The Battle of Misrata
TIM DUNNE
© 2011 FrontLine Defence (Vol 8, No 6)

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A modest, 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, set off a series of events that had regime-changing consequences for several Middle Eastern and African nations, caught the attention of the entire global community, and caused the engagement of the United Nations and NATO. He immolated himself on 17 December 2010 to protest his treatment by authorities of his small town of Sidi Bouzid.

 
Protesters hoist image of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia.

Bouazizi’s father had died when he was three years old, and his elder brother moved about 150 km away. His mother remarried, but her second husband’s poor health prevented him from finding regular work. Selling fresh produce in the local market since he was about 10 years old was how Bouazizi became the principal provider for his family and was able to pay for his sister to attend university. According to the Al Jazeera news network, “By all accounts, Bouazizi […] was honest and hardworking,” and generous, often giving foodstuffs to the very poor for free.

Local police had bullied him for years, often taking his food, confiscating his scales and sometimes fining him for operating a ­produce stall without a licence. But on 17 December it turned from bureaucratic harassment to a physical confrontation. Policewoman Fedya Hamdi tried to confiscate his scales. His refusal to hand them over sparked an argument. The policewoman slapped him and several of her fellow police pushed him to the ground and took his scales and produce.

His very public humiliation drove him to seek recourse from public officials who simply refused to see him. He left but returned to the same building with a container of flammable liquid. Pouring it over himself, he set himself aflame. He died from his injuries on 4 January 2011.

Outrage erupted throughout Tunisia, toppling the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was forced to flee the country on 14 January. In the following weeks and months, rebellions continued to ripple throughout the Arab world: revolutions in Egypt, civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Oman, and minor protests in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara… and a civil war in Libya.

Libya’s Civil War
Libya’s insurrection began in mid-February with nationwide protests, armed revolt, defections and ultimately, civil war centered around Benghazi. The regime of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi responded with widespread air and ground attacks that frequently targeted non-combatant civilians and populated areas.

In response, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 demanded an end to violence and urged Libyan authorities to respect human rights; ensure the safety of foreign nationals; allow the safe passage of humanitarian supplies; and lift restrictions on all forms of media. It also referred the situation to the International Criminal Court; imposed an arms embargo; established targeted sanctions on key regime authorities that included a travel ban and freezing of assets; and called on all states to facilitate humanitarian assistance.

On 24 February 2011, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon announced arrangements for Canadians in Libya to leave the country. A CC-177 Globemaster strategic airlifter located at Spangdahlem, Germany, moved to Rome in anticipation of a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation.

Canada established Operation Mobile on 25 February with the formation of Joint Task Force Malta, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) led the whole of government operation that initially evacuated Canadians and then other foreign nationals from the volatile situation in Libya.

Senior Canadian Forces’ representatives who were already assigned to the region met in Valletta, on the island of Malta. They quickly established a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) centre and a headquarters for Joint Task Force Malta, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony DeJacolyn, who is normally assigned to 1st Canadian Division Headquarters in Kingston, Ontario.

JTF Malta reached its full operating capability with two Globemaster aircraft, two CC-130 J Hercules aircraft, and some 70 military personnel. Over the following 11 days, the task force conducted six evacuation flights, two by CC-177 Globemaster and four by CC-130J Hercules – evacuating 61 Canadians and 130 foreign nationals. The CC-130J Hercules flight conducted on 8 March 2011 was the last military evacuation flight out of Tripoli International ­Airport to Malta.

On 17 March, the UN Security Council issued Resolution 1973 which reinforced the arms embargo, the ban on flights, and a freeze on the assets of targeted regime members, and added demands for the protection of civilians and civilian populated areas and the establishment of a no-fly zone.
 
 
HMCS Charlottetown’s Commanding Officer, Cdr Craig Skjerpen briefs the boarding party prior to boarding a vessel of interest during Op Mobile in the Mediterranean Sea.

Two days later, Canada joined a coalition joint task force, under United States Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM) leadership, to enforce the no-fly zone and protect civilians under Operation Odyssey Dawn. The North Atlantic Council accepted responsibility for all military operations related to Libya under Resolution 1973 on 27 March, and the transfer of command authority over engaged air assets to Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, Commander of Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) Unified Protector on 31 March. The mission is named Operation Unified Protector.

