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Red Sea Update

Volume 835: debated on Monday 5 February 2024


My Lords, with permission I shall now repeat the Statement given by the Secretary of State for Defence in the other place earlier today, on the recent response to Houthi aggression in the Red Sea. The Statement is as follows:

“Freedom of navigation has been a cornerstone of civilisation since time immemorial. It underpins our prosperity and security and is a founding principle of the international rules-based system. Since 19 October, the Houthis, supplied and aided by Iran, have been infringing on those fundamental freedoms by attacking international commercial vessels in the Red Sea and in the Gulf of Aden. On 19 November, they illegally seized the merchant vessel ‘Galaxy Leader’ using a helicopter-borne assault crew, and since then they have conducted around 40 attacks against commercial and military vessels. Despite repeated warnings, their attacks have continued.

The UK has always stood up for the rules-based international order, and since the Houthis began their illegal attacks we have been at the forefront of the international response, whether helping to defend vessels in the vicinity, as one of the first members to join the US-led task force Operation Prosperity Guardian, or working in tandem with the US and other allies to tackle the Houthis, always in response to specific threats and always in line with international law and the principle of self-defence.

On two previous occasions we were required to use force, and these attacks have had a significant effect in degrading Houthi capabilities, but the Houthis’ intent to continue disrupting the Red Sea has not been fully diminished. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister came to the House to make it clear, as I did the following day, that unless the Houthis desisted from their inflammatory actions, we would not hesitate to act again. Yet instead of ceasing their activities, they have chosen to persist, accompanying their increasingly incendiary rhetoric with further missiles and drones targeted at shipping and at the Royal Navy.

Most recently, the Houthis set the vessel ‘Marlin Luanda’ on fire and targeted HMS ‘Diamond’ directly in the Red Sea. Such behaviour is simply intolerable. It breaks international law and is already having consequences for the economies of the world. Insurance premiums have rocketed tenfold since the start of December. The number of cargo ships transiting Bab al-Mandab has fallen and the cost of containers has rocketed, all of which could send food inflation spiralling and will certainly hit those countries with the greatest poverty levels the hardest.

The Houthis believe that they are the region’s Robin Hood, but as I discussed with the Yemeni Defence Minister just yesterday when I saw him in Saudi Arabia, the only people they are robbing are innocent Yemenis whose food and aid arrives via the Red Sea. That is why at the weekend the Prime Minister and I again authorised the use of force, in strict accordance with international law and in self-defence. On Saturday, Royal Air Force Typhoons, supported by two Voyager tankers, joined the US forces to conduct further precision strikes against Houthi locations in Yemen. The Typhoons employed Paveway IV precision-guided munitions against three military targets, hitting 11 separate targets, which were identified after very careful analysis at those three locations, and approved by me.

At As-Salif, due west of Sana’a on the Red Sea coast, our aircraft targeted a ground control station inside a defensive position. This station had been used to control Houthi attacks and reconnaissance drones launched from further inland and operating over the sea against international shipping. A second drone ground control station was confirmed to be Al-Munirah on the same stretch of coastline. As with As-Salif, the station provided direct control of reconnaissance and attack drones targeting shipping in the Red Sea—its position on the coast allowing it to maintain the line-of-sight data links used to target innocent shipping with accuracy.

Our Typhoons also attacked a significant number of targets at Bani. The House may recall that an initial group of facilities at Bani was successfully struck by the RAF on the night of 11 January. Since then, a further set of buildings at the site were positively confirmed to be involved in the Houthi operations and were, as a result, targeted on this occasion. As is standard practice for operations by the RAF, the strikes were very carefully planned to ensure minimal risk of civilian casualties. Dropping munitions at night further reduces such risks and we do not believe there were any civilian casualties on Saturday night.

