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NAVCENT Commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper Holds an Off-Camera, On-The-Record Press Briefing via Teleconference on Operation Prosperity Guardian

MAJOR GENERAL PAT RYDER: Good morning, everyone. Thanks very much for joining us today for this backgrounder on Operation Prosperity Guardian. I'm Major General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary. I'll be facilitating today's discussion.

Our briefer for today is Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Please note that today's call is on the record, which means you may attribute the comments to our briefer by name and position, and during our discussion, I will call on reporters. We'll try to get as many of your questions as possible in the time we have available. Finally, I would ask that you please keep your phones on mute unless you're asking a question.

And with that, I will turn it over to Admiral Cooper. Thank you, sir.

VICE ADMIRAL BRAD COOPER: Okay, hey, thanks, Pat. Much appreciated. And thanks for letting me have this opportunity to chat. I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss maritime security in the Red Sea and provide an update on Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Let me just say right out front and out of the chute, this operation is entirely defensive in nature. This is a secretary of defense announcement of OPG, as we call it, Operation Prosperity Guardian, 18 December. I'd like to make a few key points.

By number one, the number of nations participating has grown. Their contributions are meaningful, and our partners are doing great work at sea. Number two, about 1,500 merchant ships have safely transited the waters of the Red Sea since the operation began. And then number three, our collaboration with the maritime shipping industry has increased dramatically. We're reassuring them through persistent communications that are characterized as two-way, both before and during transits, so that's going well.

Now, having said this, the Houthi ruthless attacks have continued, as you know, and there are no signs their irresponsible behavior is abating.

I'd like to provide a little context on the overall environment, and then will describe the overall international response to Operation Prosperity Guardian. For context, since November 18th, there have now been 25 attacks against merchant vessels transiting the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The latest was early this morning, when a Houthi one-way attack unmanned surface vessel, or USV, detonated in international shipping lanes. Fortunately, there were no casualties and no ships were hit, but the introduction of a one-way attack USV is of concern.

Our assessment is that 55 nations have direct connections to the ships who have been attacked, whether through the flagging state, where the goods were produced or destined, the vessel's ownership or the nationalities of the innocent mariners or to each vessel. So the different way the impacts of these attacks stretch across the globe, and as we've said, this is an international problem that requires an international solution.

And to help better understand the problem, I think it's important to know that shipping lanes in this region are dense. The vessels approach a chokepoint like the Bab al-Mandab. They often form very narrow lines in traveling near each other. This, coupled with the fact that Houthi missiles often miss their intended targets mean that any ship, really at any time, is at risk of collateral damage when passing through the Houthi-controlled territory in the vicinity of the southern Red Sea.

So regardless of the vessel's company ownership or its destination, these Houthi attacks are for sure destabilizing and contrary to international law, and clearly, as has been articulated by many, must stop immediately.

So I think the logical question is, you know, what are we doing about it? So importantly, the foundation or the coalition that we've brought together here in the Middle East already exists, but in addition to being the Fifth Fleet commander and the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, I also command a 39-nation combined maritime force doing great work. This organization through our navies has a strong history of over 20 years of operating together in the waters of the Middle East.

And then about 18 months ago, we established Task Force 153 to ensure security in the Red Sea. The CMF partners that we work with already have conducted many multinational exercises under this Task Force 153 but today's environment really requires a new, dedicated operation, which is Operation Prosperity Guardian.

And that's why the Secretary, on the 18th of December, through OPG, international forces are patrolling the southern Red Sea and the western Gulf of Aden in greater numbers and with persistent presence to do essentially two things -- deter illegal activity, thus increase overall deterrent posture, and provide assurance to the maritime industry.

So that's really what's different about this, is the persistent presence. And let me just talk about that for just a moment. The operational concept here, if I were to use basketball terms, is that we're playing zone defense as opposed to just one-on-one. And our presence is not just passive, it's actually very active. We're maneuvering, communicating at sea, which is a benefit to all of shipping, not just the few ships.