Before the ink was dry on UNSCR 1970 and less than three weeks before UNSCR 1973 was adopted, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that HMCS Charlottetown would depart Halifax the following day to participate in Canadian international operations. Rear-Admiral David Gardam, commander of the East Coast Navy, subsequently visited the ship to confirm that her 250-member crew, including a Sea King helicopter and a HELAIRDET from 12 Wing Shearwater, were deploying to the Mediterranean.

As the conflict evolved, shore-based military and civilian personnel worked around the clock to load the ship with whatever could be needed for any potential operational circumstances they could face. Others ensured that passports were current, powers of attorney were prepared and signed, personal protective equipment distributed, and medical and dental fitness confirmed.

All pre-deployment requirements were implemented, all stores, materials, ordnance and ammunition were loaded, and HMCS Charlottetown sailed past George’s Island at the mouth of Halifax harbour in less than 48 hours.

A team of “Sea Trainers” accompanied the ship across the Atlantic and conducted a series of exercises to fine tune the readiness of the ship’s company as they headed for the Mediterranean waters near Libya. They were ready for any contingency.

Arrival on Station
Charlottetown cleared Gibraltar and joined the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) on 14 March. She arrived on station in the central Mediterranean Sea on 17 March. With the launch of Operation Unified Protector, Charlottetown and the other ships of SNMG1 were assigned to Combined Task Group 455.01, a multinational formation of 16 surface ships and two submarines initially with the Italian navy replenishment ship Etna and commanded by Rear-Admiral Gualtiero Mattesi.

The aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi subsequently joined Etna and became the task group’s flagship when RAdm ­Filippo Foffi replaced RAdm Mattesi. The task group ultimately grew to 21 ships and ­submarines from 12 contributing nations.

Initial taskings for HMCS Charlottetown included escorting and providing air defence for vulnerable assets, such as mine counter-measures vessels and replenishment ships, and patrolling the embargo zone to gather information and ensure ­prohibited material did not enter Libya.

Initially, Charlottetown operated in international waters off the coast of Libya, but moved into Libyan territorial waters near the country’s third largest city, Misrata, as Gadhafi’s offensive forces fired rockets and artillery into the port and the city. With the ship within a few kilometers of the city, residents of Misrata had a very visible demonstration of NATO’s support, and it showed Gadhafi’s forces that the Alliance was poised to take decisive action to protect non-combatants.
 
 
October 2011 – HMCS ­Vancouver’s boarding party inspects a small boat found drifting off the coast of Libya.
 
“By closing within a few miles of the city, we aim to achieve two specific goals,” explained Navy Lieutenant Jean Gendron, Charlottetown’s combat officer. “Our specific presence is meant to reassure the citizens of Misrata, to let them know they are being supported. At the same time, we hope to deter violence in that city by signaling to potential antagonists that NATO is maintaining a sustained presence nearby. We are watching and prepared to act to protect civilians and populated areas.”

Onboard, the operations room was continually active, alert and prepared to adapt to the dynamic environment in which she operated. Information from a multitude of sources, from local and remote sensor data and intelligence reports, are ­correlated to produce a coherent understanding of a complex and fluid operational zone. When their efforts revealed that forces were targeting civilians, that information was passed through NATO channels, resulting in measurable military response, sometimes immediately.

Moving Charlottetown’s operations closer to shore brought increased dangers. “At the beginning of the operation, shore-based missiles posed a threat,” explained the ship’s commanding officer, Commander Craig Skjerpen in an exclusive FrontLine interview. “In addition to the threat of shore-based missiles, similar to ship-borne surface to surface missiles, the Libyan navy with the missiles posed a concern. However, we have a comprehensive layered defence system through soft-kill and hard-kill capabilities using RAMSES, radars and chaff, our 57 mm gun and Sea Sparrow missiles. The shore based missile systems were struck in the initial part of the operation. Later in the conflict, there were reports of a surface to surface missile system taken from a Koni-class frigate that NATO had struck earlier. There were concerns that this system was relocated to be used against the ships operating close to Libyan shores, including those ships operating near the port of Misrata.”

