The Coming of Age of Directed Energy Weapons and the Red Sea Crisis

Red Sea Topic Week

By Dr. Bonnie Johnson

The recent crisis in the Red Sea has escalated from Houthi drone and missile attacks on commercial ships to a major Iranian-led, Houthi-supported barrage (300+ aerial threats) against Israel. U.S. Navy and coalition partner warships have intercepted numerous missiles and drones to protect commercial shipping and support Israel’s Iron Dome to successfully defeat Iran’s latest barrage attack. The Navy and coalition are using kinetic weapons – guns and missiles – to intercept the threats.

The Navy and coalition partners have been remarkably successful at thwarting the attacks so far, but at great cost that will be challenging to sustain. According to a recent CRS report, the current events in the Red Sea raise two serious problems: the Navy’s “depth of magazine” that is being taxed, and the highly asymmetric “cost exchange ratio” between the Navy’s expensive missiles and the inexpensive threats they are intercepting. A ship’s “depth of magazine” refers to its limited number of missiles and gun ammunition, which when depleted, requires the ship to be reloaded. This takes considerable time, including travel to a safe reloading area.

The “cost exchange ratio” refers to the large differential between the procurement costs for the Navy’s air defense missiles and the adversary’s relatively inexpensive offensive drones and missiles. The CRS report estimates that the Navy’s air defense missiles range from “several hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars per missile, depending on the type.” These costs stand in stark contrast to estimates of Houthi Iranian-made drones launched by the dozen that can “cost as little as a few thousand dollars.”

Wes Rumbaugh of CSIS adds the caveat that the cost exchange ratio is an insufficient measure of the real cost and operational considerations of conflicts. He points out the often-underappreciated complexities of defensive missile requirements that must provide precision guidance and exceptional maneuverability, the complex decisions that commanders must make to defend a region, and the value of the defended assets which include lives, expensive ships, and the broader economic impacts of attacks on commercial shipping. He also mentions how the escort mission in the Red Sea requires area defense capabilities that offer better range than point defense capabilities, where attacks often necessitate the use of expensive munitions to protect distant ships on short notice.

There is a high likelihood of wider proliferation and increased use of Red Sea crisis-inspired threats by more terrorist groups and nations over time. The recent attacks have wreaked havoc on regional stability, disrupted shipping, causing terror, escalating the conflict, and potentially normalizing attacks on shipping. The attacking capabilities are relatively easy and inexpensive to acquire and employ. Some fraction of the threats may fail to launch, maneuver, or impact their intended targets, but this can be compensated for by launching many of them simultaneously or over time. Adversaries may realize the asymmetric advantage of depleting warship arsenals and running up expensive price tabs, and purposely use many low-cost, crude threats to gradually reduce defenses through wave attacks. Peer competitor nations may also adopt this strategy and opt for swarms of inexpensive unmanned systems instead of more sophisticated missiles.

Noticeably absent are directed energy (DE) weapons, which multiple senior leaders have called for in response to the Red Sea attacks. The Navy’s SWO boss, Vice Adm. Brendan McLane, has expressed frustration over the lack of DE weapons, including lasers and high-power microwaves to counter the threats in the Red Sea. McLane wants to see industry speed up the development of DE weapons for integration onto warships. The commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Michael Kurilla, has also voiced the need for DE weapons, explaining that they are especially needed to counter swarm threats as part of a layered defense. Admiral Chris Grady, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also recently expressed interest in DE weapons to improve the cost exchange of air defense.

Operational DE weapons can help tackle the magazine depth and cost exchange challenges posed by threats. Laser weapons offer the potential for speed-of-light defense against threats with their focused beams – blinding sensors or burning through materials. HPM devices transmit a wider cone of microwave radiation that can damage a threat’s electronics. As with all capabilities, DE systems have their natural limitations and are therefore seen as weapons that could complement existing ship kinetic weapons rather than replace them. Shipboard DE weapons will provide closer range point defense – or self-defense of the ship or surface action group.

Gulf of Aden (Dec. 14, 2021) Amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD 27) conducts a high-energy laser weapon system demonstration on a static surface training target. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert)

To provide area defense, as is needed in the Red Sea crisis, many DE weapons will have to be widely distributed on surface vessels or be integrated onto aerial platforms for coordinated operations. According to James Black of RAND, costs as low as $13 per shot are estimated for some laser weapons—basically the cost of providing power during lasing. Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren estimates similarly low costs per shot for HPMs. DE weapons have unlimited magazines in the sense they are not running out of ammunition. They can be fired repeatedly, limited by a different set of factors like power and cooling cycles, the time it takes to lase or irradiate targets and slew weapons to engage targets, and environmental effects that can lessen the effects of the DE weapons.

DE weapons are coming of age. Studies conducted by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) assess the pace of advancement and future warfare implications of technology, including the role of DE in future naval weapons. A team of NPS students developed a historical timeline of progress and milestones of the five different types of DE: lasers, particle beams, electromagnetic pulses, microwaves, and millimeter waves (shown in Figure 1). The color shading indicates the evolution from early-growth and development to current prototyping in four of the five types of DE and current stagnation in particle beam applications. Decades of discoveries and inventions have led to the recent era of rapid development, prototyping, and demonstration of these highly complex systems. Rapid advancements are being made in supporting technologies, such as the power and cooling systems to meet size and weight needs, adaptive optics for atmospheric effects and precision targeting, and integration onto platforms and with combat systems. The rise of unmanned threats, such as those in the Red Sea crisis, is helping push lasers and microwave devices over a final set of operationalization hurdles to deployment. 

