MANAMA -- The US Navy is to head up a new task force patrolling the Red Sea, senior officials said Wednesday (April 13), with leadership to later be turned over to an allied partner in the 34-nation Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).
The new task force -- Combined Task Force 153 (CTF 153) -- will be the fourth CMF task force. It will be officially launched on Sunday.
It will focus its attention on threats in the Red Sea -- a key shipping lane that has witnessed a spate of attacks staged by the Iran-backed Houthis in recent weeks -- and the Gulf of Aden.
The three existing CMF task forces (CTF 150, CTF 151 and CTF 152) focus on maritime security, counter piracy and Gulf maritime security, respectively.
The new task force's patrol area was previously covered by CTF 150, which will now focus its attention on the Gulf of Oman and northern Arabian Sea, The Maritime Executive magazine reported.
CTF 153 will cover the Red Sea from the Suez Canal through Bab al-Mandeb strait and the Gulf of Aden, and east through the Gulf of Aden as far as Yemen's border with Oman.
It will address human trafficking and smuggling of both legal materials like coal and illegal weapons and drugs, Defense News magazine reported.
It will be led initially by US Navy Capt. Robert Francis, who commands the US Navy 5th Fleet's surface force, from aboard the US Navy's 6th Fleet flagship, USS Mount Whitney, the magazine said.
Improving regional co-ordination
"The area is so vast we can't do it alone," said Vice-Admiral Brad Cooper, who heads the US Navy Central Command and the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.
"Though he would not address which nations would join the new task force or who would take command next, [Cooper] highlighted the Egyptian Navy" as having joined the CMF a year ago this month, Defense News reported.
Cooper also declined to discuss Yemen or the threat from the Houthis when asked about the reasons for the new task force during a Wednesday phone call with media.
But the announcement comes less than two weeks after the start of a truce in Yemen, and a week after Yemen's president handed his powers to a new leadership council tasked with holding peace talks with the Houthis.
Yemen entered a United Nations (UN)-brokered truce on April 2, whose terms include allowing fuel ships into the Houthi-held Red Sea port of al-Hodeidah.
"We believe the new task force will bolster security and stability in the region by improving co-ordination among our regional partners," said 5th Fleet spokesman Tim Hawkins.
"Forming a new international task force under Combined Maritime Forces will enhance our ability to safeguard an important corridor of trade," Hawkins said.
Houthis threats to Red Sea navigation
Last month, the Houthis launched a wave of drone and missile attacks at civilian facilities in Saudi Arabia, including oil facilities and a water desalination plant.
A March 20 attack on an Aramco petroleum product distribution station in the Red Sea city of Jeddah caused a small fire.
The same day, the Arab coalition destroyed a boat drone off the coast of al-Hodeidah -- one of many similar attacks staged by the Houthis in the Red Sea.
The Houthis fired armed drones at a Dhahran al-Janoub power station, an Aramco gas plant in Yanbu Industrial City on the Red Sea and a gas station in Khamis Mushayt, the Arab coalition said.
It said the Houthis had used Iranian cruise missiles to attack a desalination plant in al-Shuqaiq and an Aramco petroleum distribution plant in Jizan.
The Houthis also have laid Iranian-made sea mines in the waters off Yemen's coast, which pose a grave threat to international navigation in the Red Sea.
They also have been accused of using a decaying floating storage tanker in the Red Sea as a political bargaining chip, refusing to allow UN inspectors on board to assess the situation, which could trigger an environmental catastrophe.