The land and air campaigns being waged by the UAE-Saudi Arabia Arab military coalition against the Huithi insurrection in Yemen have received considerable publicity. As is so often the case, though, the maritime aspect of the conflict, which also involves vessels of the Egyptian Navy, has attracted relatively little attention.
Recent reports indicate that some 20 warships have recently been operating in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, with both Royal Saudi Naval Force (RSNF) and UAE Navy warships being forward-based at the Eritrean port of Assab.
Much offshore patrolling is focused on trying to prevent arms being smuggled into Yemen. Tehran, incidentally, continues to vehemently deny the frequent allegations that Iran is facilitating the smuggling of arms and munitions to the Houthi fighters.
Another role for coalition warships is naval gunfire support, carried out to back up military operations on land.
RSNF units known to have been active off Yemen during the past year include US-built Badr and Al Sadiq missile corvettes, UK-built Al-Jawf minehunters, and a Botsaida replenishment oiler, supplied by France.
The UAE Navy has been represented by French-designed, mainly indigenously-built Baynunah, and German-built Murray Jib missile corvettes, as well as Ghannatha fast attack landing craft.
Also taking part in operations have been the Chinese-built Jianghu II frigate Al Nasser, and Ramadan and Ambassador III missile armed fast attack craft, of the Egyptian Navy.
For their part, the Houthis operate large numbers of manned, and unmanned, remotely controlled, attack boats, based at various coastal locations. The rebels also deploy surface mines in the Mandep Strait, between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. One such mine reportedly destroyed a Yemeni Coast Guard patrol boat in March of this year.
The attack by a remotely controlled explosive craft on the RSNF frigate Al Madinah, in March 2017, was widely reported, but a well-placed naval source has told Baird Maritime that there have since been around 10 further such attacks, most of them at least partially successful.
Targeted coalition vessels are believed to have included corvettes, mine warfare vessels and logistics craft.
The intensive operational rhythm which has been thrust upon the RSNF and UAE Navy is likely to have significantly increased the efficiency of these previously largely untested forces, a factor which might well impact upon the long term balance of naval power in the region.
Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.