Canada’s Role in Op Unified Protector (Libya)
Jul 15, 2011

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Two Canadian Boeing CF-18 Hornet aircraft are seen here supporting combat operations over Libya. These jets have played an important role helping to enforce the No-Fly Zone and degrading Libyan army units on the ground.

Alongside British, French and American counterparts, Canada’s armed forces have played a key role in Operation Unified Protector – the NATO initiative to enforce an arms embargo and a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over and around Libya. The operation is also tasked with protecting Libyan civilians against the military forces loyal to the country’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Unified Protector commenced on 31 March, following the conclusion of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the US-led initiative to uphold United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 which mandated the NFZ, arms embargo and civilian protection. Canada’s involvement in the Libya crisis, essentially an armed struggle by an assortment of rebel groups opposed to Col Gaddafi’s regime, commenced on 1 March with Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordering the deployment of the Canadian Maritime Command’s ‘Halifax’ class frigate HMCS Charlottetown to assist evacuations of Canadian nationals from Libya as the situation inside the country deteriorated.
Departing from Halifax, Charlottetown reached the Mediterranean on 14 March to commence her participation in the multinational Standing NATO Maritime Group which had deployed into the Mediterranean as the situation inside Libya worsened. Despite being dispatched to assist the evacuation of Canadian nationals, this mission was in fact completed using Canadian aircraft prior to Charlottetown’s arrival. Therefore the ship was re-roled to be ready to support combat operations following the adoption of Resolution 1973 on 17 March.
HMCS Charlottetown has deployed to the Mediterranean to support Operation Unified Protector.
Military operations commenced two days later with French combat aircraft conducting reconnaissance and air strikes against Libyan military targets, alongside Raytheon BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes from U.S. and Royal Navy ships in the Mediterranean. Since the start of combat operations, Charlottetown has been tasked with performing a diverse range of missions including the enforcement of the arms embargo and the NFZ, safeguarding the delivery of humanitarian aid to Libya, and helping to clear Libyan coastal waters of mines.
HMCS Charlottetown has been particularly active in the littoral waters off the western Libyan coastal city of Misrata: “Our efforts have stressed protecting the port of Misrata, as the port is the humanitarian lifeline to the city,” says Craig Skjerpen who commands Charlottetown, and the Canadian maritime contribution to Op Mobile (the codename for Canada’s contribution to Unified Protector).
Misrata has a strategic position as both an important harbour and as a key western Libyan city under the control of anti-Gaddafi forces. To this end, Commander Skjerpen and his colleagues maintain a good working relationship with Misrata’s port officials, and the rebels in control of the city: “We have a liaison with the Port Authority which lets us know what vessels are coming into, and out of, the port.” Moreover, “we receive information from the rebels on a regular basis when we talk to them on Very High Frequency radio. Any information they give to us regarding Gaddafi’s forces, we pass through to Allied Joint Force Command Naples (JFC Naples) in Southern Italy, which commands the NATO operation.”
Commander Skjerpen is keen to stress that his vessel also plays a key part in NATO’s wider efforts over and around Libya. Charlottetown is outfitted with Saab Sea Giraffe G-band air and surface search radars, and Raytheon AN/SPS-49(V)5 C/D-band long range air search radar. These two sensors allow the ship to gather information on their local air and sea environment, and transmit these radar pictures to other ships and aircraft supporting the NATO operation via the ship’s Link-11 datalink. In addition, the frigate also carries a single Sikorsky CH-124 Sea King helicopter which can gather intelligence on the maritime situation beyond the range of the ships’ radar, plus a 20-strong boarding party to inspect suspect vessels which may be trying to break the arms embargo. However, Commander Skjerpen is keen to emphasize that the most important asset carried on his frigate are the personnel: “The crew are a highly trained and motivated team which continues to use every aspect of the ship to perform the mission.”
Cpl Eric Chafe, a firefighter onboard HMCS Charlottetown, stands ready in case of an emergency during a personnel transfer between a Sea King helicopter and the ship.
The important role that Charlottetown has played in helping safeguard Libyan civilians was illustrated during one incident on 30 May. The ship detected rocket fire in the vicinity of Misrata coming from a Libyan army BM-21 truck-mounted rocket launcher. It notified a Canadian air controller on board an orbiting NATO Boeing E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft that the attack was in progress. The controller onboard the AWACS then directed two Canadian Boeing CF-18 Hornet fighter-bombers to destroy the BM-21.
Operations Room Officer Lt(N) Chris Devita; Above Water Warfare Director Lt(N) Paul Morrison; and Under Water Warfare Director PO1 Phil Gormley at their stations in HMCS Charlottetown’s Ops room during Op Unified Protector.
In addition to Charlottetown’s role during this particular incident, the ship has participated in other initiatives such as safeguarding NATO vessels and removing Libyan mines from Misrata. The ship has also helped to deter and destroy attacks by Libyan navy small fast boats carrying explosives and mines. Although the threat from the Libyan navy’s larger combatants has probably, for all intents and purposes, ceased – thanks to sustained NATO attacks on the fleet. However, smaller craft remain a concern: “The Libyan navy is greatly reduced;” notes Commander Skjerpen, adding that “it hasn’t ceased using small boats to attack the port of Misrata.”
A Lockheed Martin CC-130 stands on the tarmac on the Mediterranean island of Malta ready to assist the evacuation of Canadian nationals from war-torn Libya.