Also important to note that prior to this operation, naval presence in the southern Red Sea was episodic at best, frankly because it just wasn't necessary. For international warships, the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the very southern end of the Red Sea was largely only for passing through.

However, since the operation's begun, several nations have committed to persistently patrol these waters, and together, we now have the largest surface and air presence in the southern Red Sea in years. Today, we have five warships from international countries patrolling in the southern Red Sea.

On top of this, we have manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, and as I think you've seen, we've seen tactical aircraft and jets from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. aircraft carrier deployed to the region.

I think there are also several indicators that Operation Prosperity Guardian has had a positive impact. First, as I mentioned, the coalition has grown since the Secretary's announcement. 22 countries are now contributing, and in just the last few days, we've seen Greece and Denmark publicly say that they're willing to send ships. This is all very helpful.

We also have many members who are forming a staff or intelligence functions, operations, and logistics. These things are all important in coalition operations. And in the coming weeks, we expect additional countries to contribute, which will only strengthen our ability to deter.

Second, since the start of the operation, there's been no Houthi UAV or missiles actually fired into international shipping lanes that have actually hit any merchant vessels, surely have come close but no hits. And as I mentioned, about 1,500 vessels have safely transited through the Bab al-Mandab.

We are certainly mindful of the continued threat and expect the Houthi attacks may continue. I think really importantly though our actions in this defensive operation are not just through words but through deeds. Since the operation started, together with our partners, we have shot down 19 drones and missiles and sunk three small boats. Of the 19 drones and missiles, 11 have been uncrewed aerial vehicles. There have been two cruise missiles and six anti-ship ballistic missiles.

And then third, through the operation, we really have significantly increased our engagement with the shipping industry through strong, frequent two-way communications and a multi-echelon approach made to senior executives of industry, down to kind of the deck plate level or at-sea levels, we'd say, in the ship-to-ship communications. I think we feel good about that.

So just to summarize, I think the relationships that have always been strong are even stronger. Our industry partners have said back to us that Operation Prosperity Guardian is contributing to their sense of security and the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and we said that we're all clear-eyed about Houthi reckless attacks and don't see that abating in the very near term.

And with that, I'm happy to take any questions.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you very much, sir. Our first question will go to Associated Press, Tara Copp.

Q: I have several, Admiral Cooper. Thank you so much for doing this. Could you give us a few more details on the USV attack today? What ship was hit or targeted? I was not clear if there was an actual strike.

And then tying it into yesterday, of course, the White House and a number of countries put out what was described as a final warning to the Houthis if they continue to attack ships or -- you know, might be additional retaliation. Would the ships in Prosperity Guardian have a role in conducting any sort of offensive or preemptive strike against Houthi sites in Yemen?

Thank you.

VADM COOPER: Yeah, thanks very much. First, on the USV, just occurred this morning. This was a unmanned -- a one way attack, unmanned surface vessel that had launched from Houthi-controlled territory, had transited out to international shipping lanes, clearly with the intent to do harm. Fortunately, it detonated. Unclear who the target vessel was, and as mentioned, there were no casualties and no ship hit.

With respect to the announcement yesterday, that's independent of Operation Prosperity Guardian.

And then on the last piece, as mentioned, Operation Prosperity Guardian is defensive in nature. Anything that happens outside of the defensive aspect of this operation is a completely different operation.

Q: Okay, thank you.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you very much, sir. Go to Fox, Jennifer Griffin.

Q: Thank you very much, Pat. And Admiral Cooper, can you give us a sense of what it feels like onboard your ships right now? It -- this is a very unusual period. Can you put it into some historic context? And why was it necessary to create a new Marine -- maritime coalition when you had the Task Force 153 already in place? And are you recommending that ships passing through the Red Sea are armed to prevent hijacking?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, a couple pieces there. Yeah, I think, you know, big picture, our actions speak to exactly what we're trying to achieve, which is, you know, a deterrent approach and defensive in nature, and our engagements against the Houthi threats have reflected that. That's the 19 drones and missiles been shot down. So it's a very active defensive role.

