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Red Sea: Pistorius visits German ship set for Houthi mission

February 20, 2024

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius described the frigate's Red Sea deployment as the German Navy's "most dangerous" mission in decades. But he also stressed its defensive nature, limited to intercepting Houthi strikes.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius stood on the deck of the German Navy frigate "Hessen," speaking to assembled servicemen and women and others. February 20, 2024. The ship is currently in dock in Crete, and is set to deploy in the Red Sea at the end of the week.
Image: Michael Fischer/dpa/picture alliance

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius on Tuesday visited the German Navy's "Hessen" frigate, currently docked in Crete and set to deploy in the Red Sea to defend against Houthi attacks from Yemen by the end of the week. 

"Now we're dealing with an emergency case," he told the 240 servicemen and women on board the vessel. 

"You can say without exaggeration, it is the navy's most serious and also most dangerous mission in decades," Pistorius said. 

But he said that "Germany cannot simply stand on the sidelines and do nothing." 

The Social Democrat defense minister was accompanied by the Free Democrats' Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, who chairs the parliamentary defense committee in the Bundestag.

From left to right in foreground: FDP politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Captain Volker Kübsch in conversation on the deck of the "Hessen" frigate. February 20, 2024, off the coast of Crete.
Pistorius and Strack-Zimmermann spoke with Captain Volker Kübsch on board the frigateImage: Michael Fischer/dpa/picture alliance

Defensive mission, but still unprecedented for modern German Navy

Speaking in a German television interview earlier on Tuesday, however, Pistorius also sought to stress the differences between Germany's involvement against Houthi activity in the Red Sea and that of the US and UK

He told public broadcaster ZDF that the German Navy's involvement was a "defensive mission," involving "only the defense against attacks from missiles, drones and other things." 

He said the operation should "not be confused with the collective task that the Americans and Britons have taken on."

The US and UK are also striking selected Houthi targets inland in Yemen in a bid to halt attacks targeting commercial shipping on the crucial Red Sea route at their source, as part of the "Poseidon Archer" operation.

Soldiers standing on the deck of the German Navy frigate "Hessen," listening to visiting Defense Minister Boris Pistorius. February 20, 2024.
The ship's captain described the 240-strong crew's mood as 'tense, but in a positive sense'Image: Michael Fischer/dpa/picture alliance

The German warship, meanwhile, is assigned only with intercepting Houthi attacks at sea. The vessels will have orders only to fire on the militants if they attack first and will not be authorized to shoot pre-emptively.

It's not the navy's first defensive deployment in the waters between the east coast of Africa and the Middle East.

German ships also participate in an ongoing EU anti-piracy mission operation focused in large part on criminals operating out of Somalia. But that involves independent actors for the most part equipped only with light arms, not the Iran-backed Houthi militia with access to more advanced equipment. 

The Hessen was fitted out with equipment for its mission before departing from Wilhelmshaven in northern Germany on February 8. Its radar system can monitor the entire Red Sea, its air defense systems have a range of around 160 kilometers (roughly 100 miles). A helicopter is also on board along with a medical crew and a chaplain.

Germany sends frigate to help secure Red Sea

Parliamentary approval still pending, but likely a formality

Pistorius said the mission was seeking to safeguard "the freedom of trade ... and the safety of ships on the most important trade route between Asia and Europe."

Houthis have stepped up attacks on commercial shipping in recent months, claiming that it is a response to Israel's military operations in the Gaza Strip following the October 7 Hamas attacks. 

The captain of the "Hessen," Volker Kübsch, said that sailors would be on "tactical movements" until the end of April following Friday's deployment, and that at present there are roughly five Houthi attacks targeting commercial ships each week. 

He described the mood among his crew as "tense, but in a positive sense."

Insecurity in the Red Sea, if it forces shipping companies to seek another route, leads to considerable increases in shipping costs and delivery times, with the only other route between Asia and Europe being to sail all the way around the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa.

The EU's "Aspides" operation in the Red Sea was approved on Monday by the bloc's foreign ministers. 

Approval from the the Bundestag Parliament is still required before the deployment can begin under German law. That vote, however, is seen as a formality, given the support from both the ruling coalition and the largest opposition party.

The vote is scheduled for finalization by Friday, moments before the "Hessen" should deploy.

Can Africa profit from Red Sea crisis?

msh/wmr (AFP, dpa)

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