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18 December 2023

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There is still a lot of speculation but progress seems likely on reopening the Red Sea to shipping. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in his next trip to the Middle East, is expected to reveal a ship protection initiative to protect ships from Houthi attacks, as disclosed by a U.S. military spokesperson to The War Zone. This announcement coincides with today’s news that the U.S. Navy intercepted 14 drones dispatched by the Houthis from Yemen in the early hours of Saturday 16th December, 2023 by the Arleigh burke Guided Missile Destroyer USS CARNEY DDG 64.

This would be a sharp turn from a White House statement on Friday saying that Maersk on their own must “weigh the balance of risk and benefit of the transit of their ships all around the world.”Notably, most vessels navigating the Red Sea are registered under flags of convenience which the US Navy is not obligated to defend. Despite this, the proposed priority escort plan for US-flagged ships, including the MAERSK KENSINGTON , which carries both US military and civilian cargo, has not yet achieved consensus among stakeholders. Consequently, the decision to provide naval protection to ships of all flags under Operation Prosperity Guardian is more likely.

It is unknown why the US-flagged segment of the Maersk fleet is currently pausing with the rest of the fleet considering that US-flagged ships are guaranteed US Navy protection. A few experts familiar with Pentagon operations are speculating whether Maersk’s decision to halt its operations, including US-flagged ships carrying US Military cargo, is a strategic move to pressure the US Military into providing all their ships with protection at US taxpayer expense. The motivation could be to reduce insurance costs and potentially boost freight rates, rather than due to critical security worries. If this hypothesis holds true, Maersk will likely recommence its Red Sea voyages once the US authorities recognize OPG, possibly as early as Monday. If security issues are indeed the main reason for the halt, then it’s likely that ships will begin rerouting around Africa until Operational Prosperity Guardian is fully implemented, which will take time. However, it’s important to note that this hypothesis has not been officially confirmed.

Relations between Maersk and the US Navy have been mixed since the company backed away from US Military tanker contracts in September.

Austin, who will be visiting the region early next week including a visit aboard the aircraft carrier USS GERALD R FORD CVN 78 with Joint Chiefs Chairman General Brown, will announce the details of Operation Prosperity Guardian, which will be similar to the existing Task Force 153. That’s an international effort focusing “on international maritime security and capacity building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden.”

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