Combined Task Force 150

Recovered from my dusty archives: in 2005 I visited the Dutch flagship of  ‘Combined Task Force 150’, one of three US-led naval task forces in and around the Persian Gulf. With the increased attention for the Strait of Hormuz and surrounding waters, some of the information on how these Combined Task Forces operate may still be useful. 

For the first time an Islamic country will be in command of forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom. On 24 April The Netherlands will be relieved by Pakistan, who will then be in command of the multinational Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150). CTF 150 is an important player in Operation Enduring Freedom, the US-led coalition operation against Al Qaeda and terrorism related networks. CTF 150 “owns” an enormous operating area at sea; the boundaries run from the Straits of Hormuz and the Pakistani territorial waters in the North, via the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden south to Kenya and the Seychelles. Defence expert Hans de Vreij of Radio Netherlands recently visited Task Force 150 and her present flagship: the Netherlands frigate HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën. About tanned fishermen, regional sensitivities and the hunt for the almost invisible adversary.

“Attacks in this region will have global consequences”.

By Hans de Vreij*

From the bridge of HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën an interpreter establishes radio contact with a small fishing vessel. Place of action: the Gulf of Oman. The answer by the fisherman is not quite satisfying. From the big Air Defence and Command Frigate two RHIB’s (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) are sent to the fishing vessel. The RHIB’s are manned with aninterpreter, a boarding team and a guard team of Royal Netherlands Marines. The linguist has a chat with the fishermen and the boarding team is invited on board the fishing vessel. This invitation is important because the Dutch Rules of Engagement do not allow the boarding of a vessel without the master’s approval. Although “Enduring Freedom” is a US-led operation, each of the participating countries of this Coalition has its own set of Rules of Engagement, laid down by their own governments and parliaments, which prevail at any time. 

A dhow, boarded for inspection and a chat. Photo: Hans de Vreij.

The visit to the small dhow (a traditional ship model in this region) is running smoothly. No terrorists or weapons on board. The fishermen look very legitimate; tanned by weather and wind. But the boarding team takes no risk; everything is potentially suspicious. Over the side of HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën a .50 machine gun is aimed at the dhow. Also a sniper is on alert; one of the precautionary measures when executing a boarding. “98 to 99 percent of all the shipping is innocent, but one should never rule out those having less friendly intentions or doing something illegal”, says Captain Maarten Stenvert, the commanding officer of HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën. “If I wanted to hide something I would also try to mask this in this way. That is the reason why we approach all dhows this way” The RHIB’s return to their mother ship, the fishing vessel’s details are collected in a database which has grown out of proportion over the recent years. All participating units and the Headquarters in Bahrain have access to this database – a very complete historical overview of all shipping in the operating area. Deviations from normal patterns therefore immediately draw attention.

The operating area of Task Force 150 encloses more than two million square sea miles. The expression “looking for a needle in a haystack” seems therefore an understatement – the maximum number of surface units within CTF 150 has been 19 units up till now – normally there is an average of 15 surface units within the Force. The mission of this part of Operation Enduring Freedom is to deny terrorists the use of the sea for attacks or for transport of people and weapons. Although counter piracy is not an official part of the mission, CTF 150 can and will operate against pirates in international waters when the situation dictates. The way CTF 150 is operating can be summarized as Maritime Security Operations. An evenly important second mission for CTF 150 is to make sure that countries within this region become involved with CTF 150. This is called Theatre Security Cooperation,  a very laborious process.

It is a known fact that almost every country in his mainly Islamic region dislikes Al Qaeda and related networks. The coastguard and navy of many of these countries have good working relations with CTF 150 and sometimes participate in exercises. But a formal participation in a part of Operation Enduring Freedom is still a sensitive issue in regional national politics. This is one of the reasons why it is of great importance that Pakistan has declared to take command of Task Force 150 for the period of four months. It is the whish and desire that other Islamic countries will follow in the footsteps of Pakistan and will participate actively in Task Force 150 or even take command of Task Force 150.

