Navy No Show in Red Sea

By Chris W.J. Roberts, 15 February 2024

The Red Sea shipping crisis has shredded assumptions about the ability of international law, economic interdependence and coordinated seapower to keep vital sea lanes free for global commerce. By the end of January 2024 so many shipping companies had rerouted their vessels around Africa that Suez Canal traffic had decreased by 50%. Shipping and insurance costs have risen, average travel time has increased by a third, there are more emissions per trip, and ports and companies are experiencing supply disruptions.

Since mid-November, the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen – better known as the Houthis – has effectively turned the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden into a testing ground for new maritime weapon systems.  The USN’s Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Lisa Franchetti, speaking about the Red Sea air defence mission, “acknowledged that the [US] Navy now faces an operating environment in which “sea control is neither guaranteed nor freely given.”[1] She listed the results of USN anti-air activities to date: over 70 Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), 7 cruise missiles, and “for the first time in history,” 14 anti-ship ballistic missiles shot down. One US Marine Corps Harrier pilot has shot down 7 UAVs since December. And that doesn’t count over 70 weapons plus related radar, communications and logistics facilities destroyed by US and UK airstrikes and missiles in Yemen since 11 January. While Houthi missile capabilities have been degraded, it is difficult to eliminate all UAVs and Uncrewed Surface Vessels (USVs) given their size, ubiquity and assembly in Yemen.[2]

Why should Canadians care about this skirmish off the northeast coast of the African continent? What relevance is there for Canadian security or prosperity? In fact, the stakes could not be higher for Canada, a country which is heavily dependent on international maritime law for a rules-based order, trade for prosperity and international allies for security.

When US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) on 18 December 2023, Canada was one of the countries listed as willing to be mentioned publicly.[3] Canada’s involvement in maritime security in the region goes back to 2001 and the naval response to the 9/11 attacks. It was an early member of the multilateral naval coalition, Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), under which OPG is organized. Canada has regularly contributed ships, staff officers, CP-140 Aurora aircraft and task force commanders to CMF under Operation Artemis.[4] Today, Canada has command of the original Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150) and deputy command of the training-focused CTF 154. About 25 CAF personnel and two civilians are posted to CMF. But the odds of seeing an RCN frigate join American, British, Indian and other European warships in the Red Sea region are near zero.

That might seem strange as it was less than a year ago that HMCS Montréal and MV Astérix transited the Red Sea and happened to be in the right place to assist with personnel evacuations from Sudan as a civil war broke out. While the Houthi anti-maritime capabilities were known at the time – with ongoing supplies, training and likely operational personnel coming from Iran for many years[5] – the Saudi-Iran rapprochement in March 2023 reduced the regional threat environment. It was not until mid-November that the Houthis ramped up maritime activities in response to the war in Gaza by first detaining MV Galaxy Leader and then launching sporadic attacks at other commercial vessels.   

There is no doubt that Canadian staff officers working in Bahrain with US Central Command and CMF are doing excellent work. But what CMF and OPG need are frigates and destroyers with significant anti-air/anti-missile and, preferably, some surface strike capabilities. Even if Canada had a frigate available to deploy in 2024, as currently configured, they are not equipped to fight in the Red Sea under the threat conditions. That alone should shake Canadians out of their sea blindness.

A non-state actor has surface and air capabilities that could overwhelm the systems, weapons and ammunition of Canada’s main warship. Until the Halifax-class frigates have fully completed their missile/weapon systems upgrade, they would be extremely vulnerable within 50-100 nm of Yemen’s coast. Would any Prime Minister want to take the risk of a Canadian frigate taking a serious hit, even if that’s a 1-10% chance? Would it be fair to Canadian sailors to put them in that environment?

Canada has shown itself to be a supportive ally, but Canada increasingly does not have the means to contribute meaningfully and allies have noticed. As Lawrence Herman pointed out in The Globe and Mail, “The risk is that being a laggard in military and defence expenditures weakens Canada’s standing in foreign capitals and reduces the country’s ability to resolve disagreements in trade and other critical areas.”[6]

The Canadian response to the Red Sea crisis is an indicator of our inability to be relevant, with implications for prosperity and security. Policymakers have not yet made the case to the Canadian people about the real impact the Red Sea disruptions are having on the international rules-based order and the global economy, including inflationary pressures. Lack of capability keeps us from showing up to the biggest disruption in shipping since unrestricted submarine warfare, or at least the Suez Canal closure of 1967-75.   