Figure 1. Directed Energy Technology Evolution. Click to expand. (Graphic by Hurtado, Kenyon, Purakary, Scudder, and Yeary, 2023)

A family of DE systems is coming of age across the services. The Navy’s High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) system, designed to interdict drones, is being tested on a destroyer platform and is a “bit beyond” the experimentation phase and primed for growth according to Navy Secretary Carlos Tel Toro. The Navy’s Optical Dazzling Interdictor-Navy (ODIN) system has deployed on eight ships as a softkill system than can blind the sensors of drones. The Marine Corps is developing the LOCUST laser weapon system which will be integrated on tactical vehicles. The Army is developing 300 kW-class laser weapons as part of their Indirect Fire Protection Capability – High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) program. Arguably, the Air Force is tackling the most vexing application, integrating DE weapons on aircraft with their Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) and Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) programs. Aerial platforms for DE weapons are key to expanding beyond point defense tactics (self-defense at close ranges) to providing defense for an area, as is needed for protecting the Red Sea region.

HPM devices are maturing at a similar pace. Eric Teger describes the Directed Energy Front-Line Electromagnetic neutralization and Defeat (DEFEND) HPM prototype preparing for near-term field testing by the Navy, Air Force, and OSD. DEFEND is the size of a large CONEX maritime shipping container which could fit onto a ship or be towed by a vehicle. Future advancement will focus on decreasing its size, weight, and power.

Preparing adolescent DE systems for adulthood requires a push to get them across the “Valley of Death” – an often difficult transition from the development to the acquisition community. This is reflected in the possible price tag of $1 billion for the Navy’s first laser weapon program of record. Cost studies are underway to weigh the potential benefits of future low-cost-per-shot with the additional development costs still required to produce the weapons, and the recent unit production cost estimates of $100-200 million for an operational shipboard laser weapon depending on the power level. A challenge to analyzing the overall costs of laser weapons is the absence of previous, long-term programs of record to provide historical data.

The ODIN laser system, pictured below the bridge, appears installed aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale during a July 2021 underway period. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Elisha Smith)

In terms of technological advances for crossing the “Valley of Death,” much of what is needed lies in continued testing and evaluation, operationalization, and providing training and education. Efforts are underway for prototyping, demonstrations, range testing, and evaluation of system capabilities and limitations in operational environments. The current DE family of systems are in different stages of maturity, ranging from low Technology Readiness Levels (TRL 3-5) for future systems like the 300kW laser or the airborne laser, to TRL 7-8 for systems like ODIN and HELIOS that are recently demonstrating capability at sea. As systems reach higher TRLs, there remains a significant effort required to transition the systems to ensure they are safe, reliable, usable, and fit to perform as intended in operations. Technological maturity must be complimented by extensive tactical development. More analysis is needed to fully develop DE concepts of employment and how they affect broader tactics and doctrine. These types of analysis can inform additional DE maturation focus areas as identified and described in Table 1.

Table 1 – DE Maturation Focus Areas for Crossing the Valley of Death

Focus areas for DE maturation Descriptions
SWAP-C (Size, Weight, Power and Cost) Further reduce the size and weight of DE systems; reduce the amount of power and cooling needed.
Platform integration Increase and improve the platform integration options for DE systems. Design and tailor host platforms specifically for DE weapon systems; design power, cooling, optics, targeting, etc. to best support DE systems and their associated SWAP-C needs.
Combat system integration Integrate the command-and-control functions of DE systems with the existing host platform combat systems.
Automated decision aids Provide artificial intelligence-enabled automated decision tools to support the complex process of operating DE systems
Coordination with kinetic weapons Fully understand how DE weapons can complement kinetic weapons; develop layered defense engagement strategies for a large variety of likely threat scenarios.
Point defense and area defense Continue to develop DE weapons for point defense (closer-range self-defense), but also develop concepts of operation for the coordinated use of multiple distributed DE weapons and DE weapons on aerial platforms to provide defensive capabilities for an area.
Engagement doctrine Develop effective engagement shot doctrine to support coordinated and layered defense use of DE systems in coordination with kinetic weapons.
Safety and deconfliction Provide DE system deconfliction to ensure the use of DE systems does not inadvertently fire at friendly, civilian, and unintended forces, systems, and platforms. Ensure that laser systems do not blind humans, such as pilots of manned platforms.
DE system sustainment Plan and prepare to operate and sustain DE systems including maintenance, repair, and logistics.
Training and education Provide training for warfighters and system operators; provide education to increase and inform the DE community of developers, users, evaluators, engineers, managers, maintainers, and acquisition community.


The recent Red Sea crisis is forcing the Navy to reckon with the rate at which it adopts DE weapons. The crisis has shown that the asymmetric threat is real. The Navy is facing serious challenges with magazine depth and cost exchange ratios as the fleet depletes expensive munitions to counter vastly cheaper threats. The use of cheap drones and missiles is likely to proliferate over time, increasing the potential for the Navy to face numerous low-cost wave attacks alongside more sophisticated threats.