Since 12 December Task Force 150 is commanded by Commodore Hank Ort of The Royal Netherlands Navy. For him HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën is not only a platform from which actions are being taken, but it serves also as a floating command and control platform from which Ort and his staff give guidance to the Task Force. Units from TF 150 are often great distances apart from each other. “It’s all about intelligence”, says Commodore Ort at his desk in the staffroom of the ship – a space full of computers and a big screen from where, via a kind of internet chat, the information exchange with other units and the Naval Headquarters takes place. “Collecting, processing and analyzing. The ships of TF 150 are busy day by day with gathering information about shipping in the area. They query vessels and if there is any reason for suspicion they will board the ship to investigate and search the vessel. This all contributes to a historical overview from what is happening in the area. In this way we are able to detect any suspicious movements, detect anything out of the ordinary; so that we can go after it.”

Commodore Hank Ort, commander Combined Task Force 150, on board of HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën. Photo: Hans de Vreij.

All participating countries in CTF 150 have to play by their own rules. Within NATO these rules are called “national caveats” and are sometimes cursed. But a Coalition like this international Task Force is a different ballgame than a centrally and well guided alliance as NATO. Commodore Ort executes “modern coalition management”. “It’s all about using the strong points of the individual units. This means in practice that we handpick the unit, allowed to execute a specific operation. There is an overview available of what all the units within the force may and can do, and I have constantly to keep that in mind when directing an operation.” 

Commodore Ort needs to focus his scarce assets (more ships would be welcome, but also more maritime patrol aircraft) especially on the vulnerable chokepoints of merchant shipping in the region: the entrance to the Straits of Hormuz (through which 50% of all crude oil is transported); Bab al-Mandeb (the straits between Yemen and Djibouti) and the entrance of the Suez Canal into the Red Sea. But also developments elsewhere could require the presence of the units under his command. In February Ort immediately directed four of his units in the direction of Yemen, after the escape of 23 Al Qaeda prisoners. Amongst these escapees where the organizers of the suicide attacks on the USS Cole in port Aden in 2000 and of the attacks on the French crude oil tanker Limburg in 2002.

HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën. Photo: Hans de Vreij.

More and more CTF 150 is tasked for anti-piracy operations, mainly in the international waters off the coast of Somalia – a country without effective government where the separation line between “commercial” piracy and terrorism is becoming blurred. The TF seems to know very well where the piracy vessels are positioned. On the other hand the pirates seem to be well aware of the fact that CTF 150 is not allowed to operate in territorial waters. And for the time being the twelve nautical miles zone along the vast extension of the Somali coast serves as a safe haven for the pirates. But in search for a rich trophy, they often move far from the coast and are – just as within the territorial waters – monitored by CTF 150. When required CTF 150 then can take action. In February the USS Winston S. Churchill, one of the units of Task Force 150, captured a group of Somali pirates and handed them over to Kenya to stand trial.

The change over of command to Pakistan in April is an important moment for Commodore Ort. He calls it a big step forward for Operation Enduring Freedom. “From the very first moment it has been the intention for countries in the region to take over the operation. I see Pakistan as a very successful example of a country in the region with the required capabilities actually taking responsibility to participate in this operation. And not only participate but also immediately by taking over command; this will mean that – given all the contacts Pakistan has in this region – we can make a big step forward in involving other regional nations.”

As an example Commodore Ort mentions Saudi-Arabia, with which talks take place and with which Pakistan in its turn has good bilateral contacts. “Another country which has shown interest is Kenya. For us this is very interesting because it is a neighbouring country of Somalia and it is concerned about the possibility of the threatening situation to spread towards Kenya. Therefore Kenya is willing to cooperate with the international coalition.” Furthermore there are talks ongoing about the possible participation of South Africa, Egypt and the United Arabic Emirates in CTF 150. Commodore Ort is cautious in saying too much about these contacts towards mentioned countries – he rather leaves this up to the involved countries itself, just because of the internal sensitivities. At the headquarters in Bahrain praising words can be heard about the results Ort has achieved with countries in the region over the last months. There is even the – also known from different circumstances – terminology “Dutch Approach” being used.

