Yemeni coastguard
© AFP 2023 / KHALED ZIADYemeni coastguard members loyal to the internationally-recognised government ride in a patrol boat cruising in the Red Sea off of the government-held town of Mokha in the western Taiz province, close to the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait.
On December 18, following a tour of the Middle East with stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Israel, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, under the umbrella of Combined Task Force (CTF) 153, which focuses on security in the Red Sea, to protect maritime shipping.

Back on November 19, Yemen's Houthi rebels, operating in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza, took over an Israeli-linked cargo ship, the Galaxy Leader. The Houthis announced that they would block all shipping transiting the Red Sea toward Israel — in effect establishing a blockade of Israel — until Israel allowed humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The Houthis have subsequently attacked numerous vessels passing through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a narrow passageway leading into the Red Sea and further on to the Suez Canal, threatening global trade as major oil and shipping giants, including BP, MSC, Evergreen, OOCL, and Maersk, suspended operations through the Red Sea. The damage to the Israeli economy done by the Houthi blockage is estimated to run into the billions of dollars, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to use military force against the Houthis if the United States does not intervene on its behalf.

CTF 153, which has operated under both US and Egyptian command, is tasked with international maritime security and capacity-building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb, and Gulf of Aden. Its complement of four ships — three US destroyers (the USS Carney, USS Mason, and USS Thomas Hudner) and the UK Royal Navy guided-missile destroyer HMS Diamond) have all been involved in intercepting Houthi missiles and drones fired against either Israel or merchant shipping operating in the Red Sea.

Austin also ordered Carrier Strike Group 2, consisting of aircraft carrier the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and three escorts (a cruiser and two destroyers), to join up with CTF 153 as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian. Ohio-class submarine the USS Florida, equipped with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, is also operating in the region.

Austin announced that the US and UK would be joined by Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian. Notable absentees include Arab nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Australia was asked to provide a warship, but offered personnel only.

French Navy guided-missile frigate the FS Languedoc is already operating in the Red Sea and, like its US and UK counterparts, has been involved in the shooting down of Houthi drones and missiles. However, France has stated that the Languedoc will operate under French command, complicating its relationship with CTF 153.

Italy's Defense Ministry has announced that it will deploy naval frigate the Virginio Fasanto the Red Sea. Its command relationship with CTF 153 remains unclear as of the present time.

The military problem facing CTF 153 is threefold. First, there is a need to establish a barrier defense against the Houthi missile and drone attacks. This will require that the guided missile destroyers and frigates establish a picket line along the eastern channel of the Bab al-Mandeb Straight which will screen shipping from any Houthi attack. Second, CTF 153 will need to engage in aggressive patrolling designed to deter and repel any Houthi efforts to repeat their hijacking of the Galaxy Leader. Lastly, CTF 153 will need to provide mine clearance capabilities to deal with any sea mines that the Houthis may place in the narrow waters of the Bab al-Mandeb.

These missions alone will be taxing, and difficult to accomplish. As things stand, while the CTF 153 ships have shot down dozens of Houthi drones and missiles, scores have gotten through, striking targets in Israel and hitting shipping in the Red Sea. Simply put, CTF 153 doesn't have enough ships to adequately screen either Israel or maritime shipping from Houthi attack. And given the lack of mine warfare ships in the CTF 153 organization, any deployment of sea mines by the Houthis will effectively close the region from commercial shipping, and threaten military deployments in the area, until demining capability can be deployed.

The only way that Operation Prosperity Guardian could possibly keep the Bab al-Mandeb Straight open is to launch strikes against the Houthi capability of launching missiles and drones in hopes of interdicting them before they can be used. Here the plot thickens — the Houthis have made it clear that if attacked, they will expand the conflict to include Saudi and UAE oil production, threatening global energy supplies. Moreover, targeting mobile missile and drone launchers is no simple task — Saudi Arabia, using US intelligence support to assist in targeting, was unable to prevent the Houthis from launching missiles and drones against Saudi targets during the entirety of its ongoing conflict with the Houthis. The US would likely run into similar problems.

In short, by initiating Operation Prosperity Guardian, the US appears to have built a trap for itself, where it is damned if it doesn't attack the Houthi (since the Red Sea would remain blocked to all Israeli traffic), and damned if it does (since it wouldn't be able to stop the Houthi attacks, and such action would likely expand the scope and scale of the conflict to the detriment of US interests.)

Keep in mind that all of this could have been solved with a single phone call from US President Joe Biden to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directing Israel to accept a ceasefire and allow humanitarian aid to be sent to the Palestinian residents of Gaza. Instead, the United States is destroying its moral standing in the world by openly facilitating the ongoing slaughter of Palestinian civilians at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces, while simultaneously undermining the credibility of US military deterrence by getting itself mired in a tar baby of its own making.

The deployment of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower into the Sea of Aden comes on the heels of its brief foray into the Persian Gulf, where it was closely monitored by Iran. The US has also deployed a second carrier battlegroup, consisting of the USS Gerald R. Ford and its six escorts, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, the USS Carl Vinson and its five escorts operate just over the horizon, in the South China Sea.

Never in the history of the American Navy have so many carrier battlegroups been moved around the globe with so little impact.

The reality of modern warfare is that small nations and non-state actors such as the Houthis can be armed with modern military weaponry which negates the military impact of multibillion-dollar investments such as the carrier battlegroup. It costs the Houthis tens of thousands of dollars to fire its drones and missiles against Israel and maritime shipping; it costs the US Navy millions of dollars to shoot them down. Moreover, it costs the US navy hundreds of millions of dollars just to keep a carrier battle group deployed and operating, while the Houthis can credibly threaten to sink a carrier using weapons that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The final score card regarding Operation Prosperity Guardian has yet to be written. But the reality is that it will most likely not succeed in its mission of preventing Houthi attacks against either Israel or maritime shipping. This failure goes far beyond the issue of security for the Red Sea. The United States has long maintained that it could guarantee that if Iran ever sought to close the strategic Straight of Hormuz, the US Navy would be able to reopen it in a very short period. Operation Prosperity Guardian puts a lie to that claim. The fact is, the world balance of power has changed dramatically, and legacy systems like the carrier battlegroup are no longer the dominant means of power projection they once were. The US has, in effect, put all its eggs in one basket through its over-reliance upon the carrier battlegroup when it comes to force projection.

The looming failure of Operation Prosperity Guardian exposes the impotence of the US when it comes to being able to accomplish its plans for regional dominance in the Persian Gulf, South Pacific, and Taiwan, and signals a new era where the appearance of an American fleet of the shores of a far way land no longer inspires fear and intimidation. For a nation like the United States, which has premised so much of its foreign and national security on the notion of strength-based deterrence, the revelation that its military power projection capabilities are more bark than bite undermines its credibility as an ally and partner in a world largely defined by conflicts created by, or on behalf of, the United States.