DE weapons offer a potential solution to both the depth of magazine and cost exchange ratio challenges, but only after the technologies cross the “Valley of Death.” A major final growth spurt is required to push the adolescent DE systems into adulthood. The systems must undergo enough operational evaluation to ensure their fitness as safe, reliable, and maintainable capabilities that perform as intended. The DE community and tactical centers of excellence must conduct comprehensive concept of operations and employment analyses to understand how these systems will be effectively used in coordination with kinetic weapon systems. DE systems must be fully integrated with platforms to meet SWAP-C requirements and be operated as part of host combat systems. All of this comes with a sizeable development price tag. The return on investment will be realized as laser weapons and microwave devices come of age and defeat threats with their unlimited magazines and low costs per shot.

Bonnie Johnson is a professor of Systems Engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School. She leads interdisciplinary systems research to explore advanced technologies as engineered solutions for warfighters. She studies the implications of emerging technology on future warfare, specializing in directed energy systems and artificial intelligence.


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Featured Image: November 2014 – The U.S. Navy Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf.

Analyzing the German Frigate Hessen’s Near-Miss of a U.S. Drone in the Red Sea

Red Sea Topic Week

By COL Jörg Stenzel, German Army, and CDR Michael Posey, U.S. Navy 

Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. –Carl von Clausewitz

Almost Friendly Fire

In February 2024, a fortunate mishap prevented German Navy air defenders from shooting down an American MQ-9 Reaper in the Red Sea. The frigate misidentified the U.S. drone and fired two Standard Missile 2s at the target – which both subsequently missed. This near-miss incident in the Red Sea and reports about minimal ammunition stocks have triggered many controversial discussions about the German Navy’s capabilities and readiness. These discussions could erode trust—the trust of the German sailors in their professional skills and weapon systems, and the trust of allies and partners. Since trust is the ultimate currency, the impact of this incident demands a closer assessment.

Operations Prosperity Guardian and Aspides: Protecting the Sea Lanes against Houthi Fires

In response to Israel’s Operation Swords of Iron in Gaza, the Houthis, an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen, started to attack Israel with drones and missiles. As the Israelis intercepted most attacks, the Houthis changed their strategy. Beginning in November 2023, they attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea, often employing anti-ship missiles, which caused severe damage and forced shipping companies to avoid the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and redirect to a much longer route around Africa. The U.S. formed an international coalition comprising more than 20 nations to protect this critical waterway and launched Operation Prosperity Guardian. In January, the U.S. and Great Britain targeted Houthi positions, and President Biden announced that these strikes were in direct response “to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea.” On February 19, 2024, the European Union (EU) launched its EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) Operation Aspides to protect vessels against ongoing attacks, accompany vessels, and reinforce maritime situational awareness. Unlike its sister mission, Aspides is purely defensive and not authorized to strike in the land domain.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius visited the crew of the German Navy warship Hessen in the port of Souda, Creta, shortly before the frigate deployed in their area of operation and said, “The freedom of trade routes and the safety of ships on the most important sea corridor between Europe and Asia are indispensable. […] Germany cannot stand on the sidelines and do nothing.” Protecting the sea lanes has always mattered politically to Germans. For instance, former German President Horst Köhler resigned in 2010 over critiques of his statement that Germany has to be able to secure lines of communication in the global economy.

Fourteen years later, the German Bundestag approved the participation of armed German forces in Operation EUNAVFOR Aspides on February 23, 2024, with 538 out of 573 members of Parliament voting in favor of the mission. Germany’s main contribution to the mission, besides personnel at the Headquarters in Larissa, Greece, and on the flagship, is the guided missile frigate Hessen, seen as its Navy’s “gold standard.”

Modern, Mighty, Mobile: Hessen is State of the Art, yet Misidentified a U.S. Drone

The ship has capabilities in all warfare areas, but its specialty is air defense. The German Ministry of Defense takes pride in the U.S. accepting the ship to provide air coverage for carrier strike group 12 around the USS Gerald R. Ford in 2022. The Hessen has a multifunctional Active Phased Array Radar (APAR) and the long-range air surveillance and detection radar SMART-L to fulfill this role. The latter has a range of 400 km (about 250 miles) and can track up to 1,000 airborne targets at the same time, and the former can detect and track more than 200 targets up to 150 kilometers (about 93 miles). To neutralize airborne threats, the frigate is equipped with one Mk 41 Vertical Launching System for 24 RIM-66 Standard Missiles (SM-2MR) and 32 RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM]), two Mk 49 missile launching systems for RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM) and an Oto-Melara 76/62 gun. For anti-surface and anti-submarine missions, the ship has a launcher for RGM-84 Harpoon missiles, tubes for EuroTorp MU 90 impact torpedoes, and 27mm autocannon systems. These systems are operated by a command-and-control system with a fully distributed data processing system and a redundant fiberglass data network connecting its sensors and effectors.

Jan. 28, 2017, Norfolk – German Navy frigate FGS Hessen (F 221) approaches Pier 5 at Naval Station Norfolk. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Bobby Siens)

On February 26th, the ship detected an Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV) approaching the Hessen’s area of responsibility with at least 15 merchant ships sailing within the vicinity. The UAV lacked an Identification, Friend, or Foe (IFF) transponder signal. After coordinating with allied units and the relevant command posts in the maritime area, the commander decided to attack. The two designated SM-2 missiles did not destroy the target, which in this case, was good news as the UAV turned out to be a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper.

