New Maritime Task Force Needs Credible Military Force for Successful Deterrence

Amid a now almost daily drumbeat of attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States announced on December 18 the formation of a multinational naval task force, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, to better protect commercial vessels traveling through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Though U.S. attention to the issue is encouraging, to the task force as currently configured appears more focused on defend against Houthi attacks—which U.S. and partner forces currently deployed to the region were already doing—rather than deterring and preventing more Houthi attacks.

Unless efforts at providing greater protection to ships sailing through international waterways also coincide with the use of military force against Houthi and Iranian aggressors, the attacks will continue. As former U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Frank McKenzie said this month, “we’ve given [the Houthis] no reason not to continue [attacking] … there’s a fine line between avoiding escalation and inviting continued opportunities for Iranian and Houthi attacks, based on a perceived fecklessness on our part … Sometimes you’ve got to throw a pitch.” Particularly in light of Iranian threats that such a task force would create “extraordinary problems” for the United States, the Biden administration should shift its policies and rhetoric alike to a more forceful position, and follow through on its pledge “to uphold the freedom of navigation and ensure maritime security” in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden by using military force against the Houthi and Iranian forces attacking commercial shipping.

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