The Crucial Role of Public/Private Partnerships in the Red Sea Crisis

Red Sea Topic Week

By Joseph F. Greco, Ph.D 

As a critical chokepoint on major global shipping routes, the Red Sea has always had the potential to become a prominent area of tension, underlining the immediate necessity for strong maritime security measures.1 The Houthi rebels have increased regional tensions by employing a seemingly inexhaustible supply of armaments, raising the question – how might the strategic employment of navies be brought to bear against the Houthi threat to definitively restore stability in the global commons?

Some answers can be found in the success of Operation Atalanta, which has been ongoing since 2008. This operation, deployed by the European Union Naval Force as a proactive measure to address piracy on the Somali coast, demonstrated the undeniable effectiveness of public/private partnerships between naval forces and the commercial maritime industry.2 Combining naval power with commercial maritime operations, the lessons learned from Operation Atalanta resulted in improved intelligence sharing, enhanced logistical support, and updated best management practices. In a relatively short time, the mission significantly reduced the risk of piracy along the Somali coast. It offers useful lessons for maritime security operations in the ever-changing threat landscape.

Sharing Intelligence, Logistics, and Best Practices

Operation Atalanta’s successful campaign against piracy off the Somali coast featured a cooperative intelligence-sharing strategy. Based on a public/private framework, the partnership prioritized immediate communication and seamless information sharing, enhancing the ability to forecast and address maritime dangers. Known as interconnected situational awareness systems (ISAS), they became arguably the most crucial capability in improving the capacity of all involved parties to make well-informed decisions. ISAS are a collection of linked systems that analyze and distribute real-time data to improve operational efficacy and decision-making in maritime security. They are composed of sensor networks, platforms for exchanging information, analytics, data fusion, and command and control systems. These technologies give stakeholders a shared, all-encompassing view of the maritime realm, making identifying, following, and reacting to possible hazards easier and providing a reassuring solution to the maritime security challenges.3

With respect to forming public/private partnerships, the logistical support that commercial shipping companies offer can greatly expand the operational reach and sustainability of naval forces.4 This assistance was crucial in stopping piracy along the Somali coast during Operation Atalanta, improving the sustainability of naval presence in the Gulf of Aden. Commercial shipping can directly impact naval forces’ readiness and operations by facilitating access to regional ports and providing essential supplies, including food, energy, maintenance services, and technical support. When conducting naval operations away from home bases, having trusted access to maritime infrastructure is essential.

During Operation Atalanta, creating and implementing best management practices (BMPs) greatly enhanced ship security against maritime threats and addressed increased piracy concerns. Various protocols involved journey planning, ship fortification, and crew instruction to reduce vessels’ susceptibility to pirate assaults. Extensive input from naval forces, security specialists, and the commercial maritime industry factored into the establishment of these practices. It also demonstrated the efficacy of naval escorts and the significance of timely intelligence exchange, which were eventually integrated into BMP guidelines. The knowledge acquired during Operation Atalanta underscores the importance of adaptability in BMPs, enabling modifications in response to distinct regional risks and operating circumstances.

Italian frigate Carlo Bergamini (F 590) operating in Operation Atalanta. (EUNAVFOR photo)

The Red Sea Crisis and Operation Prosperity Guardian 

The Red Sea Crisis poses a multidimensional problem that calls for a thorough grasp of regional dynamics as well as the limits of previous approaches. It is crucial to consider the important elements that set this crisis apart from earlier maritime security problems, such as Somali piracy. The involvement of state actors, the use of asymmetric warfare tactics, and the strategic significance of the Red Sea distinguish the current crisis from Somali piracy. The limited mechanisms and appetite for regional cooperation add further distinctions. The present analysis aims to establish a basis for understanding the prevailing circumstances and identifying possible paths toward restoring maritime security. It also underscores the necessity for inventive and tailored strategies considering the region’s unique features.