While the German Joint Forces Operational Command stated that the technical team of the frigate fixed the issue causing the erroneous SM-2 engagements, the German press reacted with sensationalist stories, with one national magazine headline entitled, “The Navy becomes a laughingstock.” Even after the crew later destroyed two Houthi UAVs, the press speculated about further malfunctions of the SM-2 and ESSM weapons because the ship fired its RAM and cannon to down the two drones. Furthermore, commentators questioned the possibility of resupplying the warship with expensive and limited SM-2 and ESSM missiles.

The Chief of the German Navy took a clear position and defended the crew, calling the actions that nearly ended in the destruction of an allied UAV a “textbook solution,” and making a strong statement that he would have acted in the same way. Still, his statement was vague regarding the ammunition concern, simply announcing that the Navy had enough.

Both the SMART-L and APAR radars detected and tracked the possible air threat, showing their functionality. But the systems are of a technical standard from the late 1990s and may have lapsed into obsolesce. More sophisticated systems can compare the electromagnetic signature of a possible target with a database and could have identified the UAV as a Reaper despite the lack of transponder signal. The Navy knew of this problem, and since 2006, the leadership has tried to close the capability gap. The shrinking defense budget and the costly and prioritized operation in Afghanistan and other stabilization missions have prevented the modernization of these naval systems. Finally, in 2021, the Bundeswehr awarded a contract to Hensoldt to integrate an Israeli long-range radar into the frigate, a complex modernization project that will not be finished before 2027.

The Hessen is not the first high-end air defense platform that misidentified an aircraft. In 1988, while patrolling the Persian Gulf, the USS Vincennes (CG-49) shot down a civilian Iranian Airbus, killing 290 passengers. While the modern-for-its-time cruiser, equipped with the new SPY-1A radar and AEGIS weapons system, patrolled the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, the ship’s commanding officer believed his ship was under attack by an Iranian F-14.

The fog of war during the incident could be attributed to a lack of communication on the guard distress channel, crew resource management, technical incongruencies, and mounting U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Strait of Hormuz. Developed to “solve the problem of air defense,” the AEGIS weapons system – so named the “Shield of the Fleet” – was supposed to use automation to reduce human error. Instead, innovative technology has introduced different human errors. The Vincennes incident reminds us that technology can never remove the friction inherent in combat. Further, the Vincennes incident demonstrates that tactical-level mistakes, like aircraft misidentification, can have tragic, strategic-level impacts.

Complex Command and Control Begets Cross-Mission Communication Challenges

The misidentification of the MQ-9 also raises questions about the command and control (C2) design of the operations and the situational awareness in the Red Sea and surrounding waters. Overlapping maritime operations and jurisdictions in the wider area, from the eastern coastal area of Eritrea and Ethiopia to the Strait of Hormuz in the west, could have contributed to Hessen’s lack of situational awareness regarding the MQ-9.

The European Union’s Operation Atlanta has an area of responsibility which includes the Gulf of Aden, the Somali Basin, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez, and the Gulf of Aqaba. Operation Agenor, also under the umbrella of the European Common Security and Defense Policy, has responsibilities in an area covering the entire Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and a part of the Arabian Sea. Under U.S. Central Command, the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command has established Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) with 41 partner nations. CMF includes five operational staffs, including Combined Task Forces (CTF) with regional or functional responsibilities. CTF 153, which focuses on security in the Red Sea, is leading Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Greek Rear Admiral Vasileios Gryparis leads the EU Red Sea mission from his headquarters ashore in Larissa, Greece, and the Italian Force Commander, Rear Admiral Stefano Costantino, embarks on his flagship Federico Martinengo. This Italian frigate was already in the area, providing maritime situational awareness and escorting the merchant ships. The Caio Dulio guided missile destroyer replaced it on February 8, 2024. It is possible the new commander did not establish comprehensive situational awareness and command and control. Interestingly, the Parliament in Rome formally approved the Italian contribution to the mission on March 5, 2024, days after the nearly avoided blue-on-blue incident with the Hessen.  

Further exacerbating the issue are disparate C2 of sea and air assets controlled by their nation in Madrid, Rome, or Paris. According to the press release, an indicator of the non-existing overall situational awareness is that the Hessen did not coordinate with the Aspides flagship but directly with CTF 153 to request an update on their airspace picture. The response from their headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, led to the conclusion that the detected UAV must be classified as hostile. As later determined, it was a U.S. asset, so either CTF 153 did not have a clear picture of the situation or could not be shared, possibly because of the compartmental classification of this UAV’s particular mission.

April 20, 2018, Atlantic Ocean – The Sachsen-class German Frigate FGS Hessen (F 221) transits the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tyrell K. Morris)

Costly SM-2s and Dwindling Weapon Stocks

Usually seconds after firing long-range air defense missiles, Sailors would see the effects of the interception in the sky over the Red Sea and/or on their combat system consoles. However, the crew kept relatively silent since the two SM-2s did not destroy their target. Analyzing the press statement, which informed us that the crew had solved the technical mishap, it is likely that a problem with the fire control system, APAR, existed. The system is optimized to intercept supersonic bombers, like the Russian Tupolev Tu-22M, and ballistic missiles. The Reaper by comparison has a cruising speed of about 170–200 miles per hour and may not have been correctly targeted by the combat system. Furthermore, the drone flew parallel to the vessel, which can intensify the cross-range effect and needs to be addressed by calibrating the settings of the fire control system. It seems paradoxical that a slow airframe would be an advantage, but history proves otherwise. For example, the British torpedo bombers “Swordfish” attacked the battleship Bismarck in 1941 and flew slowly, which caused severe challenges for the ship’s air defense fire control system.