The activities of the Charlottetown crew in helping to safeguard Misrata, and in assisting the wider NATO operations, are joined by the Canadian Air Division’s aircraft deployed to the region. In addition to its key evacuation role, a range of aircraft has deployed to Italy under the auspices of Task Force Libeccio, the codename for the force’s deployment to support the ongoing NATO operations over Libya. According to Colonel Alain Pelletier who commands Task Force Libeccio, Canada has seven CF-18 aircraft currently at Trapani-Birgi air base in Sicily. These are collocated with two Lockheed CC-130J Hercules tactical freighters and two Boeing CC-177 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft. Reinforcing this deployment are two CP-140 Auroras based at Sigonella naval air station, also in Sicily, and the single Sea King located onboard Charlottetown.
In terms of missions, the Air Force “has been involved in offensive operations in the East and West,” according to Col Pelletier. “We’re also involved in enforcing the NFZ.”
To help safeguard the NFZ, Canada’s CF-18s are equipped with Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) and Raytheon AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air weapons. Air-to-ground operations are executed using Raytheon GBU-10 and GBU-12 Paveway-II laser-guided bombs. “We’ve been hitting targets pretty much all across the country.” Col Pelletier adds that other targets on the Air Force’s list include: “anything with a support role, such as command and control installations, intelligence-gathering units and weapons storage areas.”
In addition to the CF-18s, other Canadian aircraft, such as the two CP-140 Auroras, are playing an important role. Although ostensibly designed as a maritime patrol aircraft, the Auroras have a potent capability in terms of gathering Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) of the situation on the ground via their L-3 Wescam MX-20 electro-optical and infra-red system: “With the ISR assets that we have in theatre, we’ve been able to determine the pattern of the Libyan army’s behaviour and their operations. For example, it’s fairly easy to see a technical (four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with powerful weapons such as a heavy machine gun) which is firing. This we can see from the air during the day and night.”
LGen Charles Bouchard, Commander, Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) Unified Protector, speaks to the crew of HMCS Charlottetown while in the Mediterranean Sea.
The capability of the CP-140 to see the situation on the ground has enabled NATO allies to stay abreast of the Libyan army’s change of tactics as the campaign has unfolded. This has included the army’s adoption of a more ‘asymmetric’ style of operation, during which it has attempted to blend into the civilian world by abandoning conventional military vehicles and using technicals, for example.
While the Canadian Air and Maritime Commands continue to work hard in theatre, Canada is also playing a key role in the overall command and control of Unified Protector. The chain of command for the operation flows from the North Atlantic Council, the political governing body of NATO comprising the national permanent representatives of the Alliance’s membership, to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), under the leadership of U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis. From SHAPE, the chain of command moves to JFC Naples, which is commanded by Canadian Lieutenant-General Joseph ‘Charlie’ Bouchard.
Canada’s command of Operation Unified Protector, coupled with the contribution of its maritime and air units, underscores the country’s capabilities vis-à-vis rapid deployment and out-of-area operations. HMCS Charlottetown arrived on station a mere 16 days after being ordered to the Mediterranean. The Air Force, meanwhile, flew its first mission in support of what was then Operation Odyssey Dawn on 21 March, with four CF-18s, accompanied by two Airbus CC-150 Polaris tankers. Previous experience in Afghanistan, and also in support of NATO operations over the Balkans in the 1990s, have helped hone the Canadian armed forces’ ability to act with both alacrity, and a global reach. The country’s participation in the ongoing operations over Libya will no doubt enhance these skills still further.

Thomas Withington, a defence journalist with Janes Defence, is based in France.
© Frontline Defence 2011