As the UK led command team of Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) task group Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 prepare to hand over to a Danish led command team, the outgoing staff reflect on the achievements of the past four months.
After a period of training, the UK led multinational team deployed to Bahrain in late August to prepare for the Change of Command with outgoing staff from Pakistan. The formal handover took place on 5 September at Naval Support Activity Bahrain and RFA Fort Victoria with embarked staff sailed a few days later to the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa to begin coordination of the CMF counter piracy mission.
The new staff was the first to command CTF 151 from afloat, consecutively using two UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships as flagships and command hubs. The 23 embarked and two shoreside UK Royal Navy staff were augmented by multinational staff from some of the 29 CMF member nations’ navies.
The mix of cultures and naval customs made routines and life onboard ship a little different to what many were used to. However both RFA ships’ companies made the embarked staff feel welcome and new friendships were quickly forged.
Commander of CTF 151, Commodore Jeremy Blunden LVO, Royal Navy, said: “I have been very well supported by the 151 staff and the RFA. This has been a most interesting and satisfying deployment. Counter piracy operations are a truly unique international effort. It has been a real delight to have officers and ratings from seven different nations in this staff.”
Lieutenant Commander Yovan Pauvif, Chilean Navy, Plans Officer for CTF 151, said: “My time with CMF and the RN has been demanding and challenging. It has taken me much further away from my family than I have ever been before, but it has been exciting to work in an area where Chile does not normally operate.”
Chief Petty Officer Bernie Dath, Royal Navy, Staff Coxswain, said: “I was curious to know how a team consisting of different nationalities, some of whom spoke little English, and various naval backgrounds, would adapt to work with each other. It was great to see how all the staff pulled together and worked as a team in a very short period of time.”
During the UK’s tenure of CTF 151, units carried out numerous boardings and reassurance visits to merchant vessels and dhows to deter illegal maritime activity and provide security for the maritime community.
The CTF apprehended one pirate group, returned the nine pirates to Somalia and destroyed their boats. CTF 151 boarding teams Approach and Assisted (AA) 122 vessels, meaning they approached dhows and merchant ships to talk with the master and crew about pirate activity in the area. If needed, the navy crews also gave mechanical or medical assistance, food and water.
CTF 151 units flew 850 hours in helicopters and fixed wing aircraft looking for suspicious vessels during the busy period of operations.
Having the command team afloat allowed Commodore Blunden to engage with many different key leaders both at sea and in various countries that have coastlines in the region’s piracy hotspots.
In September he met with his NATO counterpart, Commodore Henning Amundsen, Norwegian Navy, Commander NATO Task Force 508, at sea on board the Norwegian Frigate HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen. They discussed the current threat posed by pirates and how the NATO and CMF counter piracy task forces might share information and coordinate their assets.
In October, the three counter piracy task force commanders from CMF, NATO and the EUNAVFOR met on board EUNAVFOR flagship HNLMS Johan de Witt, during patrols in the Gulf of Aden, to discuss how best to prevent pirates from resuming their illegal activity as the monsoon season came to an end.
Commodore Blunden also had meetings afloat with NATO, EU, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and South Korean task forces and met officials from UAE, Djibouti and Oman when alongside. CTF 151 spread the message that counter piracy forces are here to stay and willing to work with all nations to deter and disrupt any would-be pirates.
Commodore Blunden said: “A major part of our effort was towards maintaining presence off the active pirate camps in Somalia, while being able to deal swiftly with any who got to sea. But it is a very long coast with a big bit of water and it is pleasing that the pirates were unable to hijack a ship during our command of 151.
Lieutenant Commander Jay Forsgren, United States Navy, CTF 151 Head of Operations, said: “Being part of the CMF counter piracy task force protecting the world’s economy has been a great experience. I learned that piracy is still alive and the reasons why it is not more successful are the military’s presence with CMF, EU and NATO forces, and the merchant community’s adherence to Best Management Practices to deter pirate boardings.”
On 25 September, CTF 151 welcomed Australian warship HMAS Melbourne to the counter piracy mission and she saw her successful pirate apprehension shortly afterwards. In early October a pirate group set off from the coast of Somalia with the intention of hijacking a merchant ship. First the group tried to pirate an oil tanker but were foiled by the on board security team. A couple of days later the same group tried to hijack a fishing vessel, but was again beaten back by armed security.
HMAS Melbourne was instructed by CTF 151 staff to close to the last known location of the group. Less than 24 hours later, HMAS Melbourne’s helicopter had found the pirates and was on scene to guide the ship’s boarding team to the pirates’ exact location. When given the signal by the UK led team, the Melbourne’s boarding party launched sea boats and headed towards the potentially armed and dangerous pirate group.
Nine Somalis were found on board two vessels – a 30 foot whaler and a smaller skiff. The whaler was used as a logistics store while the skiff was built for speed, enabling the pirates to launch attacks on passing vulnerable targets. The pirates surrendered to the boarding team without a fight and were taken back to the coast of Somalia while their vessels were destroyed at sea.
“Piracy has been much reduced in recent months but the problem has not gone away. The swift manner in which the pirates were dealt with should send a clear message – that those who are thinking of resuming piracy can expect an unhappy ending,” said Commodore Blunden.
In mid November RFA Fort Austin became CTF 151’s flagship when RFA Fort Victoria sailed home to the UK for a refit following three years service in the Gulf, Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa regions.
CTF 151 is one of three task forces operated by CMF, a 29 nation naval partnership which exists to promote security, stability and prosperity across approximately 2.5 million square miles of international waters, which encompass some of the world’s most important shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden, Gulf and Indian Ocean. CTF 151’s mission is to disrupt piracy and armed robbery at sea and to engage with regional and other partners to build capacity and improve relevant capabilities in order to protect global maritime commerce and secure freedom of navigation.