Military action can only ever be one element in our efforts to confront these global challenges. Any military action is indeed the very last resort. It would be far better if the Houthis simply stopped their attacks. Our approach is founded on four pillars. First, we are increasing diplomatic engagement. The Foreign Secretary travelled to the region and met his Iranian counterpart last month to make it clear that Iran must cease supplying the Houthis with weapons and intelligence, and use its influence to stop the Houthi attacks. The Prime Minister spoke to President Biden recently to discuss our joint approach and I met my counterparts in the region this weekend, returning this morning from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I discussed regional security.

Secondly, we must end the illegal flow of arms to the Houthis. Britain and the US have previously intercepted weapons shipments in the region, including the same kind of components that we have seen used in recent strikes. Thirdly, we must cut off the Houthis’ financial resources. We have already, last month, sanctioned four key figures within the Houthi regime, including the commander of the Houthi naval forces and the Houthi defence minister.

Fourthly, we continue to help the people of Yemen by delivering humanitarian aid and supporting a negotiated peace. The UK has committed £88 million in humanitarian support this year, feeding 100,000 Yemenis every month, with aid arriving through the very sea routes that, ironically, the Houthis are targeting.

Let me be absolutely clear: we would much rather the Houthis simply stopped attacking international shipping, stopped damaging global trade and stopped harming the prospects of their own people. At the same time, appeasing the Houthis today will not lead to a more stable Red Sea, nor indeed a more stable region. We are not seeking confrontation and we urge the Houthis, and all those who enable them, to stop these illegal and unacceptable attacks. However, if necessary, the UK will not hesitate to respond again in self-defence.

Placating the sponsors of terror does not benefit our international order in the long run, or bring peace to the Middle East or elsewhere in Europe or, indeed, the world. The truth is that we cannot ignore the importance of these great waterways for shipping. This is the reason why the world backs the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is the reason why New Zealand has joined the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, Bahrain, Denmark and the Netherlands in providing support for this weekend’s air strikes, and it is the reason why, as an island nation, we have always appreciated freedom of navigation. It is intrinsic to our way of life. If we do not deal with these threats, every nation will be poorer. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Minto, for repeating the Government’s Statement. I very much welcome its tone and content. I say at the outset that we back the US-UK air strikes, which are supported by other countries, as the noble Earl read out. We also praise all the members of our Armed Forces involved in these actions and actions that have gone before. We should all pay tribute to their bravery.

We know that, as the Government said, these actions are to protect shipping and freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. In essence, we are standing up for the international rules-based order. This is of extreme importance, as the noble Earl mentioned, as the Houthis are attacking the ships of many nations, threatening maritime security and international trade. They are putting lives in danger. They cannot just act with no consequence. We cannot just stand by and let these things happen. Let us be clear: taking no action also has consequences.

We fully back the leading role that the Royal Navy has played, with the US and others, in the continuing defence of shipping for all nations in the Red Sea, but as the Minister said in the Statement in the other place, despite having had

“a significant effect in degrading Houthi capabilities”,

their intent

“has not been fully diminished”.

Can the noble Earl tell us what assessment the Government have made of the effectiveness of the action that has been taken so far? At what stage do these one-off strikes become a sustained campaign, with the need to involve Parliament? It is good to see a coalition of countries supporting the action, but perhaps the noble Earl can outline the efforts the Government are making to persuade other countries to join Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Actions in the Red Sea raise many legitimate questions. In particular, we know that Iran is the sponsor for many actors in the region, including the Houthis. What steps are the Government taking to prevent regional escalation, which we all wish to avoid, while maintaining dialogue with Iran about action that may be taken?

Questions also arise about our ability to sustain a military operation, even in the support role we have. Can the noble Earl reassure us that we can and will be able to provide all the necessary equipment and military assets? For example, are the Government rethinking the need for our ships to carry missiles that allow them to attack land bases, such as drone bases in Yemen?

We also read of the fact that the aircraft carrier “Queen Elizabeth” now needs repairs to a propeller. Can the noble Earl update us on this? Has it impacted on Red Sea deployment decisions, given that we were all led to believe that the “Queen Elizabeth” was being considered for deployment to the Red Sea? How long before the “Prince of Wales” can be readied to take on her role in the NATO exercise? Could it also be the case that she will be sent to the Red Sea?