In terms of, you know, anything else about the coalition, partnership associated with this has served us well. As I mentioned today, we had -- today, we have five ships that are forming up.

Overall for the organization, at your question on, you know, Task Force 153, which is the mission commander on the -- on scene in the southern Red Sea -- so the structure and the organization existed, but before the Houthis began indiscriminately firing and recklessly attacking merchant vessels, there would have been no need for sustained presence.

And so the coalition's foundational structure and organization was already in place, but in the combined maritime force, to go after a specific operation, which this is, as announced by the Secretary, we needed to go get specific commitments from countries, and that's what's happened and that's where countries are really stepped up in a meaningful way, providing ships, aircraft, and staff officers.

So I feel good about it, where we are now, and I'm optimistic for the future.

Q: And ships being armed? The shipping companies, are they arming them? Are you recommending they arm them?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, that's a company decision. We've seen just as recently as -- attack on one of the Maersk vessels this last weekend, they did have armed security. That's a decision that the companies make on their own.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Next question will go to NBC, Courtney Kube.

Q: Thanks, Pat. Hey, Admiral Cooper. A couple follow-ons.

So, on -- again, on the attack today, when you say it was -- it was launched from Houthi-controlled territory, I just want to be clear, you're saying that it was launched from the land in Yemen. And then how far did it get -- or, I'm sorry, how close did it get to any U.S. military or commercial ship, like, was it within a safe -- a close enough distance that, like, some people saw it actually happen?

And how was it detonated? Is it -- was it remotely detonated?

And then just one thing that -- back to what Jennifer just asked, is -- is, I know that it's a company decision, but, I mean, are companies coming to you, shipping companies, and asking -- and asking for advice from Fifth Fleet about whether they should have armed security on board or not?

And can you share, well, what you're telling them? Thanks.

VADM COOPER: Yeah, so on the USV, it did transit from the Houthi-controlled Yemen out about 15 miles. I won't go into all the operational specifics, but all the attacks that the Houthis had on shipping all happened out in the dense maritime shipping lanes.

The USV itself was also in the dense lanes, came within a couple of miles of ships operating their merchant ships and U.S. Navy ships. And we all watched as it exploded. No more details on that for right now.

In terms of the companies, as I mentioned, that's an individual decision. We do provide a lot of advice in terms of best practices, of when to transit, when not to transit, where to transit, how to do that, how to communicate with us.

But, really, when it comes to their own security, that's an individual company decision, and best that it be left at that level.

Q: Thank you. And then, just on the detonation, was the -- the saildrone -- I mean, like, it's like, basically, like a saildrone, right?

Was it remotely detonated, or do you have any idea?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, it's a little unclear. It's -- I would better characterize it as a low-profile unmanned surface vessel, not the saildrone that you may have seen, you know, here in Bahrain a year, 18 months ago. So it's much smaller than that, you know, packed with explosives.

Q: Thanks --

VADM COOPER: Fortunately that no one -- no one was injured.

Q: Thank you.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Next question will go to Washington Post, Dan Lamothe.

Q: Thank you, General. And thank the admiral as well.

I wanted to see if we could get some clarity. We'd had a discussion earlier in this evolution where there was some talk about whether or not U.S. ships were being directly targeted, whether or not these actually qualified as attacks on U.S. ships.

And I couldn't help but notice the combat action ribbons you awarded the other day and the photographs from that. I'm just curious if you could, I guess, offer an updated assessment. Do we at this point assess a direct attack on U.S. ships in at least some of these cases?

How'd you reach the decision that, you know, I guess the criteria has been met for these combat action ribbons?

And then, a separate follow, we were talking about armed security on ships, to reports previously about whether or not U.S. Marines could end up on ships prior to the Gaza war kicking off and this latest dust-up.

Has that happened? Is that still on the table, or is that, kind of, by the wayside at this point?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, I'll go take the last piece first. There are no Marines providing security on ships right now. That's tabled.

