Red Sea: Europe’s Aspides Mission at Risk

Following Germany's decision to withdraw the German frigate Hesse from the Red Sea, the European Union began debating whether to extend the operation's mandate

Vasileios Gryparis

Few ships and few tangible results. That was the conclusion reached by EU diplomatic representatives who met behind closed doors in Brussels to hear from the operational commander of the European mission Eunavfor Aspides in the Red Sea, Admiral Vasileios Gryparis. According to information published by the German weekly Spiegel, three months after the green light, in mid-February 2024, the European military mission “does not have enough warships to protect merchant ships from attacks by the Houthi rebels in the Red Sea.”

After Germany’s decision to return the frigate Hesse to the port of Wilhelmshaven, only three warships (the Italian Pheasant, the Greek Hydra, and the French ship FREMM) remained in the mission. The German frigate Hamburg will soon have to leave its moorings to replace Hesse, which will not arrive in the Red Sea until August, and the defense of commercial ships is increasingly at risk.

Eunavfor Aspides is a European Union maritime security operation aimed at ensuring freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and northern Arabian Sea areas, launched by Brussels following attacks by Yemeni Houthis on merchant ships suspected by the Yemenis of having some connection to Israel, the USA, and Britain. Gryparis believes the danger of attacks by the Houthis is “sharper than ever.” According to the commander, in late April, the Houthis managed to penetrate the air defenses of EU warships with a “swarm of drones” and severely damaged a merchant ship. “The ships are equipped with sophisticated air defense systems capable of fighting multiple targets simultaneously, but with a whole swarm of drones, even the most powerful systems run into difficulties sooner or later,” emphasized the Commander of the Aspides mission.

Since the start of the mission, four deployed warships, including the German frigate Hesse, have escorted 96 merchant ships through the Red Sea. “It is unlikely,” Spiegel wrote in a commentary, “that the mission will receive additional ships from the EU.” Despite the urgent call, only Belgium and the Netherlands have so far opened up the possibility of sending warships to protect merchant ships in the coming months. “Meanwhile,” Spiegel wrote, “due to the lack of effect of the Aspides mission, the EU – at Germany’s suggestion – has started a debate on extending the operation’s mandate.”