Geopolitical Complexities 

Although networked situational awareness successfully mitigated Somali piracy risk in 2008, a complicated web of political, economic, and security issues are at work in the Red Sea region, making it more difficult to holistically address the crisis. The current crisis reflects the chronic struggle for control between Sunni and Shia factions that overlays much of the region’s geopolitics. While the Houthis publicly claim their attacks on commercial shipping are a way to support the Palestinians, there exists widespread political instability and violence in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Sudan, and especially in Yemen.

While Iran appears to be the main state player backing the Houthis, other nations with strategic stakes in Yemen offer diplomatic, financial, or logistics as part of their larger regional ambitions.5 These nations may show support or sympathy for the Houthi rebels, but the level of commitment and assistance may differ. Even though Syria, Lebanon, and Qatar have little direct involvement in the Yemeni crisis, they back Iran diplomatically and have a shared goal of countering Saudi influence in the area. By comparison, Somali pirates had little in the way of state backing, making it easier for regional actors to build partnerships and information sharing arrangements. Competing geopolitical strains will challenge the ability to build regional cooperation and efficient maritime security measures that are targeted toward the Houthis.

Unlike the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast, where the threat of piracy led to the development of robust international cooperation mechanisms such as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), the Red Sea region lacks a similar unified framework.6 In addition to the climate of distrust, many regional states face significant economic challenges such as the lack of modern port facilities, inadequate naval capabilities, and limited access to advanced technology and communication systems. Due to concerns over sovereignty and the sharing of sensitive information, some countries may be hesitant to fully engage in interconnected situational awareness systems and regional information-sharing initiatives for fear of compromising their national security.

Operation Prosperity Guardian will struggle to definitively end this crisis if it cannot degrade the logistics networks that are underpinning the Houthis’ capability to threaten maritime shipping. Stronger information sharing would be invaluable for defeating these networks. Besides Iran, other parties are providing the Houthis with a continuous supply of arms and ammunition.7 These deliveries occur by way of local smuggling channels, especially illicit arms networks that operate regionally and globally. Often involving the clandestine transfer of arms through various channels, including land, sea, and air routes, they exploit Yemen’s weak border controls and porous maritime routes. They are partly facilitated by complicit border officials or local militias, whose influence may extend beyond the Houthi-controlled territories of Yemen. Yemen’s long coastline and many ports make it possible for weapons to be smuggled into the nation via small boats or shipping routes. Smugglers can use numerous ports, fishing communities, and isolated coves scattered along the coastline as possible entry sites. Major ports in Yemen, including Hodeidah, Aden, and Mukalla, are known crossroads for legal and illegal maritime traffic, posing challenges to controlling arms shipments.

The presence of multiple littoral states with different levels of infrastructure development, naval capabilities, and political amity poses a challenge to establishing a cohesive logistical support network. The absence of a strong regional mechanism or organization, like the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) in the case of Operation Atalanta, hinders the coordination of logistical support efforts among regional states and commercial maritime partners.8 The ongoing conflicts and instability in countries like Yemen and Sudan disrupt port access, supply chains, and other logistical arrangements, making it more difficult to sustain naval operations and provide adequate security for commercial vessels.

New Approaches and Strategies

Addressing the issues raised by the Red Sea crisis and protecting the global commons requires the strategic use of naval forces, especially the U.S. Navy. Because of its skills, worldwide reach, and relations with maritime industry, the U.S. Navy can play a major role in stabilizing the region and protecting key maritime trade routes. It can take the lead in creating regional frameworks that apply the relevant lessons from Operation Atalanta to the crisis at hand.

The U.S. Navy can facilitate greater cooperation and communication between commercial and littoral states. Leveraging its partnerships, the U.S. Navy can promote information exchange, cooperative training, and initiatives to foster mutual trust. A heightened level of engagement between regional entities can enhance confidence and facilitate more efficient intelligence sharing, a crucial aspect of proactively addressing maritime security challenges.