The second piece is, you know, overall -- the overall component of what this looks like, you know, down from a ship perspective, so, generally, in the course of us patrolling and defending ships, either anti-ship ballistic missiles get fired at some of these merchant platforms, or a one-way attack UAV is fired at them. And we're either in the vicinity, because we are out actively patrolling and from a ship war perspective it is -- it's very difficult to discern whether or not a missile is coming right at you or the merchant vessel adjacent to you.

So, we've taken the appropriate approach of protecting ourselves and downing these missiles using prudent self-defense. Easy call, as was the fact of awarding a combat action ribbon to the sailors who were involved in this.

I think, at this point, we, as the U.S. Navy, have shot down 61 drones and missiles total since this began a couple of months ago. That's an easy decision.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you very much. Next --

VADM COOPER: And again -- and to -- and to your -- but, I guess to your last point, no, there's no specific information that any U.S. ship has been directly targeted. It's the location and proximity and us wanting to make sure that we're taking care of our sailors is a priority.

GEN. RYDER: Next question will go to Bloomberg, Tony Capaccio.

Q: Hi. Sir, can you go -- sir, can you go over the CONOPS a little bit more in terms of the zone defense concept? Not everybody follows the NFL. Are ships individually being escorted or are you creating like a zone of safeties and quarterbacks, basically protecting vessels in a -- in an area of defense?

VADM COOPER: Yes, I'll shift to the area of defense model, where we have ships in specific areas spread out over the length of the southern Red Sea. And the overwhelming proponent at the time, that's what they're doing. Very actively patrolling, able to patrol alongside with and defend a large group of merchants who are transiting. And then on occasion we'll shift on -- actually a pretty rare occasion to escorting or being close to a group of ships for extra-close overwatch. That's the general concept.

And we're happy with it. I think this will continue. And as more nations contribute ships and they show up, some have to come from long distances, they'll fold into this model.

Q: Thank you.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you. The next, go to ABC with Luis Martinez.

Q: Hi. Thanks very much for doing this briefing. Following up on Tony's point, you mentioned earlier, Admiral, that you have five warships in the area right now. Is that enough for the mission that you have at hand? Do you feel that you need more? And when you talked about the Danes offering up additional ships, is that something that's in the immediate horizon or something as a follow-on to make this a more persistent mission? Thank you.

VADM COOPER: Yes, I think we have sufficient number of assets to execute the tasking I've been given. It's not just about the surface ships. As I mentioned, we also have airborne reconnaissance, we have -- that's manned, we have airborne reconnaissance that's unmanned. And we have the strength of the Carrier Air Wing operating proximity.

In terms of our partners, really this is just a time, speed, distance challenge. You could probably do the math on how long it takes you to get from Denmark to -- you know, all the way around Europe, through the Mediterranean, Suez Canal and down to the southern Red Sea. That takes a couple of weeks, and we'll look forward to them as well as other partners showing up then.

It's also helpful to spread out the commitments over time, for sure.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you very much, sir. Next question will go to Reuters, Phil Stewart.

Q: Well, hey there. Thank you. Could you just help us by naming which countries are participating in the -- in the coalition? Which countries or how many countries, if you can't name them, are providing aircraft? And then, you know, how many are only providing staff officers? That'd be really helpful. Thank you.

VADM COOPER: Yeah, we can follow up with you on this. All told, there's more than 20 countries overall. And why don't we just take that, and we'll follow up with you. Operationally, you know, just right now, the U.S., U.K. and France are providing the preponderance of these ships, and as mentioned, Greece and Denmark here in a couple weeks will complement that.


Q: Patrol aircraft, or -- can you talk about that?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, French -- both countries both have aircraft, as well, French and U.K.

GEN. RYDER: Okay. Next question will go to Financial Times, Felicia Schwartz.

Q: Hi. Thanks so much. Two questions. Just, I think two weeks ago, the French said they were operating separately or only protecting those ships. So they are involved? I just wanted to clear up what they're doing.

And then I guess just following up on your communications with the shipping companies, are you in contact with Maersk and other companies that have, you know, said they're not going to be transiting temporarily in the Red Sea, about, you know, what you can do to help them come back.

