EU Red Sea naval operation will safeguard freedom of navigation

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The third European Union (EU) naval operation off Africa – Aspides – was launched yesterday (Monday, 19 February) as a defensive maritime security effort to restore and safeguard freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.

Aspides, “shield” in ancient Greek, joins Atalanta off the Indian Ocean continental coast and Irini in the Mediterranean Sea as EU naval forces working to secure freedom of navigation and passage in waters used by arms, drug and people smugglers as well as pirates.

EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy High Representative Josep Borrell said in a statement the operation is “a swift response” to restore maritime security and freedom of navigation in a highly strategic maritime corridor. “The operation will play a key role in safeguarding commercial and security interests, for the sake of the EU and the wider international community.”

Operation Aspides, according to the statement, will ensure an EU naval presence in an area where numerous Houthi attacks targeted international commercial vessels since October 2023. “In co-operation with like-minded international partners, Aspides will contribute to safeguard maritime security and ensure freedom of navigation, especially for merchant and commercial vessels”.

As part of its defensive mandate, the operation will provide maritime situational awareness, escort vessels and protect them against possible multi-domain attacks at sea.

The operation will be active along the main sea lines of communication in the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Strait of Hormuz, as well as international waters in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.

Operation Commander is Commodore Vasilios Griparis of the Hellenic Navy with Rear Admiral Stefano Costantino of the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) his force commander. Operation headquarters will be in Larissa, Greece.

Operation Aspides will co-ordinate with Atalanta, contributing to maritime security in the West Indian Ocean and Red Sea, as well as with like-minded maritime security partners in its area of operation.

So far, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium have said they plan to contribute ships to Operation Aspides.

Aspides vessels will have orders to fire on the Houthis only if they attack first and will not be authorised to shoot pre-emptively, an EU official told the German Press Agency dpa.

The new EU force announcement follows a December one by United States (US) Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin making known Operation Prosperity Guardian. The US-led multinational coalition is also in response to Houthi-led attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.