The Red Sea has been a difficult place to operate for Western shipping interests for weeks, but this weekend, the boxship Maersk Hangzhou had a particularly tough time of it. On Saturday, she was hit by an unknown object, and on Sunday, assailants attempted to board her by force - only to be repelled by U.S. Navy helicopters.
On Sunday morning at 0630, Maersk Hangzhou issued a distress call reporting that she was under attack by four small craft. The small attack boats came from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, according to U.S. Central Command. They approached to within about 20 yards of Maersk Hangzhou and opened fire with crew-served weapons and small arms.
Maersk Hangzhou had an embarked contract security team on board, and they returned fire in self-defense. Meanwhile, the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the destroyer USS Gravely dispatched helicopters to the scene. The aircrews attempted to ward off the small craft with verbal warnings, but the attackers opened fire on the U.S. Navy helicopters. The helicopter crews returned fire, destroying three of the boats and killing their crews, according to Central Command. The remaining boat fled the area.
No U.S. personnel were injured, and there was no damage to any of the aircraft. Maersk Hangzhou's crew is reported safe, and the ship has continued on her commercial voyage.
"Ensuring the safety of our crew is our utmost priority, and all necessary security measures are implemented to protect them. The crew will receive all the support needed to handle this difficult and serious situation," Maersk said in a statement.
It was the second time that Maersk Hangzhou had been attacked in 24 hours. On Saturday morning at 0630, the ship was hit by an unknown object. It did not cause a fire, nor were crew injured. USS Gravely and USS Laboon responded to assist, and Gravely shot down two inbound ballistic missiles shortly after. Maersk did not specify the extent of any damage, but Central Command said that the ship was still seaworthy.
Houthi forces have vowed revenge for the outcome of Sunday's engagement, thereby confirming that the four boats were of Houthi origin. "These martyrs for the sake of Palestine confirm that the American enemy bears the consequences of this crime and its repercussions," a Houthi spokesman threatened. "Its military movements in the Red Sea to protect Israeli ships will not prevent Yemen from performing its religious, moral, and humanitarian duty in support and victory for the oppressed in Palestine."
It is unclear why Maersk Hangzhou was targeted, but Maersk Line was among the first European carriers to put its faith in a U.S.-led security coalition and return to transits in the Houthi-controlled southern Red Sea. Some carriers - notably Hapag-Lloyd - had signaled that they considered the area still unsafe to transit.
Some shipping interests in the tanker trade have decided to broadcast a political message - "no contact with Israel" - in order to dissuade Houthi attackers.
Another carrier, OOCL, has decided to issue a public notice that it is suspending all calls in Israeli ports. This messaging appears to align with the Houthis' political demands: Houthi leaders have vowed to strike ships that call at Israeli seaports, citing opposition to the ongoing Israeli security operation in Gaza.
For its part, Maersk has decided to reconsider its policy on the Red Sea route. "In light of the incident – and to allow time to investigate the details of the incident and assess the security situation further – it has been decided to delay all transits through the area until 2nd January," the number-two ocean carrier said.
To date, the White House has been unwilling to mount a kinetic retaliatory response, but its approach may change if Houthi attacks continue. UK outlet The Times reports that while this weekend's events were still not enough to trigger airstrikes, the UK and U.S. governments plan to verbally threaten Houthi leaders with "limited" and "significant" strikes in the event of any further attacks on shipping.
Though the EU is a primary economic beneficiary of Red Sea shipping, the U.S. and UK are reported to be struggling to secure EU partners to join the response. Israel's operations in Gaza are not supported by the majority of European voters, and European governments have struggled to reach consensus on dispatching even an air defense/policing force to counter Houthi threats in the Red Sea.