Frequent live fire exercises could have helped detect the problem earlier. Still, minimal stock and costly unit prices from $500,000 to more than a million U.S. dollars per missile led to just a few meticulously prepared launches under near-laboratory conditions over the last 30 years.

The crew engaged two hostile drones the next day, and reading between the lines of the press releases, there are occasional hints that a first attempt to destroy them with an ESSM missile failed as well, most likely for the same reasons as the mishaps with the SM-2. The crew then successfully destroyed the targets with RAM and the vessel’s cannon, which the press criticized again. The commentators argued that nearly any German Navy vessel could accomplish this mission, indirectly questioning the value of the air defense escort of the specialized Hessen, an exaggerated and inaccurate claim. However, the described combat situation shows that the layered defense concept works and the Hessen crew wisely leveraged its lower-cost munitions as the tactical situation permitted.

For good reasons, the German Ministry of Defense keeps information about ammunition stocks secret. The opposition recently used the tool of a Parliamentary Inquiry to learn more, but most of the answers are classified. A spokesperson of the Christian Social Union party, part of the current opposition, stated: “We have now only learned on inquiry that part of the ammunition of the frigate ‘Hessen’ can no longer be procured because there is no longer the corresponding industrial capacity.” Using the SIPRI Arms Transfer Database, the German Navy is on record ordering 108 legacy and six later variant SM-2s. Taking exercises since then into account, the number of available SM-2s should be somewhere between 65 and 80, which would only be enough to arm the Navy’s three air defense frigates with a single loadout.

Finally, crew training and morale matters. As noted above, the leadership supported the crew’s decision. In cooperation with Navy Command experts, the embarked organic technical personnel detected and fixed the problem, showing the utmost importance of trained, experienced, and motivated sailors. Precisely here, the Navy, as the whole Armed Forces, faces challenges in recruiting and retention that can create a severe readiness problem. Highly skilled experts, like technical support or radar operators, are significantly understaffed, leading to long individual embarkment periods and making the profession unattractive.

The Hessen is an excellent example of the high mission rate. On July 24, 2023, the frigate cast off and became, for six months, the flagship of Standing Naval Maritime Group 1, part of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. Released from this duty in January 2024, on February 8 the vessel sailed to the Red Sea and ended its mission there on April 21, making for a total deployment length of almost nine months.

Frequent and long-duration deployments deeply affect morale and ship maintenance. Furthermore, press commentary that appears to broadcast more malicious ridicule than professional criticism could also undermine recruiting.

Hessen’s Near Miss Refreshes Timeless Lessons for the Modern Warfighter

The German military is at a critical inflection point. Changing national security priorities from financial crises, a costly counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan, and caring for refugees to investment in large-scale combat operations capabilities proves easier said than done. The German military must make every effort to speed its adaptation, especially by mining the combat experience of the Hessen for extensive lessons.

Situational awareness, effective battlespace management, and well-defined command-and-control are indispensable for effective military operation in every domain. Given the importance of operating with allies and partners, information systems must communicate seamlessly in real time. If for any reason information about assets in the area of responsibility cannot be directly shared, workarounds must be created in advance to avoid incidents like the one described.

Warfighters must train as they would fight. All components of sophisticated weapon systems are costly, but their use must be trained under rigorous combat conditions. Even if a common foundation of doctrine and procedure exists, multinational units need time to train together as a team before going into combat operations. Likewise, backup systems and protocols need to be trained regularly. The latest modern technology can never remove the fog and friction for warfighters at sea, as the Hessen and Vincennes incidents demonstrate. Training using backup systems and going back to basics provides a stronger foundation for dealing with ambiguous combat conditions.

Low stocks are a strategic liability. Purchasing weapon systems is certainly expensive, and the desire to reduce costs is always high, but a complex system of systems will not work for long without deep inventories of essential components. This applies to ammunition, maintenance arrangements, and the real-time availability of spare parts.

There are many questions about Hessen‘s mishaps. Even if the German Navy’s participation in the Red Sea is its most dangerous (combat) mission since the Cold War, it may not be remotely comparable to the challenges of large-scale combat operations, demonstrating the importance of learning from this incident. A political declaration of “Zeitenwende” is not necessarily synonymous with ushering in a new era of combat-ready and modern forces. The blue-on-blue near miss in the Red Sea gives evidence for the timeless Clausewitz dictum that everything in war is simple, but the simplest things can be difficult.

COL Jörg Stenzel is a German Army Armor Officer and CDR Michael Posey is a U.S. Naval Flight Officer. Both currently teach in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA. Both authors’ views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official views of any government or military service.

Featured Image: German Navy frigate Hessen (Bundeswehr photo)

China’s Calculated Inaction in the Red Sea Crisis

Red Sea Topic Week

By David Scott

China presents a paradox—a significant actor with direct interests and presence in the Red Sea, but one that has played a minimal role in the unfolding Red Sea crisis. This crisis is a result of   attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, carried out by the Iranian-backed Houthis in solidarity with Hamas. These attacks have been ongoing since November and show little sign of abating. China has maintained a studied and deliberate distancing from the issue, whose strategic inaction rather than action has been noticeable. A close scrutiny of Chinese strategy and announcements follows.