VADM COOPER: Yeah, on the second part, we're in communication with dozens, if not hundreds of companies; very familiar with their positions. I've been communicating with them on at least a weekly basis, if not more often. And then we also have members of the staff communicating, you know, on near-real-time basis. And then, out at sea, there's also a separate, more tactical communication network.

And then if you could -- what was the first question? My apologies.

Q: I was just trying to clear up, I think before. Like, late December on France. Yeah, I was just -- I think they had said they were only protecting their own ships or they're operating separately. But you said they're providing the bulk of the warships, so I'm just trying to square that circle, that -- whether they're operating separately.

VADM COOPER: Yeah, yeah. We are operating side-by-side virtually every day. It's going well. We're very appreciative.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Next question will go to Al Jazeera, Fadi.

Q: Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you, Admiral, for doing this. I have two questions. There's been a lot of questions raised about the participation of Arab nations and Red Sea nations in this operation. Can you give us more clarity, if there's any Arab nation other than Bahrain? And which nations from the Red Sea region are taking part in this operation?

The second question: Are you seeing any efforts by Houthis to reach out, or any connections they have with armed groups in Somalia to coordinate attacks on ships headed to Israel? Thank you.

VADM COOPER: Yeah, in terms of nations, first, you know, very proud of working with our host nation here, Bahrain, who's publicly proclaimed their support. In terms of other countries, I'd really defer to them to answer on their behalf of their own perspective. That's really a national sovereignty decision. We're respectful of that decision.

In terms of the Houthis and reaching out, a little bit of an operational and intelligence matter that wouldn't talk about probably in this venue. I think you can probably appreciate that.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Our next question will go to Politico, Lara Seligman.

Q: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this.

Admiral Cooper, can you tell us just on the -- the USV, do you see this -- you said it's a new -- a new capability that you've seen. Do you see this as an escalation? And just if you could elaborate on that, that would be helpful.

And then also, can you address the reports of an Iranian warship that's entered the Red Sea? Are you concerned about that, as well? Thank you.

VADM COOPER: Yeah, I'd characterize the USV incident as the use of a new capability, and kind of leave that there.

In terms of the Iranians, yeah, I think there's been a lot of misreporting. So the Iranians have had an auxiliary ship and a combatant presence in the Southern Red Sea for about three years. The recent reporting about the Iranians showing up could not be more false. That vessel has actually been in the Southern Red Sea for 55 straight days, and they typically operate there for 60 to 90 days. So what's been reported previously just simply is not accurate. That vessel has been present there; represents little concern today.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Next question will go to Task & Purpose, Jeff Schogol.

Q: Thank you very much. Admiral, you have said that you expect the Houthi attacks to continue. They show no signs of abating. Is Operation Prosperity Guardian going to attack the launching sites for these missiles and drones in Yemen, like Operation Preying Mantis? If not, why not? Thank you.

VADM COOPER: Yeah, I wouldn't speculate on future operations, but anything that does happen will be outside of the boundaries of Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is, as mentioned, defensive in nature only.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Next question, we have time for just a few more. We'll go to War Zone, Howard Altman.

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. Got a couple questions. Just want to clarify. Is this the first time we've seen a USV launched by the Houthis? Is this the first time? And then are you watching what's happening with Ukraine's development of USVs and how effective they are? Is that a concern, what you're seeing from them that could be -- you know, that given what USVs can do against shipping?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, this is the first time we've seen the Houthis employ USV -- one-way attack USVs in these last couple of months. They have previously employed them, you know, years past, but this is the first time during Operation Prosperity Guardian, or in the last couple months of their harassment and attacks on surface ships in the region.

In terms of Ukrainian people, we're very familiar with unmanned surface vessels. A little over two years ago, we stood up the Navy's first Unmanned Surface Vessel and Artificial Intelligence Task Force. We've been doing cutting-edge work in this regard for the last couple years with employment operations and have a good sense of how these operate and so we have a good understanding of it.

GEN. RYDER: Thanks. The next question will go to USNI News, Heather.