It is also important that we recognise, as the noble Earl did, the important role played by the RAF and the importance of the base at Akrotiri. Can the Minister outline whether we are due to rotate HMS “Diamond” with another naval ship? Can we be certain that any of our ships can be fully supplied at all times?

These questions arise on the day that a Defence Select Committee report said that

“parliamentary scrutiny of and debate about UK armed forces readiness currently relies on media reporting and corridor conversations”.

That simply has to change, hence my questions. Operational ability to do all we would wish to do, even with our allies in the Red Sea, becomes important.

Ministers have said that they need to deter Houthi attacks and degrade their capabilities. As I asked earlier, what assessment has been made of that? This also has to be done alongside diplomatic efforts, so can the noble Earl update us on these efforts to put pressure on the Houthis, particularly via Iran, and other diplomatic measures that have been taken?

Finally, we agree with the Defence Secretary in rejecting Houthi claims that this is somehow linked to the conflict in Gaza. They have been attacking ships in the Red Sea for at least five years. This is about the international rules-based order, and we will act with the Government to defend that principle.

My Lords, from these Benches I also thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. Like the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I support the actions that have been taken so far. In particular, I thank the Government for being so clear about the precision with which the actions have been taken. It is hugely important that if we state that we are taking action against the Houthis to support the international rules-based order, we are very clear that our actions are proportionate and in line with international law. That is very welcome. Like the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, from these Benches I thank His Majesty’s Armed Forces for their deep commitment and the fact that they have been able to act and react so effectively.

I will start with Akrotiri and the RAF, because over the years Akrotiri has been hugely important, and we have made significant demands on the RAF. My starting point for questions on His Majesty’s Government’s capabilities is whether the noble Earl thinks we have sufficient support in Akrotiri. Is the Air Force able to keep up the level of support we have, or do we need to think about additional support for the RAF? Clearly, what has been happening so far has been significant and is working well, but can we sustain that—and for how long?

I have a similar set of questions about the Royal Navy. We rehearsed some of those at Questions this afternoon, and discussed naval capabilities. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has already raised some questions, but I will ask a little bit about crewing. One option is obviously to rotate out HMS “Diamond”, but do we need to do that, or might we think about changing the crewing? Is that what His Majesty’s Government might be thinking about?

Can the noble Earl also tell the House how many of our ships are currently at sea, how many are in planned maintenance and how many need to have, for example, propellers mended, which is not part of planned maintenance? Can he elaborate a little further on some of the answers he gave this afternoon about our naval capabilities? The Defence Select Committee’s report from the other place really is quite damning about our capabilities.

From these Benches and the Labour Benches, we have raised questions over years with His Majesty’s Government about not just defence spending but how effective that expenditure is, and how effective our capabilities are. It is great that we have two aircraft carriers, but if they are troubled by defects, that raises concerns. The Type 45s were beset by design defects. The noble Earl’s predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, was very keen to say that with the PIP, the Type 45s were a better ship than they had been before the refinements, but do we not need our ships to be right first time?

Are we confident that, moving forward, as we see ever more zones where His Majesty’s Armed Forces need to be present, we really have the capabilities, as an individual state and alongside our allies, to play the international role that we seek to play and to give our Armed Forces the support they deserve?

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for providing that firm commitment to support the Government in their actions and to give at all times the full level of support that our forces value so highly.

This is not an easy situation; it is correct that what we are doing now is a continuation of these single actions—it is not a sustained thing. I can give a commitment that if that changes, it will be discussed much more widely. I understand the issues surrounding this but for force protection and operational security, the Government must have the ability to act on information received.

I shall go through the specific questions asked. The assessment of the action taken so far, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, is that it has been very accurate. It has been successful—it is not over. The noble Baroness referred to the accuracy of the targeting. That has been very effective, by all accounts, and we should continue along that route. It is important that we keep up the pressure but do not move to anything more sustained at this point.

