Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), the United States Navy-led coalition of the willing intended to allow international shipping to continue navigating safely through the Red Sea, is set to activate within days. Including allies from Europe and the Middle East, as well as Canada and Australia, the operation has been snubbed by three important NATO countries, France, Italy and Spain.
What is the exact task of OPG?
The official line, “to secure safe passage for the commercial ships”, is too vague for any naval flag officer to feel comfortable getting into. Admirals want politicians to give them precise tasks and clear mandates needed to achieve the desired results.
Defining the threat seems easy, for now: antiship missiles and drones of various types carrying explosive warheads have been targeting merchant ships on the way to and from the Suez Canal. All were fired from Yemen, by the Houthi group also known as Ansar Allah which now controls most of the country, including the longest section of its 450km-long Red Sea coast. All missiles were surface-launched, with warheads that can damage but hardly sink big cargo ships.
The Houthis at first announced that they would target Israeli-owned ships, then expanded that to include all those using Israeli ports, ultimately to those trading with Israel. After several attacks where the Israeli connection appeared very distant or vague, it is prudent to assume that any ship could be targeted.
All missiles neutralised by US and French warships so far were shot down by sophisticated shipborne surface-to-air missiles (SAM), proving that the modern vertical-launch systems guided by the latest generation phased array radars work as designed. Many nations earmarked to participate in OPG have ships with similar capabilities. Almost all also carry modern surface-to-surface missiles that can attack targets at sea or land.
If the task of OPG were to be defined narrowly, only to prevent hits on merchant ships, it could be performed using the centuries-old principle of sailing in convoys with the protection of warships.
In a convoy, slow, defenceless commercial cargos sail in several columns at precisely defined distances from each other — led, flanked and tailed by fast warships that can take on any threat. The system is effective, as the United Kingdom, Russia, Malta, and many other countries saved by convoys in World War II can attest.
But every strategy has its limitations. A convoy is big and cumbersome, extending for miles to give behemoth ships a safe distance from each other and to enable them to manoeuvre if needed. Whatever the protective measures taken, huge tankers and container carriers – longer than 300 metres (984 feet) – still present big targets. Captains of commercial ships are generally not trained in convoy operations, and most have no experience operating in large groups or under military command.