Navy

Pentagon: Suez Canal stoppage may impact transit of military vessels

Pentagon officials confirmed Sunday that the ongoing stoppage of traffic caused by a grounded container ship in the Suez Canal would affect the movement of U.S. military vessels, but stressed that the Defense Department had alternative means of supporting operations in the area.

In a statement to The Hill, a Navy spokesperson wouldn't comment on specific impacts the stoppage was having on U.S. defense or naval capabilities, but noted that the issues it posed would only grow the longer it took Egyptian officials to move the 1,300 foot-long ship from the narrow canal.

"We are not going to talk about specific operational impacts. The Suez Canal is an essential maritime choke point, and the longer passage is suspended, the more impact it will have to civilian and military transits. However, we have alternate capabilities to mitigate impact and support to our operations in U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility throughout any extended blockage," said Rebecca Rebarich, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet.

The Pentagon's comments come as some experts have warned that the growing backlog of ships on both sides of the canal - which now surpasses 300 vessels - raise new challenges including the inability of some businesses to afford the extra time at sea as well as risks from piracy.

"[I]f more and more ships are going along the coast of Africa because of this incident, security arrangements would need to be tightened" around areas where piracy is known to occur, especially the waters surrounding Somalia and Yemen, said Paul Sullivan, an international security expert and professor at the National Defense University in an interview with Voice of America.

"If there is a need to deploy any ships from various locales due to a problem in the Gulf area response times could be effected. This could also effect response times to the Indian Ocean etc.," he added in an emailed statement to The Hill, before continuing: "It is time to rethink and bolster international security arrangements related to these choke points. They are called choke points for a reason."

"This would potentially give pirates and others with ill intent more targets of opportunities. This might further draw down in the capacities of many coast guards and Navies."

Efforts to remove the stranded ship stretched into the sixth day on Sunday. Egyptian officials working with experts from several other countries have touted the limited success of their efforts so far, including the restoration of power to the vessel, though the massive ship remains stuck in sand and rock blocking all canal traffic in both directions.

-Updated at 6:00 p.m.

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