Vital shipping lanes off Yemen’s coast will remain secure despite turmoil in the country and naval forces can be rapidly deployed if necessary, said the heads of the US and British navies.
Political paralysis and long-standing conflicts with Islamist insurgents, separatists and rebel tribesmen have fanned Western and regional fears of Yemen collapsing into chaos and giving al Qaeda a stronghold alongside oil shipping routes.
Militants have launched successful maritime attacks in the area before and al Qaeda has threatened to target shipping in the Bab al-Mandab straits off Yemen’s coast, through which more than 3 million barrels of oil are shipped daily to Europe, the United States and Asia, Reuters reports.
US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead said the Bab al-Mandab, the Strait of Hormuz and the Middle East Gulf were crucial.
“Our presence there is important — the forces that we have there provide options should naval forces be called into action but we also have significant forces down in the counter-piracy area,” he told reporters at a joint briefing in London with the British navy chief. “We intend to be there in the future.”
Somali pirates operating off the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean and around the major oil chokepoint in the Arabian Sea have compounded threats to merchant shipping.
“The beauty of naval forces is that you can put them where you need them depending on events that are taking place,” Roughead said. “I am very comfortable with the force structure that we have there.”
An al Qaeda suicide bombing killed 17 sailors on the US warship Cole in the Yemen port of Aden in 2000. Two years later, al Qaeda hit a French tanker in the Gulf of Aden, south of Bab al-Mandab.
British navy chief Admiral Mark Stanhope said Britain had been training Yemen’s coastguard to help improve its effectiveness.
“It would be a loss without question if Yemen were to collapse in a manner that did not allow the coastguard (to operate),” he told the briefing, but quantified the loss as a “small percentage points difference” given naval forces in the region.
Somali pirates are making millions of dollars in ransom from seizing ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, despite the efforts of foreign navies to stop such attacks.
“I would not say we are overwhelmed with counter-piracy. I think it’s a mission we continue to do with several other countries. It’s a large ocean area, there is no question about it,” Roughead said.
“I do think it’s important that there be a recognition of getting at the criminal business ashore and interrupting that process — it is a business and they are criminals.”
Roughead said separately he was “not concerned” by reports that Iran has sent submarines to the Red Sea.
Last week Iran’s semi-official Far news agency, citing an unidentified source, reported that Iranian submarines had entered the Red Sea with the “goal of collecting information and identifying other countries’ combat vessels”.
“It’s a development that you have to question why they should choose to do this for the first time. In terms of capability, it’s not an issue at our end,” Stanhope added.