BMPs can be updated and modified under the U.S. Navy’s direction to consider the Red Sea’s unique threats. These procedures ought to be made to strengthen crew readiness, enhance vessel security, and reduce the dangers connected with the Houthis’ specific capabilities. BMPs developed during Operation Atalanta were specifically tailored to address the threat of Somali piracy, which primarily involved small skiffs and armed boardings, whereas the security threats in the Red Sea region are more diverse and intense. Due to the Houthi’s utilization of advanced weaponry, such as missile and drone attacks, BMPs should be revised to incorporate ship-hardening measures tailored to these risks, such as heightened surveillance and early warning systems. Furthermore, crew training programs should undergo revisions to incorporate drills and protocols for addressing missile and drone attacks, damage control, and emergency communications. 

The Red Sea crisis can look to replicate the ISAS capability of Atalanta, which blends cutting-edge technology, regional collaboration, and capacity-building activities, is one such strategy. The primary objective of ISAS would be to improve the collection and exchange of intelligence among international stakeholders, commercial marine partners, and littoral states. ISAS can offer a thorough, up-to-date picture of the Red Sea’s security situation using capabilities such as drone surveillance, artificial intelligence-powered data analysis, and satellite images. More efficient logistics support, incident response, and naval operations coordination would be made possible by this improved situational awareness. Additionally, ISAS would prioritize involving local stakeholders and enhancing regional capability via initiatives for technology transfer, cooperative exercises, and training programs. By promoting a shared sense of accountability and ownership among regional stakeholders, ISAS can aid in creating enduring, long-term solutions to the Red Sea’s maritime security issues. This wide-ranging approach offers a new paradigm for handling the intricate security dynamics of the Red Sea crisis by blending technology innovation with regional collaboration and capacity-building.

The most important and necessary measure is developing a broader strategy that can operate within the geopolitical complexity of the Red Sea region. The United States and other major powers should call a summit with all major players to devise a strategy for resolving the Red Sea situation. The primary goal of this meeting would be to develop a strategy and earn buy-in for a comprehensive approach that will solve the fundamental drivers of the crisis.


Operation Atalanta demonstrates the importance of intelligence sharing, logistical support, and BMP implementation in enhancing maritime security. It also demonstrated the efficacy of public/private partnerships between naval forces and the commercial shipping industry while establishing a holistic strategy for addressing risks. The obstacles posed by the Red Sea crisis and the effective use of naval power are distinct, requiring a considered evaluation of the applicable lessons from Atalanta. Longstanding geopolitical rivalries are prevalent in the region and challenge the ability to develop regional partnerships. The lack of a robust regional cooperation framework restricts the application of previous lessons to the current crisis. For Operation Prosperity Guardian to succeed in securing the Red Sea commons, these complex difficulties must be addressed.

Joseph F Greco, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, holds a BA in history from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in financial economics from the University of California. He has secured over $8 million in grants, focusing on multinational corporations and Chinese capital markets. Dr. Greco founded Tritech, the first high-tech small business development center within the U.S. Small Business Administration. He currently serves as a Blue and Gold officer for the U.S. Naval Academy and the president of the Orange County Council of the Navy League. His present research explores the link between U.S. naval power, cyberwarfare, and the global economy.


1. Bueger, C. (2015). What is maritime security? Marine Policy, 53, 159-164.

2. European Union Naval Force Somalia. (2020). Operation Atalanta.

3. Cusumano, E., & Ruzza, S. (2020). Piracy and the privatisation of maritime security: Vessel protection policies compared. Palgrave Macmillan.

4. Kraska, J., & Pedrozo, R. (2013). International maritime security law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

5. Stavridis, J. (2024, January 3). Hit the Houthis and Iran where it counts. Bloomberg.

6. Papastavridis, E. (2013). The interception of vessels on the high seas: Contemporary challenges to the legal order of the oceans. Hart Publishing.

7. Holtom, P., & Pavesi, I. (2018). Trade Update 2018: Sub-Saharan Africa in Focus. Small Arms Survey.

8. Bueger, C. (2021). Coordination in maritime security: The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. Ocean Development & International Law, 52(2), 110-127.

