Royal Navy’s Middle East shipping ‘999 control room’ sees 475% rise in incidents

The Royal Navy’s “999 control centre” for handling shipping emergencies in the Middle East has revealed it has experienced an “unprecedented” 475% increase in incidents since the Houthis started launching attacks last year.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) was originally set up in Dubai in 2001 to act as a hub for handling distress calls from international shipping in the Middle East before the centre was moved to Portsmouth, Hampshire, in 2014.

The Royal Navy operation now employs a civilian team of 15 watch-keepers and three managers covering calls 24 hours a day from shipping in the southern Red Sea, Bab al Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden.

Royal Navy operations in Red Sea
The Royal Navy’s ‘999 control centre’ in Portsmouth helps deal with shipping attacks in the Red Sea (Ben Birchall/PA)

This can range from search and rescue authorities to the coalition military forces if a vessel has come under attack.

Lt Cdr Black said incidents of aggression have risen by 475% since November 18 2023 following the launch of attacks by Houthi forces based in Yemen.

She added that this has meant an increase from one incident, possibly of piracy, once every two or three weeks to six or seven events a day.

Lt Cdr Black told the PA news agency: “Historically the highs of piracy were between 2008 and 2012 and since then we went into a relatively calm period in the region; however, that all changed in November 2023 when we saw the Houthis start to attack international shipping transiting around the Gulf of Aden, southern Red Sea and Bab al Mandeb.

Royal Navy operations in Red Sea
The launch of attacks by Houthi forces on shipping in November 2023 means the ‘999 control centre’ is now seeing six or seven events a day (Ben Birchall/PA)

“So that can range from missile attacks and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle – drone) attacks and harassment, to small boat harassment and even VHF challenges by personnel or entities claiming to be regional authorities, including threats to vessel safety and mariner safety.

“And that has escalated now to include the sinking of a vessel and also the deaths of some personnel on board so it’s a really dangerous situation out there.”

Lt Cdr Black added that there are signs of an upsurge in piracy off Somalia with three recent incidents.

She said: “That could be evidence of a resurgence of pirate action groups, out of Somalia or elsewhere, but there’s an awful lot of work so it’s early days and we need to understand a bit more about the regional situation.”

In the fourth quarter of 2023, the UKMTO put out 71 warnings and advisories, took part in 40 exercises and drills, handled 27 emergency events such as medical incidents and breakdowns, and handled 225,178 emails.

“There could be some days where it’s really quiet but then other days you can have one big incident that could take all day to deal with, or you can have one incident and then one on top of that and you’re kind of in between two, maybe even three issues.”

He added: “It’s a big adrenaline rush but you’re here to calm the master, whoever of the crew is calling, and calm them down as best as you can, and try to assist them in the best possible way you can considering you’re a fair way away from them.

“You take as much information as you can and with your colleagues as a team try to get them the help that they need.”

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