Pentagon Preparing for Red Sea Task Force to Protect Commercial Vessels from Houthi Rebel Attacks

Yemen Israel Palestinians
This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. (Houthi Media Center via AP)

The Pentagon said Tuesday it's ready to help set up a maritime task force among allied nations to protect merchant shipping in the Red Sea following a series of Houthi missile attacks.

The White House announced Monday that the U.S. was in talks about such a task force, just a day after the Navy destroyer USS Carney responded to four attacks against three separate commercial vessels off the coast of Yemen and shot down three drones in the process.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. General Pat Ryder told reporters that the Defense Department is "definitely looking to take action here as it relates to working with partners and allies throughout the region." However, he also said that a similar task force had already been formed, and how the new task force might differ was not immediately clear.

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"I would highlight we already have the framework in place to enable such a task force through the combined maritime task force," Ryder said, referring to an international coalition of 39 nations that was originally stood up in 2001 to help with counter-terrorism and counter-piracy efforts in the waters off the Middle East.

The Combined Maritime Forces operate five separate task forces in the region, including Combined Task Force 153, which has focused on Red Sea maritime security since 2022.

Ryder said that current talks are "ongoing" before adding that he didn't have any specifics like names of countries that have already volunteered to participate.

On Monday, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh again pushed back against the idea of having Marines board commercial vessels for protection.

Over the summer, in the wake of Iranian threats to merchant shipping in the Arabian Sea, some outlets reported that some leaders inside the Pentagon were ready to have Marines and sailors ride merchant shipping in the area as part of a beefed-up response.

"I saw that reporting at the time," Singh said but stressed "that that did not happen and I don't have anything to preview of any plans to do so."

Meanwhile, Ryder said that he was "not going to telegraph or speculate on potential strikes" that would retaliate against the Houthis for launching drones and missiles that have come close to and menaced ships like the Carney but have yet to outright target them.

In a statement released Sunday, Houthi officials have vowed that their forces will continue to "prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea and [Gulf of Aden] until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops."

"The Yemeni armed forces renew their warning to all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis that they will become a legitimate target if they violate what is stated in this statement," Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree, a spokesman for the group, said.

The aggression, according to both Israeli officials and Ryder himself, has drawn in and made targets of multiple merchant vessels that have international crews and are flying under various international flags. However, the Pentagon's top spokesman told reporters Tuesday that the defense department still believes that the Israeli conflict in Gaza "has been contained."

"That's not to say that there aren't elements in Iraq and Syria that are attempting to exploit the situation as you've seen with these rocket drone attacks," Ryder said, referring to more than 75 attacks that targeted U.S. positions in the two countries since Oct. 17.

"It's not the first time these groups have done these sorts of things," Ryder said.

Related: Incidents with Navy Ships and Rising Tensions in the Red Sea Test Pentagon's Deterrence Claims

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