Featured Image: Italian frigate Carlo Bergamini (F 590) operating in Operation Atalanta. (EUNAVFOR photo)

Maritime Traffic Trends and Considerations in the Red Sea

Red Sea Topic Week

By Dirk Siebels

The importance of maritime trade is often highlighted to justify naval spending and operations. When commercial traffic in the Red Sea started to be impacted by Houthi attacks, countless statements were subsequently issued that included the percentage of world trade or specific types of cargoes that are normally moved through this area. Maritime trade did not come to a standstill despite the threat. Ships were – and still are – re-routed around Africa to avoid Red Sea passages. While a longer route is more expensive, it is important to consider that maritime transport in general is extremely efficient – and therefore cheap. Freight rates have accordingly stabilised as shipping companies settled into a ‘new normal.’

Operations of international naval forces in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have been hampered by various shortcomings. On the tactical and operational level, problems have included ammunition shortages, a lack of coordination between allied nations, as well as deficient equipment. Despite the negative headlines, naval forces can also point to large numbers of intercepted missiles and drones, as well as dozens of escorts of merchant ships.

Launching a multinational operation with little time for preparation and planning to counter an unprecedented threat is no small feat. It would be unreasonable to expect neither mistakes nor problems. At the same time, it is questionable at best whether the current naval operations can become a success on the strategic level. So far, military interventions responding to Houthi attacks have been characterized by complicated coordination on the political level, virtually non-existent broader engagement with Houthi leaders, as well as a lack of clearly identified – and achievable – aims. Moreover, cooperation between naval forces and commercial shipping is limited and often confusing in execution. This aspect is particularly problematic, considering that naval operations were launched as a direct response to Houthi attacks against merchant vessels.

One important question is whether military operations have had an impact on merchant shipping through the Red Sea and what the outlook now is. Finding answers requires a detailed look at figures for maritime traffic.

Maritime Traffic Patterns

The number of merchant ship transits through the Bab el Mandeb has declined considerably due to Houthi attacks. By mid-December, many container lines declared that most or all of their ships would be re-routed around the Cape of Good Hope. Figure 1 shows that the announcement was followed by an immediate drop in container ships passing the Bab el Mandeb. While that does not mean that all container traffic in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden has stopped, most vessels which are still transiting the Bab el Mandeb are relatively small and mostly trading within the region.

Figure 1: Weekly Bab el Mandeb passings by ship type, including merchant vessels >10,000 dwt. (Author graphic, based on data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence/Seasearcher)

The decline for other ship types has been more gradual, likely due to the fact that the container market is heavily concentrated. In this sector of the shipping industry, the five largest companies control almost two-thirds of the entire market. In other sectors, notably in the bulk carrier and tanker markets, concentration is much less significant. Many companies of all sizes therefore have to consider the risk levels to their vessels before deciding whether or not to transit through the Red Sea.

So far, military operations have not led to a recovery in maritime traffic levels. Instead, traffic figures have been relatively stable since mid-January at between 40 to 50 percent of Bab el Mandeb transits compared to the same period during the previous year (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Weekly Bab el Mandeb transits by merchant ships >10,000 dwt. (Author graphic, based on data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence/Seasearcher)

The fact that there have been very little changes to current traffic levels between January and April highlights how operators of commercial vessels remain hesitant about a full return to the Red Sea. Whether that is due to the current level of military operations or the apparent lack of additional efforts to negotiate with Houthi leaders is open for debate.

In this context, it is interesting that the EU-led Operation Aspides has been hailed as a major success. On April 8, EU representatives stated that 68 merchant vessels had been escorted since the beginning of the operation. However, that amounts to less than two ships per day, compared with the 30 to 40 ships transiting the Bab el Mandeb per day even at the current level of traffic. No similar statistics have been provided for Operation Prosperity Guardian, but the numbers are very unlikely to be significantly higher.

Moreover, naval forces have recommended that ship operators should consider Red Sea transits with AIS switched off. EU naval forces have tried to underline this recommendation with an alarming statistic: “Around 80% of vessels that have been hit had AIS .”

