Commanding CTF 150
© 2009 FrontLine Defence (Vol 6, No 2)

In late October 2008, three Canadian warships and their crews returned to home ports in Esquimalt and Halifax after six long months at sea. Though the deployment received minimal attention back in Canada, it was, nevertheless, one of the most significant of the Canadian Forces since 9/11.

It was significant primarily because it saw Canada take the lead of a major multilateral coalition of warships contributing to maritime security and stability in the Arabian Sea. But it also saw the Canadian ships engage in a range of operations which each, in their own way, contributed to the realization of Canada’s foreign and security policy goals abroad. These operations can be described as the 4 “Ds” of a contemporary naval deployment. They highlight the flexibility of seapower in 21st Century, and should remind Canadians of the importance of maintaining a first-class expeditionary naval capacity going forward.

For 105 days this past summer, Canadian Commodore Bob Davidson, and his staff aboard HMCS Iroquois, commanded Combined Task Force 150, which is a multinational coalition of warships that is ultimately part of Operation Enduring Freedom. This was the first time that Canada would take command of this coalition, and it was the first time that a Canadian Task Group had ever been deliberately deployed – every other time was a reactive response to external circumstances.  From June to September, Davidson and his staff commanded 32 different warships from seven different nations. I was privileged to have been embedded for two of those months on HMCS Iroquois and Protecteur.

The CTF 150 Area of Responsibility encompasses some of the most critical ­maritime real estate on the planet. The economies in the Arabian Peninsula, and indeed the broader system of economic globalization on the whole, would suffer significantly were the sea lines of communication throughout the CTF 150 area of responsibility to become unserviceable. Approximately 50% of the world’s oil ­production, and 95% of the Far East trade to Europe, transits these waters. And with 3.3 million barrels of oil transiting the strait of Babel-Mandeb, and 17 million transiting the Strait of Hormuz each day, the global economy depends heavily on the maintenance of these waters as reliable and secure avenues for commerce.

Accordingly, securing these central supply lines from disruptive forces, such as terrorism, is the stipulated mandate of CTF 150. At its most fundamental and essential level, CTF 150 is about sea presence and commanding the commons. But on top of this, coalition forces engage in a wide range of what we might regard as secondary or extra-curricular operations.

We can look at these operations in terms of “4 Ds” – Defence, Development, Diplomacy and Disaster Relief – and the Canadian ships engaged importantly in all four.

In terms of the first “D” – Defence – we are really talking about Maritime Security Operations. These involve 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, when it comes to Maritime Security Operations in the region, 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 in the Gulf of Aden has become an international issue in recent months, with the overall rate of piracy events up 75% since last year. It was while we were in the Gulf of Aden this summer that this issue really started to heat up.

Using the coalition assets assigned to him, Commodore Davidson set up a system of interlinked patrol boxes that together would form a protected transit route that ran from the Strait of Babel Mandeb through the Gulf of Aden and into the Gulf of Oman.

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 the region; but one would be wrong. In fact, despite this massive presence, the rate of piracy continued to escalate over the summer.

And actually, 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 the pirates hijacked the MV FAINA – a Ukrainian flagged ship carrying soviet-era tanks and rocket launchers that were ultimately headed to south Sudan via Mombasa, Kenya – a story that has received widespread attention.

It is unfortunate that, after having had the lead on this now-major international security issue, Canada can no longer (at least in the immediate future) contribute to the effort to curb Somali piracy.

That being said, this is a problem with no easy solution. Without having 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 the asymmetrical threat of piracy.

In terms of the second “D” – Development – we are talking about what is known as theatre security cooperation. This involves building partnerships with navies and coast guards in the region, conducting exercises with them, and generally lending a helping hand in the development of their policing and patrolling strategies and capabilities.

Part of the reason that piracy and human smuggling issues in the Gulf of Aden have gotten so far out of control is the lack of capable coast guards and navies in that region. The Americans recently set up the Yemenis with a few coast guard ships, but someone has to teach them how to use these assets, and that’s what theatre security cooperation is all about.

Canada doesn’t have an embassy in Yemen, but Commodore Davidson visited Sana’a during the deployment and really tried to open some doors for cooperation between our two countries in dealing with these issues. In fact, the Yemenis announced that they would start their own piracy patrols just after we left the Gulf of Aden and started heading for home.

The third “D” – Diplomacy (or Maritime Influence) – is about making Canada look good in distant parts of the world. An example of this was the change of ­command ceremony in Manama, Bahrain. The ceremony, 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 UK, and of course the United States. The ceremony (photo below) highlighted Canada’s strength and good will to a region in which we are a relative newcomer. It was an excellent demonstration of Canada asserting its place in the world, and the dignitaries I spoke with all expressed gratitude and a sense that they were impressed by what the Canadian task group had accomplished. These are the kind of events that help Canada open new doors for our commercial interests and for the promotion of our values.

Finally, the fourth “D” – Disaster Relief. HMCS Ville de Québec was on a NATO posting in the Mediterranean when it was diverted to the Horn of Africa region to help out with the escort of World Food Program ships trying to get supplies past the pirates and into starving Somalis in Mogadishu this summer. Canada, by the way, is the third largest contributor to the World Food Program.

Over the course of about three months, Ville de Quebec managed to escort enough food into that country to feed millions of Somalis for extended periods, and in so doing contributed to at least the partial ­resolution of a major human security issue. At the end of its WFP role, Ville de Québec was replaced by a Danish frigate in November, however, this is a very good example of the value of having ships forward deployed and ready to contribute to efforts such as this, which tie into our “responsibility to protect” agenda, and to our values more broadly.

As much as it demonstrates the flexibility of Canadian sea power and makes an important contribution to the U.S. war on terror and to stability in a troubled region of the world, this deployment nevertheless marks the end of an era in Canadian seapower because no keels are being laid for the next era to follow. So, while the Canadian navy certainly upheld its obligations this summer in the Arabian Sea and elsewhere, the fact that we will not be able to have another task group contribute to this or any other command for another decade diminishes our influence and voice in the world, and takes away from our ability to be a good neighbour – not only to the United States, but to the countries of a region that is of critical and growing global strategic significance.

Patrick Lennox is the J.L. Granatstein Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary. He has recently returned from being embedded for two months on Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships Iroquois and Protecteur as they patrolled in the Arabian Sea during Canada’s most recent contribution to the maritime dimension of the American-led war on terror. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and is the co-editor of a volume entitled “An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada? Challenges and Choice for the Future,” published in December by the University of Toronto Press. Questions about this article can be addressed to:
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009



1693-Commanding CTF 150 | FrontLine Defence


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