In late October three Canadian warships and their crews returned to ports in Esquimalt and Halifax after six long months at sea. Though the deployment received minimal attention in Canada, it was, nevertheless, one of the most significant of the Canadian Forces since 9/11.
Significant because it saw Canada take the lead of a major multilateral coalition contributing to maritime security and stability in the Arabian Sea. And significant because it marked the end of a capability Canada is unlikely to deploy for at least the next decade.
The deployment saw the Canadian ships engage in a range of operations that, each in its own way, contributed to the realization of our foreign and security policy goals abroad – operations I describe as the four “Ds” of a contemporary naval deployment: defence, development, diplomacy and disaster relief. They highlight the flexibility of sea power in 21st century, and remind Canadians of the importance of maintaining first-class expeditionary naval capacity.
For 105 days this past summer, Commodore Bob Davidson and his staff aboard HMCS Iroquois commanded Combined Task Force 150, a multinational coalition of warships that ultimately serve as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was the first time Canada had taken command of this coalition, and the first time that a Canadian Task Group had been deployed deliberately – previous deployments were reactive responses to external circumstances.
From June to September, Davidson and his staff commanded 32 different warships from seven different nations in an area of responsibility (AOR) that encompasses some of the most critical maritime real estate on the planet. The economies of the Arabian Peninsula and, indeed, the broader system of economic globalization would suffer significantly were the sea lines of communication throughout the area to become unserviceable. Approximately 50 percent of the world’s oil production and 95 percent of the Far East trade to Europe transits these waters. And each day 3.3 million barrels of oil pass through the strait of Babel-Mandeb and 17 million barrels transit the Strait of Hormuz. The global economy depends heavily on the maintenance of these waters as reliable and secure avenues for commerce.
CTF 150 is mandated with securing these central supply lines from disruptive forces such as terrorism. At its most fundamental and essential level, the task force is about sea presence and commanding the commons. But coalition forces also engage in a wide range of secondary operations – the aforementioned four Ds of defence, development, diplomacy and disaster Relief. And the Canadian ships engaged importantly in all four.
Defence in this context refers to maritime security operations: dealing with the illicit flows of narcotics, arms and people through the region, all of which can have links to terrorism and the financing of terrorist acts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Increasingly, we are also talking about combating the rampant problem of piracy that is taking place off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. Piracy has become an international issue in recent months; the overall rate of piracy events is up 75 percent since last year. Using the coalition assets assigned to him, Commodore Davidson set up a system of interlinked patrol boxes that together formed a protected transit route running from the Strait of Babel Mandeb through the Gulf of Aden and into the Gulf of Oman.
While one might think that a few billion-dollar warships and their air assets would easily be enough to prevent Somali pirates in 18-foot skiffs, armed with rusty AK-47s and RPGs, from pirating commercial vessels, in fact, despite our presence, the rate of piracy continued to escalate over the summer. It was as we were transiting the Red Sea en route to the Suez Canal and the end of our time in CTF 150 AOR that pirates hijacked the MV FAINA – a Ukrainian flagged ship carrying soviet era tanks and rocket launchers ultimately headed to south Sudan via Mombasa, Kenya.
This is a problem with no easy solution. Without Special Forces embarked, aggressive rules of engagement from home governments (which the Royal Navy has recently received), concrete plans for dealing with the sticky issue of detainees, or a mandate to disrupt the pirates’ home bases, maintaining a presence in these waters is about the most warships can do against such an asymmetrical threat.
The second D – development – refers to theatre security cooperation: building partnerships with navies and coast guards in the region, conducting joint exercises, and generally lending a helping hand in the development of their policing and patrolling strategies and capabilities.
Piracy and human smuggling issues in the Gulf of Aden have gotten so far out of control, in part, because of the lack of capable local coast guards and navies. The U.S. recently supplied Yemen with a few coast guard ships, but the Yemenis must still be taught how to use them. Though Canada does not have an embassy in Yemen, Commodore Davidson visited Sana’a during the deployment to open doors for cooperation between our two countries on these issues. In fact, as we were leaving the region for home, the Yemenis announced that they would start piracy patrols.
Diplomacy (or maritime influence) – my third D – is the projection of Canada’s image in distance parts. CTF 150 highlighted Canada’s good will towards a region in which we are a relative newcomer. The change of command ceremony in Manama, Bahrain, which saw Commodore Davidson hand over command of CTF 150 to Commodore Per Bigum Christensen of the Danish Navy, was attended by dignitaries from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Denmark, the U.K. and U.S. Those I spoke with expressed gratitude and how impressed they were with what the Canadian task group had accomplished. Events such as these help Canada open new doors for our commercial interests and for the promotion of our values.
The HMCS Ville De Quebec, on a NATO posting in the Mediterranean this summer when it was diverted to the Horn of Africa to escort World Food Program ships to Somalia, best exemplifies my fourth D – disaster relief.
Over the course of three months, the Ville De Quebec managed to escort enough food past pirates and into Mogadishu to feed millions of starving Somalis for an extended period. (Canada is the third largest contributor to the World Food Program.)
The VDQ completed its World Food Program role at the end of October, and was replaced by a Danish frigate. But the ship contributed to the partial resolution of a major human security issue, and demonstrated the value of having ships forward deployed and ready to contribute to efforts that tie together our responsibility to protect agenda and our values.
Decade of darkness
As much as this deployment says about the flexibility of Canadian sea power in the 21st century, about a neighbourly and important contribution to the U.S. war on terror, and about forging stability in a troubled region, it nevertheless marks the end of an era in Canadian sea power.
It does so without any keel being laid down for the era to follow. Our two supply ships, Protecteur and Preserver, are 40 years old; neither will be circumnavigating the globe again. It is also unlikely that either will be capable of a six-month deployment to the Arabian Sea again. Their planned replacement – the Joint Support Ship – was delayed by the Harper Government in August. Our three command-and-control capable Area Air Defence Destroyers are only a couple of years younger, and it is also unlikely that any will ever again deploy to the Middle East. Single frigate deployments to the region remain an option, but without a supply ship and a destroyer to support them, a Canadian Naval Task Group will not sail the Arabian Sea for at least another decade.
That we will not be able to have another task group contribute to CFT 150 (or any other commands, for that matter) for another decade greatly diminishes our influence and voice in the world; it harms our ability to support not only the United States, but also the countries of a region that is of critical and growing global strategic significance.
Dr. Patrick Lennox is the J.L. Granatstein Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary. He was embedded for two months on HMCS Iroquois and Protecteur as they patrolled in the Arabian Sea as part of Combined Task Force 150. He is the co-editor of An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada? Challenges and Choice for the Future, to be published in December by the University of Toronto Press (email@example.com). This article is based on a presentation to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute annual conference in October.