Whether this is really useful advice is at least questionable. Despite naval recommendations to the contrary, more than 90 percent of merchant ships are transiting the Bab el Mandeb with AIS switched on. The situation has not changed significantly over time either, shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Bab el Mandeb passings by merchant ships >10,000 dwt with and without AIS. (Author graphic, based on data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence/Seasearcher)

Political Considerations

In combination with the broader regional context, political decision-makers are left with a complicated dilemma. Should there be a military response against the Houthi attacks? Should military operations be purely defensive? Would strikes against Houthi targets lead to another escalation in the Middle East?

There is still no definitive agreement about the answers to these and related questions. The U.S. government launched Operation Prosperity Guardian already in December with a defensive mandate. Despite its multinational character, countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia were unwilling to contribute. Several European countries also decided against participating in the U.S.-led operation and ultimately agreed on the EU-led Operation Aspides, launched in February with a stricter defensive focus. Meanwhile, U.S. forces launched military strikes against Houthi forces. In some cases, these were supported by other nations, yet offensive actions are part of a separate operation (Poseidon Archer). This separation is purely political as offensive actions are not supported by all countries participating in Prosperity Guardian.

Houthi attacks are a challenge to freedom of navigation. The actual extent of this challenge, however, is open for debate. Since the beginning of the Houthi campaign in November, the U.S. and several other governments have frequently stated that the attacks against merchant ships have been “indiscriminate.” Houthi forces have publicly stated their targeting parameters and initially wanted to target ships which are directly owned by Israeli companies. Such vessels quickly stopped Red Sea transits, leading the Houthis in early December to expand their potential targets to ships trading with Israel. Military strikes by American and British forces in January then led to another expansion of the potential targets to merchant ships owned by U.S. and UK companies. Some attacks were very likely carried out based on outdated commercial information about individual ships. Overall, this has resulted in a situation where the threat level for merchant vessels is closely linked to individual characteristics while all ship operators have to take the potential for collateral damage into account.

It should be noted that the reassuring presence of warships must be better coordinated. With MSCHOA and UKMTO, there are two reporting centers responsible for broadly the same region. Neither center has a full picture which includes all attacks or attempted attacks by Houthi forces since November. In addition, neither center even acknowledges the presence of another reporting center in their frequent updates to the shipping industry. The question of cooperation between MSCHOA and UKMTO has been a more or less theoretical question for many years. In the current situation, it deserves concrete resolution.


Naval missions to counter the threat posed by Houthi attacks may be worthwhile operations, particularly from the perspective of seafarers who rarely have a choice whether they want to transit the Red Sea. However, many of the military operations so far have been tactically focused on day-to-day operations, and much less focused on affecting the longer-term outlook. The number of ships which have been escorted has been highlighted as a success, yet many of these ships arguably would have transited anyway. More importantly, Houthi forces have firmly established the threat of drone and missile attacks, and shipping traffic is still about half of what it was before the Houthis began their attacks.

It is very likely that a longer-term mission would be necessary to meaningfully reduce the threat posed by the Houthis. But would it be possible to verify that the threat for merchant ships has been reduced enough – and how much of a reduction is enough to begin with?

Navies have been able to show their capabilities in an operational context and identify valuable lessons learned. Success on the tactical level, however, is very different from the strategic level which would include a return to normal levels of commercial traffic in the Red Sea. As it stands, it is impossible to predict when a sustainable increase in maritime traffic will take place. Such an increase, however, will very likely be based on commercial considerations rather than on the presence of warships. Frigates and destroyers may be reassuring to seafarers, yet they are unable to intercept every incoming missile or drone. More importantly, the current level of naval operations is not sustainable in the long term. Other solutions to address the threat are needed.

Dr. Dirk Siebels is a Senior Analyst for Risk Intelligence, a Denmark-based security intelligence company. The views expressed here are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: Red Sea (Jan. 31, 2024) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87), sails in the Red Sea in support of Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Krucke)

Sea Control 517 – Understanding Maritime Security with Dr. Christian Bueger and Dr. Tim Edmunds

By Jared Samuelson

Dr. Christian Bueger and Dr. Tim Edmunds join the program to discuss co-authors of the forthcoming book, Understanding Maritime Security. Christian is a professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen and the Director of SafeSeas, the network for maritime security research. Tim is a professor of International Security at the University of Bristol.