China’s Interests and Presence 

China’s strategic interest in the Red Sea is two-fold – geo-economic and geopolitical. On the geo-economic front, China is interested in stable maritime trade routes. This includes energy flows from the Middle East and Mediterranean eastwards back to China, and westward flows of Chinese imports and exports to Europe. Disruption of such flows is not something that China particularly wants. Both of these aspects are closely connected with China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative, which in going from the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean passes through the Red Sea. All of the Red Sea littoral states (Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti) have signed up for the Maritime Silk Road. The Suez Canal, Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden are “essential” to the success of China’s MSR.

On the wider geopolitical front, China has strong strategic links with Iran. Both countries are lending support to the Russian war effort in Ukraine, for which the Red Sea has become an important corridor for Russian supplies. China continues to illicitly buy 90 percent of Iran’s oil, thereby helping Iran finance the Houthis and other proxy groups in the Middle East. Hence the Politico headline in March 2024, “How China ended up financing the Houthis’ Red Sea attacks.” China’s other persistent strategic interest was accurately summed up by Ron Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who pointed out in February 2024 that the Red Sea Crisis shows that “Beijing’s main regional focus remains undermining the United States.”

China’s presence in the region is multifaceted. In the Western Indian Ocean, it has privileged port access at Gwadar, Pakistan, where China Overseas Ports Holding Company Limited (COPHC) has a 40-year agreement running from 2013–2053. It has a similar arrangement in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, where China Merchant Ports has an agreement in effect from 2017–2106. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) has a 67 percent share in the running of Piraeus, Greece referred to by President Xi Jinping as the “Dragon’s Head” in his 2019 visit to Greece. If Piraeus is the “Dragon’s Head,” then the Red Sea is the neck linking the Indian torso of the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean head.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visit the container terminal of China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), in Piraeus, Greece, November 11, 2019. (Photo by Orestis Panagiotou via Reuters)

China is involved on both shorelines of the Red Sea. At one end of the Red Sea, China has a 20 percent stake in the running of Port Said in Egypt, and a 25 percent share in the running of Ain Sokhna, also in Egypt, bought in March 2023. Dekhila has also been identified as a further site for Egyptian-Chinese port collaboration. 2023 saw a $6.75 billion deal between Egypt’s Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCEZ) and China’s state-owned China Energy Engineering Corporation (CEEC) to develop green ammonia and green hydrogen projects. China Harbor Engineering Company has been confirmed as the winning bidder to build the new container terminal at Jeddah Islamic Port in Saudi Arabia. China has also established itself as the single largest lender to Eritrea, including financing a 500-kilometer (311-mile) road between Massawa and Assab ports.

At the other end of the Red Sea, China established a military base at Djibouti, operating since 2017. That said, China does not have a monopoly given that the U.S. and France, as well as Italy, Spain, and Japan also have military bases in Djibouti. China is also involved in Djibouti in developing the port of Doraleh, at a time when dept dependency (and future debt swaps on the model of Gwadar and Hanbantota) loom for Djibouti. Finally, agreements were inked in June 2023 for China to develop a satellite launch center at Obock, adding further Chinese presence at the entrance to the Red Sea.

Videoconference from China’s Tiangong space station hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Djibouti to raise local awareness of Chinese astronauts’ in-orbit activities. (Photo by Embassy of China in  Djibouti)

China’s presence is also a matter of naval deployments. Over the last decade, the Chinese Navy has increasingly deployed across the Indian Ocean, with further extensions up the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean at times. Chinese naval vessels have deployed for two primary purposes. One is participation in naval exercises with Pakistan and Iran. The second is the anti-piracy patrol mission running since 2008 in the Gulf of Aden, aimed at piracy emanating from Somalia and East Africa.

On February 21, the 46th fleet of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sailed for the Gulf of Aden mission. This unit consisted of the guided missile destroyer Jiaozuo, the missile frigate Xuchang, and the replenishment vessel Honghu. Over 700 officers and sailors were on board, along with two helicopters. Their mission was to replace the 45th fleet, which was a similar three-ship cohort that was stationed in the Gulf of Aden since September 2023.

The 46th Fleet took over escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia from the 45th Fleet on March 4. The 46th fleet’s first escort duty was to escort the Chinese general cargo ship Kaituo of COSCO to a designated point in the Gulf of Aden. Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Zhang Xiaogang “dismissed links” between Gulf of Aden escort missions and the Red Sea crisis, explaining on February 29 that “the PLAN task groups conduct routine escort operations in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. The recent deployment has nothing to do with the current situation in the region.” The 46th fleet carried out a combat training mission on April 5, but again with no reference to the Red Sea or the Houthis, and indeed with little regard to piracy.

February 3, 2020, Gulf of Aden The supply ship Weishanhu (Hull 887) and guided-missile destroyer Yinchuan (Hull 175) of the 34th Chinese naval escort task force to the Gulf of Aden steam alongside while conducting replenishment-at-sea. (Photo by Chen Wencai and Wen Zaifei/

As to the 45th Fleet, it turned eastwards away from the Red Sea, instead moving across the Arabian Sea to take part in trilateral exercises with Russia and Iran in the Gulf of Oman from March 11-15. Their trilateral exercise, Maritime Security Belt, had little to offer on the Houthi threat in adjacent waters, but sent a wider message to the U.S. and its allies.

