Circumnavigating Africa
© 2008 FrontLine Defence (Vol 5, No 3)

HMCS Toronto’s 2007 deployment with the Standing NATO Maritime Group One (SNMG1) was remarkably successful on a number of levels, and is exactly the type of deployment that NATO should continue to conduct as it seeks to maintain relevant and responsive forces. The second half of Toronto’s SNMG1 participation featured extensive operations in support of NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour, which were quite productive in their own right, however, this article will focus on the historic ­circumnavigation of Africa, the first ever out of area deployment for a maritime force under a NATO flag.

This trip around Africa demonstrated a model that NATO could adopt for future SNMG1 and SNMG2 deployments in order to ensure that NATO’s standing forces are making a valuable contribution to security even as they stand ready to respond to an emerging crisis. In fact, ­conducting deployments such as the ­circumnavigation of Africa allows NATO to identify security concerns before they become serious threats, to develop an awareness and an understanding of what it will take to operate in various areas of potential maritime concern, and to select suitable partners for potential coalition maritime security operations in areas around the world.

After a hectic and tightly packed year of pre-deployment training and preparations, Toronto sailed from Halifax on 20 July 2007 and joined up with the five other SNMG1 ships in Rota, Spain. For the ­circumnavigation of Africa, SNMG1 was under the command of Rear Admiral Mike Mahon of the U.S. Navy and consisted of USS Normandy (an American Ticonderoga-class cruiser and the SNMG1 flagship), HNLMS Evertsen (a Dutch Zeven Provincien-class air defence and command frigate), NRP Alvares Cabral (a Portuguese Vasco da Gama-class frigate and the only ship equipped with a helicopter for the deployment), HDMDMS Olfert Fischer (a Danish Niels Juel-class corvette), and the FGS Spessart (a German Rhone-class replenishment tanker) as well as Toronto (one of Canada’s Halifax-class frigates).

Prior to setting off on the 12,562 nautical mile journey around Africa, and while Evertsen conducted a missile shoot with Olfert Fischer in company, the remaining four SNMG1 ships participated in a five day surge in support of OAE in the Western Mediterranean. It became clear, in retrospect, that participation in that first OAE surge provided an excellent introduction to the high fidelity Maritime Situational Awareness (MSA) that were a key objective of the Africa circumnavigation. At the time, though, it seemed odd that the SNMG1 was scheduled to conduct operations immediately upon forming as a group for the first time and after a number of the key command staff had also changed. However, the group was able to conduct operations effectively even while working to integrate together. Though it involves a degree of risk, this model of immediately commencing operations with a force that has just been brought together can be ­successful if NATO countries continue to provide the well-trained and highly capable ships that comprised SNMG1 for the Africa circumnavigation.

For NATO, there were two principal objectives of the trip around Africa. The first was to demonstrate that NATO was able to deploy a large and capable maritime force outside of its traditional AOR in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. The decision to schedule only two port visits (to Cape Town in South Africa, and Port Victoria in the Seychelles) during the two and a half month circumnavigation, added to the logistical challenge by ensuring the task group would spend long periods at sea without access to the plentiful resupply assets that are readily available in the NATO AOR or Arabian Sea. In order to maintain a fuel reserve aboard the SNMG1 tanker FGS Spessart in the event of Naval Reaction Force (NRF) activation, fuel conservation was a priority throughout the trip around Africa and the force sought opportunities to refuel from any USN assets within range of SNMG1. The ability to sustain SNMG1 operations outside of the NATO AOR was proven early in the circumnavigation when faults threatened to leave Toronto without either of its two air search radars during operations in the Gulf of Guinea. Making use of the Canadian and NATO supply systems, the parts were shipped all the way from Canada, through Paris, France and Libreville, Gabon, onto a U.S. warship in Port Gentil, Gabon – which then transferred them to Spessart and finally to Toronto in just four days. ­Similar logistical feats were repeated for other ships in SNMG1 at various times during the circumnavigation and proved that NATO’s supply chain (making liberal use of the national chains of many NATO allies) could sustain a maritime task force well beyond the normal NATO AOR.

The second objective of the Africa ­circumnavigation was to develop NATO’s Maritime Situational Awareness (MSA) around Africa. NATO’s interest in MSA ranged from the simple gathering of climate and oceanographic data in support of future operations to more complex assessments of the security situation around Africa and the capabilities of African coastal states in terms of maritime security. To these ends, assessments were made continuously on the performance of sensors, weapons and communications systems as SNMG1 moved around the continent. NATO’s goal was to see if systems that were often designed with the North Atlantic in mind could handle the hotter, humid climate around Africa and remain connected across the long distances (one lesson of the Africa deployment was the realization by all ships of the sheer size of the massive continent).