The Americans and British are also expressing concern that the level of missile attrition to counter Houthi attacks is challenging replenishment and resupply assumptions, let alone the bean counters who point out the cost-benefit of firing $2 million missiles to take out $50,000 (or less) UAVs. Even after the upgrade, our frigates will only have 16 Enhanced Sea Sparrow missiles in their vertical launch system (VLS) tubes without the ability to reload organically or at sea.[7] (USN Arleigh Burke-class destroyers cannot reload their VLS missiles either, but they have many more launch tubes. Even the new American Constellation-class frigates under construction will have at least 32 VLS plus other systems useful for layered air defence.)

So, looking ahead to lessons learned for the Canadian Surface Combatant, are 24 VLS tubes enough (which can be filled with surface-to-air or land-attack missiles) in addition to the Sea Ceptor close-in air defence system? Given the trend towards swarm attacks by anti-ship missiles, UAVs, crewed/uncrewed surface vessels, ammunition stores could be gone in a matter of hours in a medium intensity environment. Then you need to find a friendly port with pre-positioned supplies to rearm. Having previously established relations in strategically located countries goes a long way to solving that logistics hurdle.

The African continent sits astride four of the Earth’s major shipping choke points (Suez Canal, Red Sea/Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the Cape route and Gibraltar). Across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden from Yemen are African states without the capacity to exert influence in their territorial seas let alone in their Exclusive Economic Zones. We are facing the consequences of neglecting those facts.

We have so few frigate weeks at sea planned in 2024 and they are so closely tied to NATO and Indo-Pacific Strategy commitments, that there is minimal wiggle room for commitments to support operations in the Western Indian Ocean, or elsewhere around Africa if we don’t feel comfortable putting a frigate in range of an Iranian-supplied anti-ship ballistic missile.

The increased maritime traffic around Africa is also stressing African ports and bunkering facilities, security and environmental surveillance, and even piracy is on the rise again. Canada still intends to participate in the annual US-led Obangame Express exercise in the Gulf of Guinea, but only with shore-based personnel,[8] ending years of annual two-ship Kingston-class deployments. The lack of Canadian ships in African waters in 2024 goes against what Rob Huebert and I argued in an article (“The RCN and African Maritime Security: Forward Security Strikes Back?”) published in the recent issue of CNR.[9] Working with African partners and in African waters on a regular basis provides the relationships and experience to strengthen global maritime governance and counter future maritime challenges. Hopefully a new Canadian strategy for Africa will recognize links between political instability on land and increased insecurity at sea, informing the long-awaited Defence Policy Update.

The lack of hulls and sailors to deploy more ships in 2024 is not the Navy’s fault, but a symptom of the acute strategic leadership and procurement woes facing Canadian defence policy over the last 20 years. There are strategic, operational, tactical and planning-procurement lessons to be learned from the Red Sea crisis for Canada and particularly the RCN. But is there any political will to apply those lessons and explain their implications to the Canadian voter and taxpayer? Sadly, no. And that remains the core problem putting Canadian prosperity and security at risk in an increasingly dangerous world.

[1] “U.S. Navy's Top Officer Touts Success of Red Sea Air Defense Mission,” The Maritime Executive, 13 February 2024,

[2] Thomas Harding, “The Houthis have built their own drone industry in Yemen,” The National, 13 June 2020,

[3] “Statement from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Ensuring Freedom of Navigation in the Red Sea,” US Department of Defense, 18 December 2024,

[4] “Operation ARTEMIS,” Canadian Armed Forces – Current Operations, last updated 7 February 2024,

[5] Iran: Enabling Houthi Attacks Across the Middle East, Defense Intelligence Agency, February 2024, 

[6] Lawrence Herman, “Canada must realize that a strong economy comes from a strong military,” The Globe and Mail, 13 February 2024,

[7] Dan Middlemiss, “Missile Reloads at Sea: The Next Big Thing?”, Canadian Naval Review – Broadsides Discussion Forum, 29 March 2023,

[8] Neil Moss, “Navy won’t send ships in annual West Africa deployment amid readiness woes,” The Hill Times, 31 January 2024,

[9] Rob Huebert and Chris W. J. Roberts, “The RCN and African Maritime Security: Forward Security Strikes Back?”, Canadian Naval Review, Vol. 19, No. 3 (2024),


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