Download Sea Control 517 – Understanding Maritime Security with Dr. Christian Bueger and Dr. Tim Edmunds


1. Understanding Maritime Security, by Christian Bueger and Timothy Edmunds, Oxford University Press, May 31, 2024.

2. Sea Control 196 – Blue Crime with Professor Christian Bueger, CIMSEC, August 23, 2020.

3. Sea Control 251 – Undersea, Out of Mind with Dr. Christian Bueger and Dr. Tobias Liebetrau, CIMSEC, May 20, 2021.

4. Sea Control 344 – The Western Indian Ocean’s Militarization Dilemma, CIMSEC, May 12, 2022.

5. Sea Control 225 – IUU Fishing and the Evolution of Sea Shepherd with Dr. Claude Berube, CIMSEC, January 31, 2021.

Jared Samuelson is Co-Host and Executive Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

This episode was edited and produced by Jonathan Selling.

Escalation Beneath the Waves: The Looming Threat of Houthi UUVs in the Red Sea

Red Sea Topic Week

By Commander Amila Prasanga, Sri Lankan Navy

A New Threat Looms

The Red Sea, a narrow waterway snaking between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, serves as a vital route for global trade. Significant energy resources transit the Red Sea, including an estimated 12 percent of total seaborne-traded oil in the first half of 2023, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments that account for about 8 percent of worldwide LNG trade. However, this crucial passage now faces a new and unexpected threat – Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs) deployed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Houthis’ use of UUVs marks a significant escalation in the ongoing Red Sea crisis. These submersible drones, while not as sophisticated as military submarines, pose a significant challenge to naval operations designed primarily to counter surface and aerial threats. The emergence of the Houthi UUVs threat necessitates a comprehensive reassessment of the naval defense strategies and tactics being employed in the Red Sea.

How can coalition forces adapt Red Sea operations to enhance undersea defense against unconventional threats such as Houthi UUVs? What steps are required to restore stability in the Red Sea region, emphasizing a decisive response to the Houthi UUVs threat? Furthermore, how must global navies adapt their warfighting techniques to effectively counter the distinct challenges posed by these emerging undersea threats?

By effectively addressing these critical questions, the international community can ensure the safety of vital sea lanes in the Red Sea and establish a framework for countering emerging undersea threats in the future.

Houthi UUV Capabilities and the Evolving Threat

The Houthi rebels in Yemen have injected a new and unsettling element into the Red Sea’s already tense security landscape. In March three undersea telecommunication cables were cut in the Red Sea, which the Houthis have denied doing, but nonetheless suggests a contested undersea domain. While details about Houthi UUVs remain murky, open-source intelligence suggests they are likely commercially-adapted or relatively unsophisticated submersible drones. Despite their presumed lack of sophistication compared to military submarines, these low-cost UUVs pose a significant threat due to several key factors.

The operational range and payload capacity of Houthi UUVs are currently unknown. However, even a modest range, measured in tens of miles, could enable them to target commercial shipping within the Red Sea. Their potential payload could include mines, torpedoes, or explosives packed into the hull, possibly enough to inflict significant damage on unsuspecting commercial vessels.

Houthi UUVs likely lack sophisticated guidance and targeting systems compared to military-grade undersea drones. They may rely on basic GPS or pre-programmed routes, as well as wire guidance. However, this simplicity can also make them difficult to detect and eliminate before they reach their targets.

Traditional naval defenses designed to counter surface and aerial threats are largely ineffective against undersea drones. Sonar technology and undersea surveillance systems are crucial for detecting and tracking UUVs. The preferable escort and maneuver patterns of warships searching for undersea threats may be at odds with the operational patterns that optimize air defense coverage, potentially creating difficult tradeoffs and tensions. This can create a significant challenge for the international coalition forces operating in the Red Sea.

