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The U.S. is joining a taskforce to protect ships from Houthi attacks in the Red Sea

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. is joining a new force to protect commercial ships in the Red Sea. The ships have faced attacks for weeks launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. The threat from drones and missiles has forced some shipping companies to avoid the area altogether. For more on the impact of these attacks, including on the global economy, we are joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman - hey, Tom...

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: ...And NPR business correspondent David Gura. Hi, David.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tom, kick us off. Explain what this new - is this a protection force? What is it? What's it going to do?

BOWMAN: Right. Well, first of all, naval task forces have been used before. Five years ago, there was one in the Persian Gulf by the U.S. and Great Britain to escort oil tankers amid tensions with Iran and, before that, off Somalia, you might remember, to ward off pirates. This one, Mary Louise, will be more dangerous because of the repeated attacks on commercial ships and the firepower - long-range missiles and drones fired by the Houthis. We've already seen a number of tankers damaged, but no one has been killed.

So the task force will provide sort of an umbrella coverage to the area to assist the ships. You're not going to see escorts individually. But, of course, the warships would shoot down any of the threats and then come to their aid if necessary. Now, there's less of a risk to the warships. They're very sophisticated, with radar, an array of weapons. They can see, track and destroy drones from miles - many miles away. And a number of those fired by the Houthis, by the way - they just fall into the water.

KELLY: OK, so that's how this looks from a national security perspective. David, hop in here. What impact is this having - is it having an impact yet on global trade?

GURA: It's been disruptive, but it's coming at a moment when global trade has slowed. Several major shipping companies are avoiding the Red Sea altogether, as you said. Even with this announcement, they say there's still just too much uncertainty here, too much risk. Today, the Danish shipping company Maersk, which is one of the largest shipping companies in the world, announced it is rerouting almost two dozen ships. There's been this kind of wait-and-see mode outside the Red Sea. Maersk says those ships will now go around the Cape of Good Hope to get to Europe. They're not going to try to go through the Suez Canal. Of course, that journey, Mary-Louise, around Africa, is longer. It will take longer, which is something I talked about with Gregory Brew. He's an analyst at Eurasia Group.

GREGORY BREW: We're looking at a major disruption of commercial shipping that could result in higher shipping costs for consumers and potentially higher energy costs as well.

GURA: Now, this is likely to have a bigger impact on Europe because most of the products that go from Asia to the U.S. cross the Pacific. They're not taking this route. But Chris Rogers told me these tensions are happening at a time when trading volumes tend to be lower. He's the head of supply chain research at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

CHRIS ROGERS: We've all done our holiday shopping in Europe and in North America. We're also heading towards the Lunar New Year in mainland China and other parts of Asia, when factories slow down. So we're actually at something of a slack period for shipping anyway.

GURA: So a bit of upside there - that could change, though, if passage through the Red Sea continues to be difficult. And, you know, this is yet another problem global shipping companies are facing right now. The Panama Canal has been dealing with drought, and that has reduced how much traffic can pass through there.

KELLY: I just want to follow on something that we just heard the Eurasia Group analyst say. He mentioned potentially higher energy costs. Is he right? What might this mean for energy prices?

GURA: Well, energy may be the most directly impacted, given the geography here, but the overall impact may not be that bad. This strait between Yemen and Somalia - this choke point at the mouth of the Red Sea - is important to the global energy market, Mary Louise. It's an incredibly busy route. Some 7 million barrels of oil go through there every day, and it's actually gotten busier since Russia invaded Ukraine. We have seen oil prices settle a little bit higher - they did today - along with natural gas prices, but energy analysts are downplaying the risks right now because there are other routes available.

In a new note, Goldman Sachs says it's unlikely global oil production would take a hit. They say the same route is - the same is true of LNG - of liquefied natural gas. Now, we have seen in recent days BP and some other energy companies pausing trips through the Red Sea - BP calling it a precautionary pause subject to ongoing review. The last thing I want to say is oil prices have not been that high recently, and that is thanks in part to how much oil the U.S. is producing and exporting. And what's happening in the Red Sea is not going to complicate that.

KELLY: Tom Bowman, back to the security side of this. What else are officials looking at if there is a need to thwart more attacks?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. could strike the drone and missile launch sites on land in Yemen. Some Republican lawmakers have called for that, but the administration doesn't want to widen the Israeli-Gaza war into a regional conflict. Of course, the reason the Houthis are mounting the attacks on commercial shipping is to show support for the Hamas fighters in Gaza. Both the Houthis and Hamas get support from Iran.

KELLY: And you mentioned the U.S. shooting down drones. Does that speak to the fear that this conflict is widening?

BOWMAN: Right. You could argue that Houthis are expanding the fight by firing drones and missiles. But again, the administration worries that any land attacks could expand this. And they worry another Iran proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon, could also enter the fight against Israel. What the U.S. wants is for Israel to quickly wrap up its Gaza campaign, but it appears the war could last for months and so, too, likely the Houthi attacks.

KELLY: That is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and our business correspondent, David Gura. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

GURA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.