We have been successful in getting more allies to join Prosperity Guardian. As I said this afternoon, for them to take action is something which each sovereign state needs to decide for itself. It is incumbent on that; I am sure that there is a lot of diplomatic action going on in the background, but we cannot take a decision for them.

Both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been determined to make Iran fully understand that waging a war, in effect, through its proxies is something that the rest of the world finds illegal and cannot contemplate, and it needs to stop. There can be no doubt in my mind that Iran understands that; I hope that diplomatic pressure will continue and there will be a breakthrough at some point.

Both noble Lords asked about the sustainability of the action we are taking. I am absolutely sure from the RAF side at Akrotiri and the naval side in the Red Sea that this level of pressure is sustainable. There is the question of rotation; obviously, planned maintenance is a programmed activity and there is no gap in capability while they transition from one ship to another or swap planes over. That is very important.

We are part of an international force, and it is complementary in many areas. While we may not have on a particular ship all the weapons to provide a complete field, there are others that will do that.

The point was made about ship-to-shore missiles. The RAF from Cyprus is extremely capable of filling that in.

On the issue of the “Queen Elizabeth”, it is not uncommon to have maintenance issues; these are highly technical, state-of-the art ships, and it is extremely unfortunate at this particular moment. However, the fact that we have two aircraft carriers is very welcome. We will be able to deploy the “Prince of Wales” to exercise Steadfast Defender. We should be able to maintain our full strength, as per our NATO commitment, during Steadfast Defender. The situation with the “Queen Elizabeth” is being investigated now, and it is not absolutely clear how long the repairs will take to complete. I will certainly advise your Lordships when they are. There has been conversation about one of the aircraft carriers going into the Red Sea. This is part of an international action, and we discuss these contingency operations with our US colleagues at great length. There is flexibility in both directions, so no clear decision has been made yet.

I think I have answered the question of rotation and the aircraft carriers. However, the noble Baroness made a valid point about ships getting it right first time. The question of procurement is always uppermost in the mind in the Ministry of Defence. The only thing I would say is that, with the rate at which weapons systems develop, you need to refit and get the latest ones in place; often, that is part of planned maintenance and upgrading. I think I have answered all the questions.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. In the interests of legal clarity for our Armed Forces, this Statement confirms the right to self-defence, which is well recognised internationally and in proportion. The Houthis launched an attack on HMS “Diamond”, which was successfully repelled. This gave firm legal grounds for our first kinetic response. Have further attacks been mounted against His Majesty’s ships or UK-flagged vessels that would deserve further UK self-defence responses, or is the threat of further attacks from the Houthi leadership sufficient legally to justify further kinetic responses from His Majesty’s Armed Forces? Noble Lords should be in no doubt that I support the present operations; I am just seeking a clear statement of their international legal justification.

I thank the noble and gallant Lord. My understanding is that, under Article 51 of the charter of the United Nations, the force out there is completely entitled to defend itself. The very threat to it and to the sailors on-board is sufficient; we have that cover.

My Lords, no other navy in the world has the UK’s extraordinary institutional history of protecting global shipping, so it is very appropriate that we have a naval presence in the Red Sea. Obviously, the HMS “Diamond” Sea Viper system has been incredibly effective at intercepting Houthi drones. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, there may be times when ship-to-shore capability is needed. The Minister mentioned that this could be provided by systems based in the Mediterranean. Could he say something about naval vessels employing this capability, perhaps against Houthi targets on the ground?

I thank my noble friend for that comment. I am sure that he will understand that there are certain things I cannot say. One of the points made about the RAF flying from Akrotiri is that it does seem to be quite a long way, but when you think that the Americans last weekend flew from the United States to carry out their attacks, it brings it into perspective. On the question of Sea Viper and the upgraded version of Sea Viper, on which, as I said earlier today, we are spending about £400 million, it is an extremely effective weapon. We are always looking at ways to broaden the range of weaponry based on any particular ship.