The impact of Houthi UUVs extends far beyond potential damage to individual ships. The very presence of undersea threats is disruptive, given how the stealth of undersea platforms can magnify the effects of their operations and substantially shape the behaviors of those under threat. According to a recent report by the Global Trade Research Institute, even minor disruptions to Red Sea shipping could have a cascading effect on economies in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The specter of undersea threats can stimulate outsized uncertainty and risk, potentially driving up insurance costs and impacting global supply chains further.

Responses and Challenges in a Multi-Domain Environment

Faced with Houthi UUVs lurking beneath the waves, the international coalition in the Red Sea is grappling with a new and demanding challenge. However, the coalition is not without options. There are various strategies and capabilities that can be employed by coalition forces.

Mine Countermeasures warships (MCMs) are crucial for clearing mines potentially deployed by the Houthis, which can be deployed by the UUVs in sea lanes and also deployed near the UUV launch sites. The sonar and mine disposal capabilities of MCM ships can play a vital role in safeguarding sea lanes and improving undersea domain awareness.

Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities can be adapted to the UUV fight, including sonobuoys, towed array sonars, dipping sonars, and deployable hydrophone arrays. These tools can help create a more comprehensive undersea surveillance network in the Red Sea and gather critical intelligence on the telltale signatures of UUVs. An undersea surveillance network can be useful for cueing UUV hunters toward detections, rather than relying hunters to find UUVs using only their organic sensors.

The information-intensive nature of surveilling the complex undersea domain demands thoughtful approaches to intelligence coordination. Information sharing and collaboration among coalition members is critical for locating Houthi UUVs. Real-time data exchange can help predict potential attacks and enable a more coordinated response. Faster reaction times and improved targeting capabilities could potentially be used to intercept Houthi support vessels or launch platforms before they deploy UUVs. Ultimately coalition forces can aspire to strike Houthi UUVs before they are ever deployed by degrading their enabling infrastructure.

Despite the possibility of adaptation, current undersea surveillance capabilities may not be optimal for detecting low-signature Houthi UUVs, particularly in the acoustic environment of the Red Sea. The maritime shipping that continues to transit may transmit significant sound into the undersea environment that complicates UUV hunting, especially as a UUV nears a target merchant vessel. Advanced undersea drones and sensor networks specifically designed for UUV detection are urgently needed. Employing new tactics for UUV detection, engagement, and neutralization will require tailored training and exercises that realistically simulate hostile UUV encounters.


The Red Sea crisis serves as a pivotal moment in the evolution of maritime security. The lessons learned here – the importance of adapting naval power, the dangers of escalation, and the necessity of international cooperation – will reverberate far beyond the shores of this strategically vital waterway. By embracing innovation, fostering collaboration, and developing effective strategies for the undersea battlefield, the international community can ensure the safety and security of global trade routes and navigate the challenges of the 21st-century maritime security landscape.

Forces must consider what adaptations can meet the emerging UUV threat. Investing in cutting-edge drone detection and undersea surveillance systems is crucial for creating a comprehensive UUV defense network. Research and development efforts should focus on advanced sonar technologies and autonomous undersea vehicles (AUVs) specifically designed for UUVs countermeasures. Improved intelligence gathering and information sharing among coalition partners is essential for tracking UUVs and anticipating potential attacks. This includes intelligence cooperation with regional partners and leveraging advanced surveillance technologies.

The Red Sea crisis underscores the importance of international cooperation in addressing emerging maritime threats. Sharing best practices, conducting joint training exercises, and fostering closer collaboration on technology development are all crucial steps towards a more robust response to UUVs. The Houthi UUV threat offers a stark reminder of the need for continuous adaptation and innovation in the realm of naval warfare. Long-theorized unmanned undersea threats have now arrived.

Commander Amila Prasanga, Sri Lankan Navy, is Military Research Officer at the Institute of National Security Studies, the premier Sri Lankan think tank on national security, established and functioning under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence. The opinions expressed are his own and are not necessarily reflective of the official views of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.

Featured Image: A Remus 600 UUV being operated by U.S. Navy sailors. (U.S. Navy photo by Capt. Gary Loten-Beckford).

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.