Q: Thanks so much. You mentioned that there's been about 1,500 ships that have passed through safely. I was just wondering, are these ships passing through safely because they're not being targeted by the Houthis because there was no connection to Israel, or they're not heading to or from Israel, or do you believe that these are being protected because the operation is in place now?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, well for sure, I think the operation being in place provides deterrent value. I think it's also important to point out that over the course of about the last dozen attacks, there's been no Israeli affiliation at all. Thus, this turning into an international problem that requires an international solution.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Next question will go to, Konstantin.

Q: Thank you. Thank you, General. Thank you, Admiral. Just wanted to go back to the two answers that you gave earlier in this briefing. So you mentioned, I think to Jennifer's question, that the -- you had the coalition foundational structure and organization already in place for the Task Force 153, but that this new combined maritime task force was a way to provide ships, aircraft, and staff officers. I believe you said something to that effect.

So am I understanding correctly that the preexisting task force was not -- you know, didn't really have ships assigned to it and that Prosperity Guardian, what it really brought to the table was ships and aircraft and actual assets in the area?

And then I have a different --


VADM COOPER: You've characterized it well. And as you would expect, the Task Force 153 commander and staff doing maritime security with assets that were assigned at the time appropriately because there is simply was no threat, there would have been no reason to have anything more than just episodic presence and transient presence until the Houthis started their reckless attacks, and that changed the equation, necessitating the shift to a more focused operation, which we have today with Prosperity Guardian.

Q: Fantastic. Thank you for that. And then my other question for you was to follow up on Dan Lamothe's question about the awards, specifically the combat action ribbon and I believe General Kurilla awarded the CO a Bronze Star. Is the Navy going to release the citations for those awards?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, I think we'll follow up on that. You know, I think it's important to point out that, you know, these men and women on these ships are doing just a terrific job. And as I mentioned, we've now fired down, you know, 61 drones and missiles combined. So you've got -- I think you can see that the totality of the defensive effort so far. These awards simply recognize that extraordinary performance.

Q: Thank you.

GEN. RYDER: Okay, final question will go to Al-Monitor, Jared Szuba.

Q: Hey, sir, thank you for doing this. You've mentioned the intent of the operation overall is to sort of deter illegal activity, increase overall deterrent posture, and provide assurances to the maritime industry. And you also mentioned that you think you have the sufficient assets to execute the task that's been given. Is -- so to clarify, is -- Prosperity Guardian, is it intended to halt the Houthi attacks or simply to deter them to a manageable level so that shipping can resume to certain levels in the Red Sea?

And then secondly, you mentioned that no -- if I understood correctly, no Houthi drones or missiles have actually made contact with commercial ships since OPG was stood up. To what do you attribute that? Is that an increase in interdictions or interceptions? And have you seen a reduction -- a reduction in projectiles fired by Houthis since the patrol that the -- started?

VADM COOPER: Yeah, a couple things on this. First, it's up to the Houthis to halt the attacks. They're the instigator and initiator. I think our increased presence does a couple of things. It does serve as an assurance to the commercial industry. They've provided this feedback directly to us on multiple occasions. Particularly relevant is we're out operating at sea, and they see something, they can say something and get a very quick response. I think that's been very helpful.

And as previously mentioned, you know, by being present in a more persistent manner, given the Houthis' intent to continue these attacks, we've been able to defend them. So I think our persistent presence has put us in the position with the greater defensive posture than had been -- that's been 0a helpful piece of it.

GEN. RYDER: Admiral Cooper, thanks very much for your time today, sir. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you again for joining us. As a reminder, today's discussion was on the record. We will be posting a transcript to the DOD website later today. And this --


Q: -- Pat, can you quantify one thing? Pat, can you clarify one thing? When the 15th -- the 1,500 ships that have gone through, what is the start date of the operation? Is it mid-December?

VADM COOPER: 18 December.

Q: Thank you.

GEN. RYDER: Thanks, Tony. Thanks very much, everybody. Appreciate it. This concludes our press briefing.

VADM COOPER: Okay. Thanks, Pat. Thanks, everybody. Have a -- have a great day.