My Lords, I join the comments of my noble friend Lord Coaker in supporting the action that the Government are taking, and also in supporting His Majesty’s Armed Forces on duty over there. Last month, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, designated the Houthis as a specially designated terrorist group. Will the Government take that back, look at it very carefully and, hopefully, decide to do the same thing?

Your Lordships will be fully aware of the view that the Government take of these types of organisations. The noble Lord is correct: the US has designated the Houthis as a specially designated terrorist group. That is slightly different from full proscription. As he knows, we have taken out individual sanctions across quite a lot of people within the Houthi organisation. We are always looking at updating exactly what category these types of organisations come into. So it is being considered in real time.

My Lords, the Defence Secretary is right to say that appeasing the Houthis will not bring stability, and that placating the sponsors of terror does not benefit our international order. Do the Government accept, therefore, that it was a profound mistake for President Biden to withdraw support, as he did, from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition against the Houthis, who have illegitimately taken over part of Yemen, remain embedded there and have the capability to carry out these attacks to this day? This was a course of action that many in the Opposition, under very different leadership at that time, called for in this House. To their credit, the Government looked like they were going to stay the course at the time. Is it not time now to learn the lesson from that and actually prosecute a campaign against this terrorist organisation to its natural finish?

The noble Lord is talking about a sort of sea-change in the level of activity. I certainly do not think that the Government believe that we have got to that position yet. As far as the historical aspect is concerned, far be it from me to take a view as to what was and what was not the right thing to do at the time. I cannot imagine that anybody thought that it would be a good idea to end up where we are, with Yemen being effectively split and some of the most needy people, certainly in the area and probably in the world, put under the pressure they are by this terrorist organisation.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his comments and contributions tonight. First, in 2001, the British Government proscribed an organisation called the Islamic Army of Aden, which was probably responsible for the attack on the “USS Cole”. That is now largely a busted flush as an organisation, and trivial in comparison with the Houthis. Will my noble friend please urge the Arabists in the Foreign Office to proscribe the Houthis as the evil terrorist organisation they are?

Secondly, we are spending millions on missiles, taking out individual missile and drone sites, which are easily restored. Will we now try to cut off the head of the snake, take out the command and control and the headquarters, hitting the senior leadership?

Thirdly and finally, could the Government please find the money to buy—or beg, borrow or steal—some F35s to put in those two big empty boats, whichever one happens to be working this week?

I thank my noble friend. I shall certainly take away the points that he makes. Precision-driven strikes to disrupt and deter is one thing. To move to something more sustained is a decision that would have to be taken by the allies as a whole.

I begin by referring to the first sentence of this Statement:

“Freedom of navigation has been a cornerstone of civilisation since time immemorial”.

This is a principle that was codified in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. It was not broadly accepted until well into the 19th century—and, in fact, the Dutch imposed it on us by the Treaty of Breda and the Treaty of Westminster in 1667 and 1674 respectively. Does the Minister agree with me that historical accuracy, sobriety of language and avoidance of hyperbole are important in an approach to foreign affairs at all times, but particularly given the state of the world today?

Following on from the points just made by the noble Lord, the Statement says:

“Despite repeated warnings, their attacks have continued”—

that is, the Houthi attacks. It says that

“the Houthis’ intent to continue disrupting the Red Sea has not been fully diminished”.

As the noble Lord just said, we have had drones, missiles and small boat assaults—there are many different methods. The definition of “fully diminished” would presumably be “stopped”. Do the Government believe that they can by military means stop the Houthi attacks?

I thank the noble Baroness for her views. On the question of hyperbole, personally, I try never to use hyperbole. There is nowhere that you can go from hyperbole, so I tried to avoid it.

On the question of diminishing the Houthis’ ability to strike, we have seen that this has been to some extent successful. Certainly, the frequency of the strikes has reduced; the ferocity of strikes and the number of drones and missiles that they have been firing towards international shipping has also reduced.

I take the point about when freedom of navigation may have been enshrined in some form of law, but it has long been accepted that the freedom of the seas and the ability to trade from one country to the other are absolutely critical.

