The Crucial Role of Public/Private Partnerships in the Red Sea Crisis | Center for International Maritime Security – CIMSEC

11 minutes, 8 seconds Read

Red Sea Topic Week

By Joseph F. Greco, Ph.D 

As a critical chokepoint on major global shipping routes, the Red Sea has always had the potential to become a prominent area of tension, underlining the immediate necessity for strong maritime security measures.1 The Houthi rebels have increased regional tensions by employing a seemingly inexhaustible supply of armaments, raising the question – how might the strategic employment of navies be brought to bear against the Houthi threat to definitively restore stability in the global commons?

Some answers can be found in the success of Operation Atalanta, which has been ongoing since 2008. This operation, deployed by the European Union Naval Force as a proactive measure to address piracy on the Somali coast, demonstrated the undeniable effectiveness of public/private partnerships between naval forces and the commercial maritime industry.2 Combining naval power with commercial maritime operations, the lessons learned from Operation Atalanta resulted in improved intelligence sharing, enhanced logistical support, and updated best management practices. In a relatively short time, the mission significantly reduced the risk of piracy along the Somali coast. It offers useful lessons for maritime security operations in the ever-changing threat landscape.

Sharing Intelligence, Logistics, and Best Practices

Operation Atalanta’s successful campaign against piracy off the Somali coast featured a cooperative intelligence-sharing strategy. Based on a public/private framework, the partnership prioritized immediate communication and seamless information sharing, enhancing the ability to forecast and address maritime dangers. Known as interconnected situational awareness systems (ISAS), they became arguably the most crucial capability in improving the capacity of all involved parties to make well-informed decisions. ISAS are a collection of linked systems that analyze and distribute real-time data to improve operational efficacy and decision-making in maritime security. They are composed of sensor networks, platforms for exchanging information, analytics, data fusion, and command and control systems. These technologies give stakeholders a shared, all-encompassing view of the maritime realm, making identifying, following, and reacting to possible hazards easier and providing a reassuring solution to the maritime security challenges.3

With respect to forming public/private partnerships, the logistical support that commercial shipping companies offer can greatly expand the operational reach and sustainability of naval forces.4 This assistance was crucial in stopping piracy along the Somali coast during Operation Atalanta, improving the sustainability of naval presence in the Gulf of Aden. Commercial shipping can directly impact naval forces’ readiness and operations by facilitating access to regional ports and providing essential supplies, including food, energy, maintenance services, and technical support. When conducting naval operations away from home bases, having trusted access to maritime infrastructure is essential.

During Operation Atalanta, creating and implementing best management practices (BMPs) greatly enhanced ship security against maritime threats and addressed increased piracy concerns. Various protocols involved journey planning, ship fortification, and crew instruction to reduce vessels’ susceptibility to pirate assaults. Extensive input from naval forces, security specialists, and the commercial maritime industry factored into the establishment of these practices. It also demonstrated the efficacy of naval escorts and the significance of timely intelligence exchange, which were eventually integrated into BMP guidelines. The knowledge acquired during Operation Atalanta underscores the importance of adaptability in BMPs, enabling modifications in response to distinct regional risks and operating circumstances.

Italian frigate Carlo Bergamini (F 590) operating in Operation Atalanta. (EUNAVFOR photo)

The Red Sea Crisis and Operation Prosperity Guardian 

The Red Sea Crisis poses a multidimensional problem that calls for a thorough grasp of regional dynamics as well as the limits of previous approaches. It is crucial to consider the important elements that set this crisis apart from earlier maritime security problems, such as Somali piracy. The involvement of state actors, the use of asymmetric warfare tactics, and the strategic significance of the Red Sea distinguish the current crisis from Somali piracy. The limited mechanisms and appetite for regional cooperation add further distinctions. The present analysis aims to establish a basis for understanding the prevailing circumstances and identifying possible paths toward restoring maritime security. It also underscores the necessity for inventive and tailored strategies considering the region’s unique features.

Geopolitical Complexities 

Although networked situational awareness successfully mitigated Somali piracy risk in 2008, a complicated web of political, economic, and security issues are at work in the Red Sea region, making it more difficult to holistically address the crisis. The current crisis reflects the chronic struggle for control between Sunni and Shia factions that overlays much of the region’s geopolitics. While the Houthis publicly claim their attacks on commercial shipping are a way to support the Palestinians, there exists widespread political instability and violence in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Sudan, and especially in Yemen.

While Iran appears to be the main state player backing the Houthis, other nations with strategic stakes in Yemen offer diplomatic, financial, or logistics as part of their larger regional ambitions.5 These nations may show support or sympathy for the Houthi rebels, but the level of commitment and assistance may differ. Even though Syria, Lebanon, and Qatar have little direct involvement in the Yemeni crisis, they back Iran diplomatically and have a shared goal of countering Saudi influence in the area. By comparison, Somali pirates had little in the way of state backing, making it easier for regional actors to build partnerships and information sharing arrangements. Competing geopolitical strains will challenge the ability to build regional cooperation and efficient maritime security measures that are targeted toward the Houthis.

Unlike the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast, where the threat of piracy led to the development of robust international cooperation mechanisms such as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), the Red Sea region lacks a similar unified framework.6 In addition to the climate of distrust, many regional states face significant economic challenges such as the lack of modern port facilities, inadequate naval capabilities, and limited access to advanced technology and communication systems. Due to concerns over sovereignty and the sharing of sensitive information, some countries may be hesitant to fully engage in interconnected situational awareness systems and regional information-sharing initiatives for fear of compromising their national security.

Operation Prosperity Guardian will struggle to definitively end this crisis if it cannot degrade the logistics networks that are underpinning the Houthis’ capability to threaten maritime shipping. Stronger information sharing would be invaluable for defeating these networks. Besides Iran, other parties are providing the Houthis with a continuous supply of arms and ammunition.7 These deliveries occur by way of local smuggling channels, especially illicit arms networks that operate regionally and globally. Often involving the clandestine transfer of arms through various channels, including land, sea, and air routes, they exploit Yemen’s weak border controls and porous maritime routes. They are partly facilitated by complicit border officials or local militias, whose influence may extend beyond the Houthi-controlled territories of Yemen. Yemen’s long coastline and many ports make it possible for weapons to be smuggled into the nation via small boats or shipping routes. Smugglers can use numerous ports, fishing communities, and isolated coves scattered along the coastline as possible entry sites. Major ports in Yemen, including Hodeidah, Aden, and Mukalla, are known crossroads for legal and illegal maritime traffic, posing challenges to controlling arms shipments.

The presence of multiple littoral states with different levels of infrastructure development, naval capabilities, and political amity poses a challenge to establishing a cohesive logistical support network. The absence of a strong regional mechanism or organization, like the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) in the case of Operation Atalanta, hinders the coordination of logistical support efforts among regional states and commercial maritime partners.8 The ongoing conflicts and instability in countries like Yemen and Sudan disrupt port access, supply chains, and other logistical arrangements, making it more difficult to sustain naval operations and provide adequate security for commercial vessels.

New Approaches and Strategies

Addressing the issues raised by the Red Sea crisis and protecting the global commons requires the strategic use of naval forces, especially the U.S. Navy. Because of its skills, worldwide reach, and relations with maritime industry, the U.S. Navy can play a major role in stabilizing the region and protecting key maritime trade routes. It can take the lead in creating regional frameworks that apply the relevant lessons from Operation Atalanta to the crisis at hand.

The U.S. Navy can facilitate greater cooperation and communication between commercial and littoral states. Leveraging its partnerships, the U.S. Navy can promote information exchange, cooperative training, and initiatives to foster mutual trust. A heightened level of engagement between regional entities can enhance confidence and facilitate more efficient intelligence sharing, a crucial aspect of proactively addressing maritime security challenges.

BMPs can be updated and modified under the U.S. Navy’s direction to consider the Red Sea’s unique threats. These procedures ought to be made to strengthen crew readiness, enhance vessel security, and reduce the dangers connected with the Houthis’ specific capabilities. BMPs developed during Operation Atalanta were specifically tailored to address the threat of Somali piracy, which primarily involved small skiffs and armed boardings, whereas the security threats in the Red Sea region are more diverse and intense. Due to the Houthi’s utilization of advanced weaponry, such as missile and drone attacks, BMPs should be revised to incorporate ship-hardening measures tailored to these risks, such as heightened surveillance and early warning systems. Furthermore, crew training programs should undergo revisions to incorporate drills and protocols for addressing missile and drone attacks, damage control, and emergency communications. 

The Red Sea crisis can look to replicate the ISAS capability of Atalanta, which blends cutting-edge technology, regional collaboration, and capacity-building activities, is one such strategy. The primary objective of ISAS would be to improve the collection and exchange of intelligence among international stakeholders, commercial marine partners, and littoral states. ISAS can offer a thorough, up-to-date picture of the Red Sea’s security situation using capabilities such as drone surveillance, artificial intelligence-powered data analysis, and satellite images. More efficient logistics support, incident response, and naval operations coordination would be made possible by this improved situational awareness. Additionally, ISAS would prioritize involving local stakeholders and enhancing regional capability via initiatives for technology transfer, cooperative exercises, and training programs. By promoting a shared sense of accountability and ownership among regional stakeholders, ISAS can aid in creating enduring, long-term solutions to the Red Sea’s maritime security issues. This wide-ranging approach offers a new paradigm for handling the intricate security dynamics of the Red Sea crisis by blending technology innovation with regional collaboration and capacity-building.

The most important and necessary measure is developing a broader strategy that can operate within the geopolitical complexity of the Red Sea region. The United States and other major powers should call a summit with all major players to devise a strategy for resolving the Red Sea situation. The primary goal of this meeting would be to develop a strategy and earn buy-in for a comprehensive approach that will solve the fundamental drivers of the crisis.


Operation Atalanta demonstrates the importance of intelligence sharing, logistical support, and BMP implementation in enhancing maritime security. It also demonstrated the efficacy of public/private partnerships between naval forces and the commercial shipping industry while establishing a holistic strategy for addressing risks. The obstacles posed by the Red Sea crisis and the effective use of naval power are distinct, requiring a considered evaluation of the applicable lessons from Atalanta. Longstanding geopolitical rivalries are prevalent in the region and challenge the ability to develop regional partnerships. The lack of a robust regional cooperation framework restricts the application of previous lessons to the current crisis. For Operation Prosperity Guardian to succeed in securing the Red Sea commons, these complex difficulties must be addressed.

Joseph F Greco, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, holds a BA in history from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in financial economics from the University of California. He has secured over $8 million in grants, focusing on multinational corporations and Chinese capital markets. Dr. Greco founded Tritech, the first high-tech small business development center within the U.S. Small Business Administration. He currently serves as a Blue and Gold officer for the U.S. Naval Academy and the president of the Orange County Council of the Navy League. His present research explores the link between U.S. naval power, cyberwarfare, and the global economy.


1. Bueger, C. (2015). What is maritime security? Marine Policy, 53, 159-164.

2. European Union Naval Force Somalia. (2020). Operation Atalanta.

3. Cusumano, E., & Ruzza, S. (2020). Piracy and the privatisation of maritime security: Vessel protection policies compared. Palgrave Macmillan.

4. Kraska, J., & Pedrozo, R. (2013). International maritime security law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

5. Stavridis, J. (2024, January 3). Hit the Houthis and Iran where it counts. Bloomberg.

6. Papastavridis, E. (2013). The interception of vessels on the high seas: Contemporary challenges to the legal order of the oceans. Hart Publishing.

7. Holtom, P., & Pavesi, I. (2018). Trade Update 2018: Sub-Saharan Africa in Focus. Small Arms Survey.

8. Bueger, C. (2021). Coordination in maritime security: The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. Ocean Development & International Law, 52(2), 110-127.

Featured Image: Italian frigate Carlo Bergamini (F 590) operating in Operation Atalanta. (EUNAVFOR photo)

This post was originally published on 3rd party site mentioned in the title of this site

Similar Posts