Monday, October 10, 2016

Missile Attacks in 'Pirate Alley' Mean Merchant Vessels Face a New Threat

Two Major Incidents off Yemeni Coast - One Involving US Destroyer
Shipping News Feature
SAUDI ARABIA – YEMEN – UAE – Merchant vessels in the region should be aware of the recent attacks, firstly on a vessel in the Bab al-Mandab, sometimes known as ‘Pirate Alley’ the shipping lane that links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. It seems the stakes for would be kidnappers have been raised somewhat with last week’s news that the October 1 attack was an act of war, not a venture for illegal gains. The attack seemingly involved the long running war between the powers in the area, particularly disparate Yemeni forces and the Saudi and UAE military.

The target, the HSV-2 Swift, a high-speed catamaran apparently on charter from Abu Dhabi, has previously been known to operate with a mixed civilian and military crew, several of whom were wounded when a sea skimming missile struck the craft. This latter report goes against previous versions which stated there had been no casualties. Now comes the news of an attack on the USS Mason, a guided missile destroyer sailing north of the Strait, apparently in international waters.

The catamaran, leased to the National Marine Dredging Company of Abu Dhabi is powered by water jet thrusters with no propeller or rudder, and she has previously been used by the US Navy as a minesweeper, now sailing under a UAE flag. The US warship used countermeasures to elude the two incoming missiles which were fired from the Yemeni coastline, presumably by Houthi forces which now control much of Yemen and are in a bitter sectarian conflict as a minority Shia sect against UAE and Saudi Arabian troops who are generally Sunni Muslims.

Other recent Houthi attacks include shelling of posts in the mountains of Jebel al-Dukhan and numerous other sites, particularly where Saudi forces have congregated. In reply Saudi airstrikes, openly supported by the US have caused many deaths and thousands took to the streets this weekend to protest the killing of 140 at the funeral of a Houthi figurehead on Saturday. The Houthi forces have also been active in the war on Al Qaeda which confuses the political picture even more.

One certainty is that, with the knowledge that the Houthi forces are now using missiles on maritime targets, the passage of merchant vessels in the region will now be even more hazardous than previously. Gerry Northwood OBE, COO of security outfit MAST which specialises in maritime situations commented:

“The situation in Yemen and the Bab el Mandab has been deteriorating for some time, but we should be careful not to overreact. The missiles being used could pose a threat to patrol boat to frigate-size targets, but they are unlikely to cause significant damage to larger commercial vessels.

“It is clear that the Houthis are deliberately targeting military operations off Yemen, as the recent engagement against the UAE HSV-2 Swift supply vessel and the USS Mason were both effectively military-on-military attacks. The Swift engagement occurred off Mocha as the vessel was transiting to Hodeidah, so it is likely that this area will be vulnerable. However, as the US increases its involvement, it will become increasingly difficult for the Houthis to position their missiles for further attacks.

“Navies could be used to provide protection; this tactic was used successfully during the Iran Iraq war. However, close escorting of vessels is probably not necessary in this instance, as the US will be able to use its surveillance and prosecution assets to hunt down any missiles before they are fired. Meanwhile, warships stationed offshore will be able to protect any vessels passing through the straits.”

Photo: The High-Speed Vessel Swift (HSV-2) with a tethered TIF-25K Aerostat balloon in Key West, Florida on April 24, 2013 whilst chartered to the US Military. The HSV was involved in testing the Aerostat’s efficacy as a radar enhancer giving the towing vessel the ability to identify craft from extra-long range and launch a drone to confirm details.