Based on information Charlottetown conveyed to the NATO Combined Air Operations Centre, two sorties of allied aircraft were successfully conducted against a column of military vehicles that launched artillery and rocket attacks against the port of Misrata.

“The port is a lifeline to Misrata,” notes Cdr Skjerpen. “It allows for the flow of humanitarian assistance into the city and the evacuation of the injured and non-nationals out. While the arms embargo will continue to be key in reducing the regime’s ability to launch and sustain attacks on its own people, it is professionally very ­satisfying to be involved in operations to protect civilians.”

Charlottetown had a front-row seat as U.S. and British naval ships and submarines launched 110 Tomahawk missiles at military targets. The crew felt the shockwaves from regime artillery and rocket attacks that set the skyline ablaze. NATO’s air strikes and maritime defence of the Misrata harbour established a secure environment that permitted humanitarian aid to flow into the city.

In April, maritime patrol aircraft spotted a group of small boats speeding toward Misrata. The French La Fayette-class frigate Courbet moved to intercept and attempted to hail the boats. The hailings went unanswered so the Courbet fired ­several warning shots. As she closed in on the boats, they retreated, leaving one abandoned and sinking.

Further investigation discovered that the smaller boats had been mining Misrata harbour with M08 anti-ship mines. Each mine contains 115 kg of high explosives and can be triggered by contact or by water pressure across a hydrostatic switch.

The Hague Convention disallows untethered mines because of the potential to strike indiscriminately, incapable of distinguishing between a warship, a humanitarian vessel or a ship evacuating refugees.

The NATO task group commander directed two mine countermeasures vessels, Belgian BNS Narcis and British HMS Brocklesby, into the harbour, under the protection of HMCS Charlottetown. This new mine danger meant that ships stopped entering Misrata on 29 April as Brocklesby and Narcis began searching for and neutralizing mines to clear a safe transit path into the port.

The city was under continuous siege for several months as Gadhafi forces ­surrounded Misrata on three sides, bombarding residents with rocket and artillery fire. The harbour had been the only avenue for delivery of humanitarian aid and evacuating anyone trapped by the ­violence, and now that route was temporarily closed off.

Under Charlottetown’s close protection, the Belgian and British minesweepers cleared a safe pathway into the port, allowing the harbour to reopen on May 5. “Narcis excels at mine hunting and disposal but has modest force protection capabilities,” explains her CO, Lieutenant Commander Jurgen Van Daele. “In the current threat environment, it would be too dangerous to do this work without the protection ­provided by Charlottetown.”
 
 
Bridge officer of ­Belgian Mine Hunter, M923 Narcis manœuvers toward Misrata Harbour during Op Unified Protector.
 
Since the Libyan crisis began in Misrata, organizations like Médicins Sans Frontière, the International Organization for Migration and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have all navigated into the harbour in an international effort to deliver aid and protect non-combatants. Fishing vessels loaded with women and children escaping the violence are common sights in the harbour approaches.

The Brocklesby and Narcis completed their assignment of demining the harbour and the mine threat was lifted to allow Misrata harbour traffic to resume.

Charlottetown’s superior combat coordination and communications systems led to its periodic assignment as Surface Action Group (SAG) Commander to direct the ­tactical employment of allied warships and maritime patrol aircraft in the area and coordinating patrol areas and alert levels for shipborne helicopters.

Sensor weapons controller, Petty Officer (first class) David MacNevin explained, “Strong coordination and communications are crucial to ensuring the proper employment and positioning of SAG units. This has been key to our continued success in preventing regime attacks on the populated areas around Misrata.”

The ship’s C4ISR capabilities, the acronym for command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, allowed the ship’s combat control centre to alert NATO to a major offensive on 26 April against Misrata by Gadhafi forces.

“We had some information that pro-Gadhafi military units were coming up the shore road on the south-east side of the city,” explained Cdr Skjerpen. “We were able to send that information into the CAOC and an AWACS aircraft was able to vector in three formations of NATO aircraft, including CF-18s. They found the military targets, assessed for collateral damage and were able to strike those targets to protect the port. This would have been a major move as the Gadhafi Forces were coming in on the weak side of the port which hadn’t yet been reinforced.”