On the diplomatic efforts, I entirely agree. Military action is unlikely to achieve our aims. That is always the case with anything like this. But it provides a level of commitment and gravitas which, I hope, makes any aggressor realise that there must be another way out. We have increased our diplomatic engagement, with the Foreign Secretary going again, having met his Iranian counterpart last week. We apply pressure not just bilaterally but through forums such as the United Nations, and that sort of thing. So there is a very broad diplomatic approach to trying to finish this matter.

My Lords, if I understood him correctly, the Minister suggested that rust is a regular occurrence. If that is the case and propeller rust is a regular occurrence—and I do not profess in any way to be a specialist—why not set up a rotational or regular change to ensure constant readiness? That is something he may wish to take away for the future.

The Minister intimated, I think, that that it is up to any new participant to determine their activities in the arrangements with the Houthis. Where is the command centre and who is running it?

Securing sea routes to ensure safe passage for supply chains is paramount. While Djibouti is a haven for French and US assets, what consideration has there been of extending outreach in a winning combination of the two, utilising the port of Berbera in Somaliland? Am I right in thinking that the Chinese are considering investing in the management of that port? Is the Minister considering setting up discussions with the Chinese interests to set out a beneficial rulebook as to how we can avail ourselves of that port for our own affairs as well?

My Lords, on the question of rust, I imagine that the noble Viscount is talking about aircraft carriers. I am not certain that one should necessarily believe all the headlines that one reads, but it is certainly something that is being looked at. As I said earlier, we are very lucky that we have another one, so there will be no reduction in commitment or effort.

As to who is leading, this is a US-led coalition. Clearly, the US relies very heavily on its allies and each party, each country, is obviously providing a level it feels comfortable with, but it is definitely a US-led coalition.

The point about supply chains is extremely well made. This situation is potentially so damaging to the world’s trade—and it must be damaging the Chinese more than anyone, I would have thought—that there will definitely be countries and groups of countries that will look very carefully at where we could get bases from. Of course, we have a very successful base in Cyprus, and the Chinese are all over the east coast of Africa as we know, but the point is well made.

My Lords, the Statement says that we must cut off the Houthis’ financial resources. I absolutely agree with that point. It goes on to say that we have sanctioned four people, and prior to that, 11 people—that is 15 people—and two entities. That is great, but I suggest that we need to go much further, because we really have to make this hurt. As the noble Earl said, there will no one way of getting this situation resolved; there will be a number of prongs to deal with it, including sanctioning a much larger group of people and many more entities. I bet that if we look carefully, we will find that there are assets held in this country, and we need to deal with those as well. This is important; it really has to hurt.

I entirely agree. Any way that one can starve any of these sorts of organisations with access to funds should be pursued with absolute vigour.

My Lords, some time ago, I proposed to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, that Somaliland be recognised. He suggested, if I remember correctly, that it is for the UN to determine this. Nevertheless, I think that there should be a lead from the UK in suggesting that Somaliland be recognised in its own right. For example, it shares the SOM designation with Somalia, so Somaliland being its own entity would probably be beneficial all round. Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, given that the Statement refers to the £88 million in humanitarian support provided to the people of Yemen this year, it is a bit of a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is not with us, because I am sure he could recite how much that figure has gone down. We are obviously talking about diplomacy and the views of the people of Yemen and how they react towards who is governing and controlling them. Have His Majesty’s Government made an assessment since the US and UK strikes started of what impact the strikes have had on the views of the people of Yemen, particularly towards the Houthis?

The noble Baroness is right. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, has made a very good point about the reduction in aid generally, and the Government have responded to that in the appropriate way.

The Houthis are extremely powerful, but they seem to be limited to this specific area, and it is incumbent on the allies to ensure that pressure is kept up so that they do not spread to the rest of Yemen. We have very good relationships with the legitimate Government of Yemen and continue to work with them in that direction.

House adjourned at 9.31 pm.