Eyeing the continued flow of Iranian weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, the Combined Maritime Forces, a naval partnership comprising 34 nations led by U.S. Central Command, established a new multinational task force last month that will focus on the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden. If properly resourced and supported, Combined Task Force 153 could facilitate a more effective response to the persistent problem of Iranian weapons smuggling to terrorist proxies that fuel conflicts across the Middle East.
The new task force will operate in the Red Sea from the Suez Canal down through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and around the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula to the waters off the Yemen-Oman border, according to U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the commander of U.S. 5th Fleet and Naval Forces Central Command.
Another task force, CTF-150, one of three existing combined task forces under the auspices of the Combined Maritime Forces, was previously responsible for those waters as well as parts of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. The establishment of CTF-153 will essentially divide CTF-150′s vast maritime area of responsibility into two parts, enabling both task forces to bring greater focus to smaller and more manageable regions.
CTF-153 will initially be led by the United States, but a regional partner will assume the leadership role in the fall. Task force staff will include 15 U.S. and foreign military personnel, who will initially operate from a ship and later transfer to a headquarters in Bahrain.
There is little doubt that the new task force will have its hands full. Iran has used the waters around Yemen to smuggle major quantities of weapons to the Houthis there. The Houthis, in turn, continue to use those weapons to stoke the conflict in Yemen, attack vessels in the Red Sea, and target civilians in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as documented in annual reports by the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Yemen.
The reliable flow of weapons has given the Houthis little incentive to negotiate with Riyadh in good faith. Instead, the Houthis, sometimes employing human shields, conducted at least 375 cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia in 2021. And that does not include two Houthi attacks in January on the United Arab Emirates that struck the Abu Dhabi International Airport and targeted the Al Dhafra Air Base, which houses American troops.
It is also worth remembering that the Houthis fired anti-ship cruise missiles at the U.S. Navy destroyer Mason in 2016 while it was operating in international waters in the Red Sea near Yemen. Since then, the Houthis have used unmanned “waterborne improvised explosive devices” to attack commercial vessels, according to a 2022 U.N. report.
So what’s to be done?
The United States and its regional partners must make it more difficult for Tehran to send arms to its terrorist proxies, by sharing intelligence, building interdiction capability with regional partners and actually increasing the interdiction of illicit weapons shipments. The establishment of CTF-153 could help advance each of these goals.
Fortunately, there have already been positive steps in this direction, stemming from a multilateral approach similar to what CTF-153 will institutionalize. Vice Adm. Cooper said 9,000 weapons were seized in 2021 “along routes historically used to unlawfully supply the Houthis in Yemen.” That’s “three times the amount of weapons interdicted in 2020,” according to Cooper.
That progress is encouraging, but it is unclear if the increase in seizures is primarily due to improved interdiction efforts, a growing quantity of Iranian weapons being smuggled to Yemen, or both. Regardless, unless the United States and its partners dramatically reduce the flow of weapons to the Houthis, the war in Yemen will likely continue, exacerbating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
It remains to be seen whether task force participants will devote sufficient naval assets to the new task force’s mission. At least initially, CTF-153 will oversee around two to five ships operating in the designated area on any given day. That number of ships, unfortunately, is not an increase over the status quo and is almost certainly insufficient.
With the U.S. Navy struggling to build a fleet with an adequate number of ships, and with global threats competing for finite naval resources, the Pentagon has had difficulty maintaining sufficient naval forces in the Middle East. Meanwhile, America’s military partners in the region often lack the naval capability they need and require help detecting and interdicting malign maritime activity. This shortfall in military capabilities creates opportunities that Tehran and its terrorist proxies exploit.
To make progress countering Iranian weapons smuggling, CTF-153 will need to have sufficient intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and interdiction capabilities. The Pentagon and Central Command should ensure the task force retains expeditious access to theaterwide P-8 aircraft as well as medium-altitude, unmanned, airborne ISR systems to detect threats when indications and warnings suggest they are needed.
In addition to the airborne assets, CENTCOM needs the ability to analyze and exploit the intelligence, which will require a robust cadre of analysts. To act on that intelligence, the task force will also need at least four to six ships on station at any given time based on the size of the area of responsibility. Ideally, most of these ships would come from regional partners, and their contributions would grow. Combined training among the participants and the sharing of best practices will help each of those ships operate more effectively over time.
If CTF-153 works with partners to build increased naval capacity and capability in the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden, it would help secure these vital commercial and military waterways, counter weapons smuggling and potentially reduce the regional security burden on the United States.
The new task force also offers an opportunity to build a more unified and capable coalition of countries countering Iran. The experience working with U.S. senior staff in conducting complex maritime operations will raise the operational expertise of regional navies.
The Combined Maritime Forces’ 34 member nations include Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Washington should encourage each of these countries to participate in CTF-153 while simultaneously inviting Israel to at least join CTF-153 patrols, if not formally join the task force, depending on Jerusalem’s preferences. CENTCOM should also specifically encourage Saudi Arabia to participate in CTF-153, as Riyadh has a deep interest in Red Sea security and possesses meaningful naval forces.
Such suggestions would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but Israel and some Arab states have been slowly increasing military cooperation since the 2020 Abraham Accords, the U.S.-brokered agreement in which Israel established formal relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. And Saudi Arabia and Israel have been tiptoeing toward overt security cooperation in recent months.
In short, if properly resourced and supported by the United States and its regional partners, CTF-153 will help counter weapons smuggling and terror attacks in the waters around Yemen, which remain vital to U.S. and international economic and security interests, while advancing Arab-American-Israeli security cooperation and sending a positive deterrent message to Tehran.
Bradley Bowman serves as senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst. Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery is a senior fellow at FDD and senior director of its Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation.