A fully-laden very large crude carrier was shot by a projectile while underway in the southern Red Sea. The oil tanker was targeted by Houthi fighters while the ship was south-west of the port of Al Hudaydah in Yemen, on Tuesday, April 3.
Following the incident, the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia (Bahri) confirmed the attacked vessel was its 302,977 dwt oil tanker Abqaiq.
The company said that the VLCC suffered only minor damage, adding that there were no injuries to its crew aboard. The cargo was unaffected and there was no loss of containment. The crude carrier successfully resumed its northward journey across the Red Sea under the escort of a warship of the Saudi-led coalition, according to Bahri.
World Maritime News spoke to Dryad Maritime, a maritime security specialist, on the security situation in the area in the wake of the attack to find out should owners of ships transiting the area be worried.
“Following the attack, the security situation within the immediate area remains fluid. Whilst the threat persists Dryad assesses that targeting by Houthi rebels is almost exclusively as a result of vessels being identified as being in support of the Saudi led coalition in Yemen or due to proximity to Saudi naval vessels. Houthi rebels are assessed as being highly unlikely to utilise limited and valuable weapon systems against targets that are not positively identifiable as being of Saudi origin or in direct support of Saudi coalition forces,” Dryad Maritime said.
There seems to be no progress on the peace process in Yemen, which is facing a major humanitarian crisis.
The conflict has already been prolonged having been ongoing since 2015. However, there hasn’t been a significant reduction in traffic transiting through the Red Sea and Bab al Mandeb (BaM) during that time period.
While there is an increased risk for merchant vessels transiting this area, the target of Houthi attacks has been either military vessels part of the Saudi-led coalition, or merchant vessels deemed to be in support of them. For instance, the MT Abqaiq was a Saudi-flagged tanker operating under Saudi escort, Dryad stressed.
Abqaiq attack details
Findings from post-incident analysis indicate that the projectile was fired from a Houthi vessel of some description and that the likely weapon system used to attack the tanker was an Anti-Tank Guided Missile with an effective range of 5.5 km.
Namely, based on the blast diagnostics, the angle at which the projectile entered the vessel indicates an unlikely land-based firing point, the maritime security company said.
“Possible land masses within the calculated impact vectors are Jabal Zubayr at 56,600m and Jamaran in Hudaydah governate at 88,900m. Both these distances exceed the known capabilities of land-based weapon systems held by Houthi forces in the immediate area,” Drayd Maritime explained.
It has been determined that Houthi rebels have both the capability and intent to deploy a range of weapon systems and employ dynamic targeting of civilian tankers in response to specific events.
Dryad believes the targeting of Saudi naval and commercial vessels is likely to continue. Despite this, the company said that Houthi rebels do not have the capacity to block the Red Sea.
“However, a one-off or a few incidents could occur with the intention of impacting the assessment of the maritime industry in the safety of transiting these waters, which would prompt them to pressurize Saudi Arabia to reach a deal to end the conflict. This is the ultimate aim of the Houthis. Therefore, it would appear that the longer the conflict remains at a stalemate with the consequent humanitarian issues it brings, the higher the likelihood of a Houthi attack,” the maritime security specialist said.
What should ship crews bear in mind when crossing the region?
In line with the latest UKMTO advice, vessels should transit the BaM/Southern Red Sea during the hours of darkness and exit the Traffic Separation Scheme to the West of the Hanish Islands in daylight hours.
However, Dryad pointed out that there are also risks of transiting the BaM at night time and the decision to transit the area is ultimately at the Master’s discretion.
“It is possible that a night-time transit will provide some additional risk mitigation; however, it will also limit the ability to locate and positively identify small craft. As such, the choice to transit the BaM by day or night is at the Master’s discretion. Vessels should use the Transit Separation Scheme (TTS) to the west of the Hanish Islands and maintain maximum distance from the Yemen coast,” the company further noted.
The response of the international community
The Red Sea does not have the same level of organized international response as the Gulf of Aden, as explained by Dryad. Here, the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), originally created to protect vessels against piratical attack, offers scheduled transits accompanied by warships from Russia, Japan, South Korea, India and China.
“This significantly deters any aggression towards merchant vessels transiting, although suspicious approaches are still semi-regularly reported,” Dryad pointed out.
Nevertheless, there are defined routes for the region– the Transit Separation Schemes (TSS) around the Bab Al Mandeb and to the West of the Hanish Islands, which when combined with the IRTC form the Maritime Security Transit Corridor.
“These TSSs do not have convoy elements but do give a defined route around which international naval forces can concentrate their efforts,” Dryad added.
As informed, in terms of specific deployments, the US maintains a presence in this area, which was increased in Feb 2017 following attacks. Europe as well as China, Russia and Iran, have naval presences in the region as well, often intended as anti-piracy measures. Saudi Arabia and the UAE either have or are in the process of constructing bases in Djibouti, in close proximity to the Bab al Mandeb.
Interview conducted by Jasmina Ovcina Mandra, Editor, World Maritime News