Gaining war experience

The situation in the operations area of the German navy’s high-tech frigate, The Hessen, is increasingly tense. The Hessen is supplying reconnaissance data to the American-led Operation Prosperity Guardian.

SANAA/BERLIN (own report) - Following the death of three sailors in another Houthi militia attack on a freighter in the Gulf of Aden, the situation in the operational area of Germany’s state-of-the-art frigate, The Hessen, continues to worsen. In response to the attack there is likely to be a renewed wave of US-British strikes on Houthi (Ansar Allah) positions in Yemen. Yet it is highly unlikely that this firepower will dissuade Ansar Allah from launching further attacks on merchant shipping. The Hessen has been deployed to the Red Sea and neighbouring waters as part of Operation Aspides, the EU’s own maritime security mission to protect merchant ships. The vessel’s initial actions have not been a success. Its anti-drone missiles have missed their target several times, including an attempt to bring down a misidentified US drone. German naval circles speak of beginner’s mistakes and the need to learn lessons: “What the ship and crew lack is war experience.” The German navy is keen to gain this war experience. The Hessen can spy on large parts of Yemen thanks to its advanced technical equipment. The data yielded can be passed on to the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian, taking place alongside the EU’s own Operation Aspides in the Red Sea. This capability could have far-reaching consequences for regional tensions, although it remains uncertain as to whether the data will be used for strikes on Houthi positions.

The frigate and its mandate

The Hessen set sail back in February, on the morning of 8 February, the very day on which the EU decided in principle to initiate a naval operation in the Red Sea. It first sailed to the Mediterranean, where it awaited the formal go-ahead for deployment. After the decision on military engagement by the EU foreign ministers on 19 February and then by the Bundestag on 23 February, The Hessen made its way to the mission area. This area potentially covers not only the Red Sea, the Bab al Mandab (“Gate of Tears”/”Gate of Grief”) Strait near Djibouti, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, but also the Strait of Hormuz plus the Persian Gulf. The mandate stipulates that the frigate must first assess the maritime situation and, if possible, escort merchant ships on their way through the Red Sea, protecting them from any attacks. The Hessen is only authorised to fend off attacks by shooting down drones and missiles, but not to attack Houthi militia (Ansar Allah) positions on land. The escorting of ships is restricted to the maritime area south of the Omani harbour city of Musca. The frigate is not permitted to enter the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, before the frigate Hessen can operate in the territorial waters of the littoral states, it must obtain their express consent.[1]

Prosperity Guardian

Operation EUNAVFOR Aspides (ancient Greek word for “shields”) forms the framework in which The Hessen can perform its activities. Parallel to the EU’s naval intervention, warships of other Western navies are also patrolling the Red Sea as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian. The latter was announced by Washington on 18 December 2023. Led by the US, around a dozen countries are reportedly taking part, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Bahrain. The US and UK have been unleashing repeated air strikes on Ansar Allah positions on Yemeni territory since 12 January. They carried out a fourth, more extensive wave of attacks on 24 February [2], with the US since launching strikes under its own auspices. The air strikes are raising growing concerns and are criticised outside the collective West. As the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) reports, the military response has already led to several states “withdrawing from Operation Prosperity Guardian”. These countries “fear that the conflict could spur a military escalation in the Middle East.”[3]

Situation imagery from Yemen

It is important, in this context, to note that The Hessen has very advanced reconnaissance equipment. The frigate’s radar can locate over a thousand targets at the same time within a radius of up to 400 kilometres. “Parts of Yemen are therefore also detected,” says the SWP analysis.[4] The SWP points out that an exchange of situation imagery with Operation Prosperity Guardian is also planned. This means that American and British armed forces in the region, which still insist on their right to launch airstrikes on Yemen, have potential access at any time to the data gathered by the German naval vessel and can use reconnaissance data for targeting missiles.

Fires twice at US drone and misses

The Hessen caused a stir in the very first days of her deployment when she fired on a US MQ-9 Reaper drone. The drone was reportedly travelling without its transponder switched on. Its flight was said to be unknown to both Aspides and Prosperity Guardian operation centres. The German warship mistook it for a hostile incoming object. The fact that US drones are flying around the region as a purely national deployment once again demonstrates the way in which the United States takes for granted a right to conduct unmanned military operations around the world wherever and whenever it likes. The Hessen fired two missiles at the Reaper drone, a double attack being a customary method to increase the probability of taking out such a target.[5] However, both missiles missed their target in this case. If reports that they were SM-2 missiles are true, then the mistaken attempt to shoot down a US drone would have been expensive: “The cost of an SM-2 missile,” according to the SWP, “is estimated at 1.3 to 1.5 million euros.”[6]

Learning from mistakes

Nor, according to a report in the specialist journal MarineForum, have those misses on a US drone been the only ones. A short time later, an attempt to shoot down an Ansar Allah-launched drone with ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile) missiles also failed, although it was still possible to bring the drone down with an on-board gun.[7] Another close-range defence system called the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) was again deployed against a Houthi drone soon afterwards. When defending against attacking missiles, both types of weapon are a last resort, designed to avert the attack shortly before impact. The German navy now claims that problems have been identified and rectified. The MarineForum points out that discovering defects and learning from mistakes is, initially, a common process during combat missions. The Hessen is “one of the best we have in our inventory – fully equipped, ammunitioned and manned at the highest possible level of training,” explains the specialised portal: “What the ship and crew lack is war experience.”[8]

In an upward spiral of violence

Meanwhile, the situation in the Red Sea threatens to escalate ever further. Ansar Allah recently succeeded in sinking a British merchant ship. Last Wednesday, three mariners were later killed in another Houthi attack on a freighter in the Gulf of Aden on Wednesday. Several more of the crew were injured, some of them seriously.[9] Renewed US and British attacks on Ansar Allah positions are now expected. It is the upward spiral of violence that experts had already warned of after the first wave of Western attacks on Yemen. The Houthis are “much smarter, better prepared and better equipped” than many in the West thought, warned Yemen expert Farea Al-Muslimi from the London-based think-tank Chatham House. Since they were able to hold their own for years in the war against the might of Saudi Arabia and its Arab and Western allies, it would be almost impossible to defeat them with bombs and missile strikes.[10] Nevertheless, the situation in the Red Sea can spiral out of control and Germany’s high-tech frigate will be caught up in an increasingly difficult situation.


[1] Rotes Meer – EUNAVFOR Aspides.

[2] Jaroslav Lukiv: US and UK carry out fresh strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen. 24.02.2024.

[3], [4] Ronja Kempin, Georg Schneider: Die EU-Operation Eunavfor Aspides. SWP-Aktuell 2024/A06. Berlin, 21.02.2024.

[5] Gernot Kramper: Fregatte „Hessen“: So wird die Deutsche Marine zur Lachnummer. 29.02.2024.

[6] Ronja Kempin, Georg Schneider: Die EU-Operation Eunavfor Aspides. SWP-Aktuell 2024/A06. Berlin, 21.02.2024.

[7], [8] „Hessen“ im Feuer – was man so „von der Pier“ aus dazu sagen kann. 05.03.2024.

[9] Samer Al-Atrush: Three sailors dead after Houthi attack on Red Sea ship. 06.03.2024.

[10] Farea Al-Muslimi: The Houthis won’t back down after US and UK strikes on Yemen. 12.01.2024.