Turning off AIS makes it marginally more difficult to track a ship but may also hinder the ability of the military to provide support or direct contact.

    Based on Risk Intelligence’s assessment, less than 10% of ships passing the Bab el Mandeb are following naval recommendations to disable AIS. Nonetheless, if a decision is made to turn off the AIS, then the frequency of reporting the vessel’s position to UKMTO and NAVCENT NCAGS should be increased.

Other key developments

Some of the notable developments since the seizure of Galaxy Leader are as follows:

  • The Joint War Committee (JWC) widened the risk area in this region. It has been extended northward in the Red Sea from 15 deg N to 18 deg N. JWLA-32 is available

    here.

  • The International Bargaining Forum (IBF) has included the Red Sea in its high risk area for crew contracts. The updated warlike and high risk areas are available

    here. It is to be noted that the boundaries of the IBF high risk and warlike areas are different from the JWC listed areas.

  • Industry associations, such as BIMCO, Intertanko, Intercargo and others have come together to publish security guidance applicable to navigating in the Southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The transit advice was last updated on 05 February 2024 and is available

    here.

  • Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) have issued a guidance document for ships navigating the southern Red Sea. It was last updated on 23 December 2023.

  • Some Flag States, such as Panama, Liberia, Marshall Islands and Norway have published security circulars for their vessels when transiting this region.

  • Operation Prosperity Guardian commenced in the Red Sea region (south of 20 deg N) on 19 December 2023 to support the freedom of navigation. Vessels transiting in the SRS will note a significant increase in the number of coalition warships and aircraft operating in the area as part of this operation. Details are available on Maritime Global Security’s website.

  • The European Union launched Eunavfor Aspides on 19 February 2024. Operation Aspides will ensure an EU naval presence in the Red Sea area and reportedly EU interests will be prioritized.

We would like to thank Risk Intelligence for sharing their threat assessment with us and for their recommendations to our Members and clients. Vessels are also advised to contact their Flag States for additional guidance, if any.

Other articles related to the conflict between Israel-Gaza, including contractual implications can be found on our hot topic page ‘Israel/Gaza conflict’.

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