With these resources and facilities established in the area, China could intervene militarily in the Red Sea crisis if it chose, or at least increase its deployments, such as India has done. Yet there has not been such Chinese action. Instead, calculated strategic inaction has been evident.

Criticizing the U.S.

At first China ignored the Red Sea crisis. At the initial meeting of the China-Saudi Arabia-Iran trilateral joint committee on December 15, 2023, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his Iranian and Saudi counterparts, but with no particular discussion given on the Red Sea crisis.

In contrast, the December 18 announcement of the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian was met with immediate Chinese criticism. A December 19 editorial appeared in the Chinese state media outlet Global Times under the title, “Can the US-led joint patrols defuse the Red Sea alert?” It denounced the U.S. for its “hegemonic needs,” and argued that the U.S. initiative would fail unless it addressed the “butterfly effect” of the Red Sea crisis as “spillover effects of the Palestine-Israel conflict,” for which a ceasefire was needed. Another Global Times editorial headline put it simplistically, “If U.S. can clear way for ‘cease-fire in Gaza,’ Red Sea problem would be solved.” Nevertheless, as a precaution, on December 19 COSCO announced a halt to shipments through the Red Sea.

That same day, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said that while Houthi attacks on international shipping “harm the United States; they [also] harm China,” such that “we would welcome China playing a constructive role in trying to prevent those attacks from taking place. I will let the Chinese foreign ministry speak to their side of that conversation and any steps that they might have taken.” There are two problems with this line of argument. Firstly, Houthi attacks do not harm China to the same extent they harm the U.S. and the West. Secondly, the tense was future conditional, China has not actually been particularly constructive over the issue, and has shown little proof of steps taken.

China’s Inaction

Why did China choose not to involve itself in the U.S.-led operation? Chinese logic was clearly espoused by Zhao Ziwen and Jevans Nyabiage, arguing in a South China Morning Post December 28 editorial that China would not take part unless its own ships were threatened. One simple reason is that Chinese ships have not been attacked. Indeed, such ships have been actively transmitting their “all Chinese crew” to gain unmolested passage by the Houthis. Even if Chinese ships were being attacked, it is hard to imagine that China, for reasons of national sovereignty and pride, would subsume itself under a U.S.-led operation.

The next indicator of calculated Chinese strategic inaction was with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2772 passed on January 10, 2024. The resolution had three significant parts. Sections 2 “Demands that the Houthis immediately cease all such attacks,” section 3 referred to member states’ right “to defend their vessels from attacks,” and section 4 commended “efforts by Member States within the framework of the International Maritime Organization, to enhance the safety and secure transit of merchant and commercial vessels of all States through the Red Sea.” China’s stance towards the resolution was abstention.

Using the self-defense option presented by section 3, on January 12, the United States and the United Kingdom quickly launched a series of air and missile strikes against the Houthis. Equally quickly, China positioned itself against the U.S.-U.K. strikes. China’s general approach was immediately clear in its state media headlines – “Impossible to restore peace to the Red Sea via military means” (Global Times, January 12), and “UNSC has not authorized force against Yemen” (Global Times, January 13).

The following day, January 14, a Joint Statement between China and the Arab League showed selective positioning:

“Expressing profound concern over the recent escalation in the Red Sea, both parties underscored the paramount importance of upholding Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ensuring the safety of international commercial shipping lines in the Red Sea was deemed crucial.”

The disconnect between the first and second propositions are obvious, with action against Houthi capability in Yemen necessary to an extent to secure shipping. Chinese state media continued to be selective and sharp, in headlines like, “US escalates Red Sea tensions, while China voices fairness” (Global Times, January 16).

Cooperation with Iran

China’s approach has been to seek tacit clearance in advance for its shipping. A Reuters report cited some Chinese pressure exerted on Iran in early January, with an Iranian official revealing that, “Basically, China says: ‘If our interests are harmed in any way, it will impact our business with Tehran. So tell the Houthis to show restraint.’” What became clear was this restraint was aimed towards China rather than the West. This was made more clear with the January 19 announcement by Houthi spokesman Muhammad al-Bulheiti that “Russia and China, their ships will not be threatened, [but will have] securities for their safe passage through the Red Sea.”

There is also a reverse incentive for China to increase its traffic through the Red Sea. Lloyd’s List indicated that while containership transits through the Red Sea have plunged since November, the proportion of China-linked tonnage has surged, much of it involving trade with Russia. In an “opportunistic” move, smaller Chinese companies like Sea Legend Shipping have sent ships to serve the smaller Red Sea ports, including Doraleh in Djibouti, Aden in Yemen, Hodeidah in Yemen, Jeddah and Aqaba in Saudi Arabia, and Sokhna in Egypt. The Qingdao-based Sea Legend Shipping also announced Red Sea transit trips in January.

Faced with reports that China had asked Iran to help rein in Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, China’s Foreign Ministry argued on January 26 that:

“Our position on the situation in the Red Sea is clear. We are deeply concerned about the recent escalating situation in the Red Sea. The Red Sea is an important international trade route for goods and energy. From day one, China has actively deescalated the situation, called for an end to the disturbance to civilian ships, and urged relevant parties to avoid fueling the tensions in the Red Sea and jointly protect the safety of international sea lanes in accordance with the law. What must be underlined is that the tensions in the Red Sea are a spillover of the Gaza conflict, which should end as soon as possible to prevent it from escalating or spiraling out of control. The UN Security Council has never authorized the use of force by any country against Yemen. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yemen and other coastal countries along the Red Sea need to be earnestly respected. China stands ready to work with all parties for the de-escalation of the situation and security and stability of the Red Sea.”