Working with NATO air controllers, Charlottetown’s operations staff assisted in the coordination of air strikes that blunted the attack and eliminated several dozen assault vehicles, artillery pieces, and a main battle tank again on 8 May and 24 May.

Attacked
On 12 May, HMCS Charlottetown became the first Canadian warship to be fired upon since the Korean War. She came under a second direct attack on 30 May. Shore-based launchers fired BM-21 “Grads” rockets with explosive charges and fragmentation warheads. The rockets fell short, splashing into the Mediterranean.
 
 
May 2011 – Maritime Surface and Sub-surface Officers on HMCS Charlottetown, Lt(N) Chris Devita (left) and Lt(N) Adrian Armitage (seated), demonstrate Ops Room duties to Capt(N) Scott Bishop CF Task Force Unified Protector, VAdm Rinaldo Veri of the Italian Navy, and LGen Charles Bouchard, Commander, Combined Joint Task Force, Op Unified Protector.

“We could see the flickers of bright light as the rockets hit the water,” recalls Leading Seaman Christopher Evans, expressing the concern of the men and women of HMCS Charlottetown. “Time seemed to freeze while my mind connected what I was seeing to the understanding the ship was under attack. This ineffective strike underscored the reality of encountering threats from adversaries on land as well as at sea.

“Usually tactical considerations are predicated on your ship’s capabilities versus those of the adversary’s,” noted PO1 MacNevin. “In order to counter the small boat threat along the coast, the operations team must take into account the capabilities of both the special forces operating on the water and the weapon systems possessed by their supporting forces on land.”
 
 
June 2011 – Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, then-Chief of the Maritime Staff speaking to the junior ranks while on HMCS Charlottetown in the Mediterranean Sea during Op Mobile.

Saving Misrata
Charlottetown’s systems, combined with the skills of a well-trained crew, have been a strong compliment to NATO air assets. The collaboration of warship and aircraft has produced combined effects much greater than the sum of their separate capabilities.

Charlottetown’s role in the littoral waters off Libya entailed a range of activities designed to deny freedom of action within the water-space adjacent the port of Misrata. “The port and the city’s downtown were the only areas not under control of regime forces,” reflects Cdr Skjerpen. “Because of the embargo, and working with aircraft and other NATO ships in the area that have recently been conducting naval gunfire support, the front lines of the Gadhafi forces have been forced back to such an extent that the port could no longer be reached by regime force. Life in Misrata was allowed to get back to some semblance of normalcy, and NATO forces were facilitating the flow of goods into the city, household appliances, normal commercial goods and construction materials.”

During a visit to HMCS Charlottetown, task force commander Rear-Admiral Gualtiero Mattesi, commended the ship’s crew, saying “Charlottetown’s ability to perform the types of duties you have been assigned is an invaluable resource to the operation. While each day is different, the work you have done has been crucial to making a difference, especially to reducing the military threat against the population of Misrata and allowing the flow of humanitarian assistance to continue to flow through that port.”

Cdr Skjerpen noted that “NATO is achieving its goal of protecting civilians by systematically restricting the pro-Gadhafi forces’ capability to threaten the civilian population with violence. Though the ­situation continues to improve, regime forces still pose a threat. This unsuccessful attempt to strike Charlottetown simply highlights the regime forces’ desperation to have some effect on the ­systematic reduction of its capabilities.

“Since we arrived, we were able to see first-hand the significant changes that NATO has been able to make in the city,” he added. “We have been able to protect the population over the past five months. Upwards of 11,000 migrant workers were able to escape the city because of the work Charlottetown did to keep the port open.”

Providing close protection to the minesweepers that cleared Misrata’s port, intercepting menacing small boats, hailing incoming and departing ships and interacting with NATO aircraft to assist them as they struck military targets that were threatening or firing on the city and the port constituted much of HMCS Charlottetown’s critical workin keeping the port open and safe as a humanitarian aid route.

Commander Wade Carter replaced Cdr Skjerpen on 18 August, as Charlottetown completed her deployment. She sailed into Halifax harbour on 2 September to a hero’s welcome.

On that note of optimism, we continue to watch how the fallout from the Arab Spring affects long term human rights in that part of the world.
 
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Tim Dunne is FrontLine’s East Coast correspondent.
© FrontLine Defence 2011

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