Red Sea commercial shipping in danger of becoming ‘collateral damage’ in Yemen conflict

Image courtesy NASA Image courtesy NASA

While an attack specifically targeting commercial shipping is considered unlikely, the threat of a merchant vessel being caught up as “collateral damage” in the escalating Yemeni conflict is real. 

That’s the sobering analysis from Dryad Maritime following two recent attacks on shipping in the Bab al Mandeb Strait, a 30km wide chokepoint at the foot of the Red Sea bordered by Yemen and Horn of Africa nations Djibouti and Eritrea.

The Portsmouth-based maritime security firm has urged a “heightened state of alert” following the latest incident involving the U.S. Navy’s USS Mason which detected two inbound missiles within a 60 minute period around 1900 (local time) on October 9. The missiles, which the Pentagon says were fired from within Yemen, impacted the water before reaching the guided missile destroyer.

Houthis rebels have denied any involvement in the failed attack but have been linked to an October 1 missile strike that left a UAE high-speed catamaran, reportedly transporting aid, wounded Yemenis and passengers near Yemen’s Red Sea Port of Mokha, severely damaged (pictured below).

Part of a Saudi-led coalition that has opposed the Houthis and imposed a naval blockade on Yemen since March 2015, the UAE denounced the incident as "an act of terrorism". Its foreign ministry told the BBC that the Australian built HSV-2 Swift logistics catamaran was leased from the Abu Dhabi-based National Marine Dredging Company and "did not have any military capacity".

Tension in Yemen’s civil war has heightened following an alleged Saudi-led airstrike on a funeral in Yemen's capital on Saturday that killed more than 140 people and wounded 525. International observers say the Bab al Mandeb Strait incidents signal a major shift, if not in tactics by the Houthis, then certainly in weapons capability.HSV 2 Swift 600

It’s an assessment echoed by Michael Edey, head of operations at Dryad Maritime, who says the attacks in a similar location indicated the “group has the capability and intent to attack shipping in the Strait”.

While the likelihood of a deliberate attack on commercial shipping remains “low”, Dryad says that doesn’t mean merchant vessels are immune from being hit by a missile intended for a coalition warship.

“As we saw from the attack on HSV-2 Swift, the Houthis are willing to target commercial shipping that they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be supporting the coalition and so could hit a vessel that is innocently transiting through the area, rather than participating in the conflict,” Edey said.

As one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, Edey says the international community has already shown a swift reaction to ensure the Bab el Mandeb Strait remains open to maritime traffic. US warships were sent to Yemen’s coast after the HSV-2 Swift attack.

There has been no official confirmation of the weapons fired in either incident but Edey said it was clear the rebels had new capability capable of targeting shipping in the narrow waterway which connects the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal and Red Sea and the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Aden.

“The Houthis claimed the attack last week used C802 anti-ship missiles although this has been refuted by others, stating that the smaller C704 is a more likely weapon. In either case, the missiles were not in the Yemeni military inventory before the civil war and so must have entered the country in spite of the UNSC ban on weapons.

“Irrespective of the identity of the missiles, the fact remains that the Houthis have demonstrated their capability to strike at vessels in the Bab al Mandeb.”

Dryad has echoed the security advice of maritime authorities in the wake of the attacks, saying the threat may come from a variety of different sources such as “missiles, projectiles or waterborne improvised explosive devices”.

“Vessels should maintain the maximum distance from the coast of Yemen and use the traffic separation scheme lane to the west of the Hanish Islands during daylight and do so at maximum speed,” it said in a statement.

“Vessels in the region should report hostile activities immediately and contact coalition naval forces via VHF bridge to bridge radio but also consider calling UKMTO to report any suspicious activity.”

With more than 500 years of collective naval maritime experience, Dryad Maritime advises mariners on threats to safe navigation including piracy, environmental, commercial and regulatory “pressure”.

Posted 11 October 2016

© Copyright 2019 Seatrade (UBM (UK) Ltd). Replication or redistribution in whole or in part is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Seatrade.

Kent Gray

Middle East Correspondent

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