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Red Sea ships “sitting ducks” to Houthi attacks – experts

(Montel) Shipping firms continue to employ armed guards to fend off Houthi militants in the Red Sea but sophisticated methods of attack mean they are of little use with ships becoming “sitting ducks”, security experts told Montel.

“Private guards are not supposed to be protecting vessels against such threats,” said Jan Stockbruegger, director at maritime security consultancy SafeSeas, with Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen having been attacking Red Sea shipping since November – in response to Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza – largely using missiles and drones rather than attempting to board vessels.

And even if the Houthis tried to board a ship, many of the guards employed at present were inexperienced and likely of little defence, added Stockbruegger.

“Ten years ago, when former British navy and Royal Marine personnel were employed to protect vessels against Somali pirates, they could charge USD 20,000 per voyage,” he said, adding such teams were “very effective” and played a key role in largely eradicating piracy.

“Now the price of guards is very low, as they are usually employed from countries such as Sri Lanka or India,” he said, adding guards could be employed for just a few thousand dollars, which was “nothing” for shipowners.

This contributed to the Baltic Dry Index – a key global dry bulk shipping index – dropping last week to a four-month low of 1,308 points, despite recent attacks on such vessels, many of which carry coal.

Such complacency from shipowners regarding the level of security expertise could be attributed to the fact they were very unlikely to see action, Stockbruegger said.

“Chocolate fireguard”
Derek Steel, managing director of security service Chartsec and a former member of the UK SAS special forces, agreed, adding onboard guards were currently “about as much use as a chocolate fireguard”.

“I would not subject any of my guys to any of those ships going through the Red Sea at the moment,” he said.

“So long as projectiles are fired or dropped from the air, it’s just not even worth talking about,” he said, adding vessels passing through the region were now like “sitting ducks”.

While vessels could take some evasive action, such as travelling at nighttime, the only way to combat the attacks was to eliminate the onshore missile and drone launch sites, he said.

“The threat won’t go away unless the Americans and the Brits decide to take everything out on land,” he said.

The US already launched a number of strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen last week, with some involving UK forces.

Ultimately, it would only be if a vessel was boarded that a security team would be able to do “something effective”, Steel said.

Guards overrun?
“And that’s down to the team leader, how confident he feels about his team and what he knows about the aggressor,” he said, adding a standard four-man security team could easily be facing six or seven skiffs – or small motorised boats – laden with “well-armed individuals”.

He noted the security team would undertake a directive of “trained escalation” in their use of firearms, combined with the approval of the ship’s captain.

This would involve warnings via radio followed by firing flares at the aggressor, firing weapons towards the aggressor – which is usually sufficient to eliminate the threat – then actual engagement.

“If you’ve got to engage, you’ve got to make sure you kill them. Because if you don’t and they come onboard, you’re going to be killed. Simple as that,” he said.

Aside from eliminating the onshore threats, Steel said the only way to end the attacks would be peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

“But I don’t foresee this for quite some time,” he added.

There are ongoing concerns that the rising attacks could hamper the shipment of key commodities to the likes of Europe, with the Red Sea a vital conduit for the transport of goods from the energy-rich Middle East.