There was absolutely no indication of what exactly China was proposing by the phrase “jointly protect the safety of international sea lanes in accordance with the law.” Is China referring to joint patrols, joint calls, joint interventions? Jointly with who? It also remains unclear how China has been “actively” trying to de-escalate the situation.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi from January 26-27 included the Middle East as a topic, but without any indication by either the U.S. or China on specific discussion, let alone agreement, concerning the Red Sea. The crisis was explained by the South China Morning Post on January 26 as “too important to avoid but too sensitive to mention given the stakeholders involved.” China was very aware of its advantageous position, with state media headlines like, “If the US needs China in Red Sea, it should talk to China nicely,” (Global Times, January 26) and that “Red Sea tension shows US’ weakening in global affairs,” (Global Times, February 1). The Houthi linkage to the Gaza crisis continued to be used by China, with state media headlining “US airstrikes on Houthis can’t stop Red Sea crisis ‘as root cause in Gaza remained unsolved,’” (Global Times, February 4).

The South China Morning Post reported a pact on March 22 between the Houthis, Russia, and China, where Russian and Chinese ships would not be targeted by the Houthis. The pact was drawn up by Russian and Chinese diplomats in Oman, meeting with Mohammed Abdel Salal, a leading political figure of the Houthis. The quid pro quo tradeoff was future political support to the Houthis by Russia and China in UN Security Council deliberations. When questioned on March 22, China’s Foreign Ministry did not deny such an agreement, but refused to give any details of such discussions and tradeoffs.

Ironically, over that same weekend, the Houthis launched five anti-ship ballistic missiles into the Red Sea in the vicinity of M/V Huang Pu, a Panamanian-flagged, Chinese-owned, Chinese-operated oil tanker 23 nautical miles west of Mokha. China’s Foreign Ministry response to this Houthi error was minimal:

“China always opposes harassment against civilian ships and stands for keeping the shipping lanes in the Red Sea safe in accordance with international law. Meanwhile, China believes that the international community needs to work for an early end to the fighting in Gaza and create necessary conditions for the de-escalation of the situation in the Red Sea. China will continue to play a constructive role and strive for the early restoration of peace and tranquility in the Red Sea.”

The lack of specific protest, let alone direct response was telling. The tenuous cover story of linking Houthi actions to the Gaza situation was maintained by China. While the Gaza conflict may have helped precipitate the Red Sea crisis, resolution in Gaza does not guarantee a resolution in the Red Sea. The Houthi campaign in the Red Sea may have very much taken on a life of its own, independent of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Win-Win Strategy and Wider Dynamics

To use Chinese terminology, U.S. operations against the Houthis present China with a win-win situation, an uncomfortable outcome for Western policymakers. In a “free riding strategy” by China, if Western countermeasures are successful in getting the Houthis to stop their attacks, then broader Chinese interests are served by restoring unfettered trade flows through the Red Sea, while the U.S. and U.K. attract local opprobrium from having carried out the mission. If Western countermeasures are unsuccessful then China gains a bigger share of Red Sea trade by virtue of its agreement with the Houthis, while the shipping of other actors must either risk attack or face less economical journeys around the African continent.

The Houthis’ participation in Iran’s large-scale strike against Israel on April 13, some of which was shot down by U.S. and U.K. forces, provides an uncomfortable reminder of the wider dynamics of the Red Sea crisis. The Chinese Foreign Ministry response on April 14 was innocuous but revealing: “China calls on the international community, especially countries with influence [i.e. the U.S.] to play a constructive role for the peace and stability of the region,” and that “the ongoing situation is the latest spillover of the Gaza conflict. There should be no more delays in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2728 and the conflict must end now.”

This is exactly the same line played by China with regard to the Red Sea Crisis. It was telling that on April 14 the Global Times similarly called for calm and restraint, while describing Iran’s April 13 assault that featured more than 300 drones and missiles as “restrained.” It went on to criticize U.S. “one-sided” support for Israel. Houthi participation was ignored.

Dr. David Scott is an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies. A prolific writer on Indo-Pacific maritime geopolitics, he can be contacted at

Featured Image: Sailors man the rail as the guided-missile destroyer Yinchuan (Hull 175) steers to the replenishment position alongside the comprehensive supply ship Weishanhu (Hull 887) during the first underway replenishment (UNREP) conducted by the 34th Chinese naval escort taskforce in eastern waters of the Gulf of Aden on February 3, 2020. (Photo by Cai Shengqiu/

Sea Control 516 – U.S. Navy Alliances in the Cold War with Dr. Corbin Williamson

By Jared Samuelson

Dr. Corbin Williamson joins the program to discuss his book, The U.S. Navy and its Cold War Alliances, 1945-1953. Corbin is a professor at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

Download Sea Control 516 – U.S. Navy Alliances in the Cold War with Dr. Corbin Williamson


1. The US Navy and its Cold War Alliances, 1945-1953, by Corbin Williamson, University of Kansas Press, 2020. 

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.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.