Building on the MSA techniques that had been developed during the surge period in the Western Mediterranean, SNMG1 carefully recorded observations on vessels, aircraft, oil platforms and such that were detected in the African littorals in order to build a baseline of “normal” activity. To gather information on the patterns and activities of vessels under 300 tons, approach operations were conducted at every opportunity. Ships over 300 tons were hailed, and all of the data gathered about the vessels, their cargos and their crews was sent to the NATO Surveillance Coordination Centre in Northwood, England for analysis. During approach operations and hails, vessels were asked if they’d seen any suspicious behaviour and aged to report any future sightings of suspicious activity to the NATO Shipping Centre via email or by calling a toll free number. In all such interactions, the over-arching goal was to create a lasting, positive impression of NATO on the vessels encountered while gathering information that would assist any future effort to enhance maritime security in the African littorals.

Recognizing that the transitory nature of SNMG1’s trip around Africa would make it impossible to gain a full picture of the maritime security situation around the entire continent, the decision was made to concentrate on two key areas of interest: the Gulf of Guinea and the Horn of Africa. The scheme of manoeuvre was designed to allow approximately ten days of “presence operations” in these two regions. Though both areas were plagued by pirates, SNMG1 did not have an explicit anti-piracy mandate. Rather the goal was to build a comprehensive picture associated with the maritime domain in these areas – to develop a level of awareness that would potentially allow NATO to partner with other nations and military and civil agencies in developing and implementing an effective international response to a crisis or security issue in either region. The circumnavigation of Africa is therefore best viewed as a sort of reconnaissance mission by NATO.

Another facet of the MSA mission was to assess the capabilities of African coastal states in terms of their activities in relation to maritime security. In essence, the goal was to try and make an assessment of the level of effort and ability that African states were directing towards protecting their maritime domains and interests. This aspect of the circumnavigation was most evident in Toronto’s operations in the Gulf of Guinea. The initial phase of this Gulf presence operations saw Toronto tasked to conduct a sweep – remaining just outside territorial waters, through the Bight of Benin in company – with HNLMS Evertsen. On the first day, they encountered the Ghanaian Navy Ship, Anzone. Though initially unhappy about the sudden and unexpected appearance of two NATO warships off their coast, the Anzone was persuaded of the benign nature of NATO’s presence by a face-to-face discussion following the exchange of some goodwill gifts. It was immediately clear from the excellent state of the Ghanaian vessel (a former U.S. Coast Guard Balsam-class cutter), the professional attitude of the crew, and their obvious attentiveness to maritime security that Ghana’s small navy was very capable. In contrast, the very poor condition of three Nigerian ships that interacted with SNMG1 clearly revealed the ­difficult and serious security challenges that the Nigerian Navy is confronting. The Nigerian ships were also ex-USCG Balsam-class cutters but their rough and rusted appearance showed every one of their more than 60 years’ service. The Nigerian ships were initially quite angered by the presence of SNMG1 and repeatedly demanded that the NATO ships leave Nigerian waters even though we remained in international waters throughout. The tension was finally defused by a face-to-face meeting aboard the Nigerian Navy Ship Kyanwa, which persuaded the CO of that ship that NATO did not intend to ­challenge Nigerian sovereignty, but rather determine what it might take to potentially assist in achieving maritime security in the region. While in the area, Toronto encountered a number of security vessels, which appeared to be operated by private companies, in the vicinity of the various oil ­platforms. Any time an SNMG1 ship approached within three miles of a platform, it was hailed on VHF and asked to keep clear while a security vessel manoeuvred to stay between the ship and the platform. The behaviour and attentiveness of these security vessels as well as the heightened force protection state maintained by the Nigerian warships made it clear that security was a very serious concern off the coast of the Niger Delta.

Following the presence operations in the Gulf of Guinea, SNMG1 moved to the next key phase of the Africa circumnavigation – a five day port visit and a week-long exercise with the South African Navy (SAN). The goal of this phase was more than simply showing the NATO flag in a place it had never been seen before. Ultimately, the aim was to determine if the SAN was capable of working with a NATO Task Group and if SNMG1 could benefit from the experience that the SAN had in operating in this part of the world.

The South African interaction was an overwhelming success – it was immediately obvious that the SAN was a modern and professional force. The South Africans, who recently sent one of their new Valour-class frigates to undergo Flag Officer Sea Training work ups with the Royal Navy, were adept at working with NATO’s Multinational Tactical Publications and were able to almost seamlessly integrate into SNMG1. Though it faces some significant manning challenges, there is no doubt that the SAN is willing and able to play a role in international coalition operations in support of maritime security around Africa and potentially even farther afield.

