Canada should do more to protect ships and international trade in Red Sea, retired colonel says

‘It behooves Canada to show the flag and assume part of the ‘free-world’ responsibility for improving maritime security in the Red Sea’

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Canada should do more than send three staff officers to join a U.S.-led security operation to stop Houthi rebels from further threatening ships in the Red Sea, says a retired colonel.

“This rather small contribution by Canada is indicative of the current limited readiness and deployment capabilities of the Royal Canadian Navy,” Michel Drapeau told National Post.

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Drapeau served 34 years in the Canadian military before retiring as director, national defence headquarters secretariat. An expert on Canadian military operations, Drapeau, a lawyer, has written several textbooks on Canadian military law.

Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched several offensive strikes against ships travelling in the Red Sea in a show of support for Palestinians following Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

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In response, on Dec. 18, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a “multinational security initiative” aimed at restoring the free flow of commerce in the Red Sea. The coalition includes NATO members such as France, Italy and the Netherlands, as well as Bahrain, a key Western ally in the Middle East. On Dec. 22, the Pentagon said more than 20 countries have joined the mission.

Drapeau’s comments come after the announcement by Canada’s Defence Minister Bill Blair that detailed how Canada will participate in the U.S.-led security operation. In a Dec. 19 news release, the department of national defence announced that three Canadian Armed Forces members will be deployed to support the operation.

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“Canada will not deploy any naval assets (ships or naval aircraft) to assist in the protection of the free flow of commerce and safety of navigation into the Red Sea and the Western Gulf of Aden through which one-sixth of the global economic trade passes,” said Drapeau.

“It behooves Canada to show the flag and assume part of the ‘free-world’ responsibility for improving maritime security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and to deter attacks.”

Some of the world’s largest shipping firms have had to take new, longer routes to avoid the risk of being targeted by Houthi drones and missiles in the Red Sea. Maersk and the Mediterranean Shipping Company, for example, have diverted ships from the area of conflict on a path that takes them around the southernmost point of Africa and up the West side of the continent.

“Our economy depends to a very large degree on free and unimpeded access to the sea,” said Drapeau. “Canada has an overall policy to uphold the foundational principle of ‘freedom of navigation’ which facilitates international trade.”

A global response is required to counter the Houthi threat, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, at a Pentagon news conference on Dec. 21.

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“It’s very important to understand that the Houthis aren’t attacking just one country, they’re really attacking the international community,” Ryder said. “They are attacking the economic well-being and prosperity of nations around the world. So in effect, they really become bandits along the international highway that is the Red Sea.”

Canada’s response differs from how some other G7 countries and Western allies have reacted to the situation in the Red Sea. Notably, Britain has said that the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond will join Operation Prosperity Guardian. Greece will send a naval frigate to the Red Sea.

Canada’s decision to not deploy naval assets comes against a backdrop of concerns raised by top leadership within the Royal Canadian Navy. In a YouTube video posted to the Royal Canadian Navy’s channel, Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee warned about the “critical state” of the RCN. He said that the force may not meet its “readiness commitments” in the near future.

“Our Lilliputian contribution to this international undertaking should be taken as a warning that serious and immediate corrective action must urgently take place to improve our armed forces’ operational readiness standing,” said Drapeau.

“I truly wish we could do more.”

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