Red Sea crisis: the hypothesis of "arming" merchant ships

(To Philip Del Monte)

The war in Ukraine and the Red Sea crisis have confirmed the vulnerability to which ships are exposed to cruise missiles and platforms unmanned.

Mike Knickerbocker on "War on the Rocks" highlighted how, despite the different perception that international public opinion has of them and the different motivations for which they are fighting, the Ukrainian Navy and the Houthis have the common characteristic of having managed to effectively use unmanned systems and cruise missiles commercially available or cheaply developed anti-ship missiles, stressing and challenging technologically and numerically superior adversary forces in the Black Sea and Red Sea.

The coups of the Ukrainian Navy (VMS - Vijs'kovo-mors'ki syly) against Russian ships in Sevastopol or in the waters of the western Black Sea (which have even revived an "old glory" of seafaring such as the brulotto), but also the Houthi attacks against the civilian ships of neutral countries in Bab el-Mandeb, have brought back to the agenda the need to guarantee greater "resistance" and "survival" capacity for isolated shipping, be it military or mercantile, in a hostile environment or in areas where minimum safety standards are not guaranteed.

The Russian-Ukrainian naval war and clashes in the Red Sea have shown the ability of low-cost aerial and naval drones to undermine conventional devices costing millions.

POLITICO he summarized well what the central problem is: to destroy $2.000 drones, $2 million missiles were used. Exorbitant costs for more than limited results. It is then necessary to consider that, faced with a "saturation" strategy in which every ship can be a target, the current configuration of the task force di Prosperity Guardian and "connected" operations, such as Safe Mediterranean, within whose regulatory perimeter the intervention of the Italian FREMM was channeled Fasan, is probably not enough, unless we choose - with all the consequences on the international political level of the case - to launch a direct air-naval offensive against northern Yemen controlled by the Houthi militias.

One of the hypotheses on the table is to also equip merchant ships with physical and electronic countermeasures, so that, even if limited in their ability to maneuver by geography or operations, going beyond the simple improvement of situational awareness and taking on a more active role in the use of systems that have already shown their effectiveness.

La U.S. The Navy has clearly explained that setting up a convoy policy to protect merchant ships passing through hostile areas is practically impossible with the means currently available, therefore, the only way to guarantee - while waiting for military assistance - the safety of merchant ships is to equip them with countermeasures.

Certainly, there is also an important question at stake related to "who" and "how" "active" electronic defense systems can be used on merchant ships. Which legal and economic formula to adopt. It is also true, among other things, that, to date, this is a remote hypothesis but which has emerged in the debate with a certain insistence following the first attacks on neutral ships by the Houthis and which could be put into practice in the next future.

The fact is, however, that the mere presence of armed elements on merchant ships - whatever they are contractors or soldiers, as in the case of the Italians military protection units of the Navy - can guarantee the safety of ships in the event of attacks aimed at boarding them, but they could do nothing against missiles, helicopters and drones, not to mention the mines, i.e. weapons and vehicles that the Houthis possess and which already have used in the current Bab el-Mandeb “choke point” crisis.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is the southern gateway to the Red Sea, a crucial waterway between Europe and Asia that connects to the Suez Canal. It is estimated that around 12-15% of global trade follows this route, accounting for a considerable share of all container traffic. The Houthi attacks have led operators and shipping companies to delay shipments or divert ships to the Cape of Good Hope, resulting in delivery delays of up to two weeks and a significant increase in costs.

The economic damages, the costs associated with the operation - which cannot be continued indefinitely – and the impossibility of stopping the Houthi attacks - which respond to an independent variable with respect to the "defensivist" inspiration of the Western coalition, i.e. the war between Israel and Hamas - without going on the offensive, force us to accelerate the times for equip merchant ships with countermeasures and defense systems.