In mid-September, SNMG1 commenced its second period of presence operations, this time off the coast of Somalia. In contrast to the operations in the Gulf of Guinea, very few ships of any size were encountered in the waters around the horn of Africa until SNMG1 made its way into the Gulf of Aden towards the end of the month. During this phase, Toronto assumed tactical control (TACON), on behalf of SNMG1, of a British Trafalgar-class submarine that was also operating in the region. The submarine immediately proved its value as a surveillance asset by cueing SNMG1 ships on the few vessels that transited through the region, and by covertly watching for pirate activity. Though SNMG1 had no specific mandate to stop piracy off the coast of Somalia, the sailors in the group took pride in the fact that there were no pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia while SNMG1 ships were on ­station, proclaiming their presence in the region. Since many factors affect pirate operations, it would be a mistake to attribute the sharp drop off in pirate activity solely to the presence of SNMG1 ships, but there was clearly a strong correlation between the two, which suggests that pirate activity could be sharply curtailed if sufficient ships were committed to the effort. Of course, the ultimate resolution of the piracy problem off the Horn of Africa will only come when there is a strong and effective government in Somalia which is capable of eradicating the pirate camps along its coastline.

The final phase of SNMG1’s Africa circumnavigation took the group into the Red Sea. After the excitement of the presence operations off the Horn of Africa, it figured to be a relatively quiet period until, on 30 September, a volcano erupted on a small Yemeni island just as the NATO ships were sailing past. The resultant search and rescue operation occupied the task group until 2 October and included the rescue of two Yemeni soldiers and the recovery of four bodies. Through a fortuitous coincidence, Toronto happened to have a Combat Camera Team and civilian public affairs officer, Ken Allan, embarked at the time, and the value of these professionals became immediately apparent when the dramatic rescue operation gained the world’s attention. Normally, the flagship would assume the role of spokes­man, ­however, Ken Allan’s ability to quickly get the story out, complete with imagery, led Toronto to become the de-facto NATO spokesman instead. Of note, Toronto was the only ship in the group to have embarked a Lawyer and a number of other specialists such as a Medical Officer, an Intelligence Officer, and a civilian Fitness Instructor. These specialists repeatedly proved their worth as they provided unique skills that would not otherwise have been available within the Task Group – and made Toronto the “go-to” ship for SNMG1.

What did NATO gain?
In today’s security environment where there are myriad demands for ships and other naval resources, the Africa circumnavigation is an excellent model for ensuring not only the continued readiness of SNMG1 but also for providing relevant employment while these forces await the crisis or contingency for which they are allocated. Ideally, SNMG1 should consist of 6-10 warships at all times, yet it has rarely achieved this goal over the past several years. Six ships sailed with SNMG1 throughout the unique and historic Africa deployment but, in October 2007, within moments of entering the Mediterranean and officially completing the circum­navigation, most of the ships in the force departed for other assignments. From that point until the winter dispersal in Dec­ember, SNMG1 struggled to preserve a force of just three to four ships even though the force was engaged in surge operations in support of Operation Active Endeavour for much of that time. In short, NATO countries seem unwilling to provide ships to a force whose main employment is to exercise and “be ready” – even when there are countless demands for ships to perform actual tasks and operations on national and international missions around the world.

SNMG1’s Africa circumnavigation has proven NATO’s ability to operate a strong and capable maritime force outside of its traditional AOR. It is clear that NATO could build on this success by seeking similar relevant missions for its standing NATO Maritime Groups. As became evident when al-Qaeda used its base of operations in Afghanistan to train terrorists and then plan and conduct world wide attacks, instability and insecurity abroad can pose a serious threat to the security of NATO members. The mass of MSA data that SNMG1 gathered in its trip around Africa provides insight into potential future security challenges and will enhance and enable any future NATO operations in the African littorals. Similar gains can be made from other well planned deployments out of NATO’s traditional AOR to regions of concern and interest around the world.

In seeking to remain relevant, NATO could not only seek to identify future ­security challenges but also demonstrate its willingness to get involved and seek partners, like South Africa. This would enable the alliance to operate more effectively against these threats, wherever they arise.

For its part, emphasizing these types of deployment would ensure that Canada gains the maximum benefit from our contributions to SNMG1.

LCdr Angus Topshee is currently the Executive Officer on HMCS Toronto.
© Frontline Defence 2008