Also NATO seems to have shown interest in participating as CTF 150. “I know these thoughts exist and I would like to encourage the idea”, Commodore Ort says. “NATO can fulfill an important additional role. We are short of assets, so every extra contribution is very much welcomed. NATO brings along not only great knowledge about procedures and mutual cohesion, but also experience in operating in the Mediterranean Sea (i.e. the NATO-operation Active Endeavour aimed against terrorism). Investigation at the NATO-headquarters learns, by the way, that there has not been made a formal proposal to participate in CTF 150. According to a spokesman there are only working contacts on a lower level between Task Force 150 and STRIKFORNATO, a maritime NATO command based in Naples. It is obvious that for participation as CTF 150 approval by the North-Atlantic Council would be required.

Up till now Task Force 150 has not been able to catch “big fish”. According to Commodore Ort the presence of the Task Force itself has a deterrent effect and it is “relatively quite” at the moment. “It can also be seen as follows: The chance of something happening at the moment is rather small. But the seriousness of an accident in this region is of such importance for our economy (50% of the daily oil trade volume is transported through this region) that we cannot afford not to cover the seaside of this area.”

An echo of these words can be heard hundreds of miles further at the headquarters in Bahrain. In this case the words come from Vice-Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, commander US Fifth Fleet, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command and commander of the Combined Maritime Forces which includes also CTF 150. A different Task Force under his command protects the oilfields and installations in the northern part of the Persian Gulf. And yet another Task Force under his command is operating in the central and southern part of the Persian Gulf.

Vice-Admiral Patrick M. Walsh and the author.

When asked about the effectiveness of the different operations (costing a lot of money) Vice-Admiral Walsh reacts a little bit grim. “Al Qaeda already has attacked ships at sea and vital infrastructure. It is difficult to indicate the costs of these attacks. All the attacks in this region have world wide consequences.” Just to illustrate the impact of terrorist attacks in this region: just before my conversation with Vice-Admiral Walsh there had been an attempted terrorist attack in Saudi-Arabia about 30 kilometers south of Bahrain. The attempt took place on one of the largest oil refineries of Saudi-Arabia. Immediately after the attempt there was a worldwide increase in the price of crude oil. This would also happen after attacks on oil-facilities and/or crude oil tankers at sea.

About the increased interest from CTF 150 in piracy operations off the coast of Somalia Vice-Admiral Walsh reacts that this is mainly of importance because at this moment we simply do not know what is going on in Somalia. “We think this area provides fertile grounds for terrorists. From our actions against pirates we have learned to be physically present in this area, help ships in distress and need to closely monitor international shipping routes.”

At the large U.S. naval base in Bahrain there is a separate building reserved for the countries participating as Coalition partner in Task Force 150. There is an international staff; each of the participating countries has its own office. The Netherlands is represented by extra personnel because of its leading role in CTF 150 at the moment. Some of the extra personnel are integrated in a vital part of this entire operation: The Intelligence Fusion Cell. In this cell all the intelligence data from ships and other sources is processed by 14 specialists of 9 different Coalition countries. There is a 24/7 dataflow to and from the ships within Task Force 150.

Dutch staff at Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain. In the middle: marine corps colonel Erik Blommestijn, Senior National Representative. Photo: Hans de Vreij.

Colonel Erik Blommestijn of the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps is the Senior National Representative in Bahrain. One of his tasks is to act on behalf of the Commander of the Netherlands Defence Forces, General Dick Berlijn. He needs to make sure that the Dutch ships in Task Force 150 (HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën and the replenishment ship HNLMS Amsterdam presently taking part in Task Force 150. Also the submarine HNLMS Bruinvis used to take part) are not being asked to execute operations which contradict the Netherlands Rules of Engagement. He is what is called  a “Red Card Holder”. This red card is rarely drawn, Colonel Blommestijn says. “It does not happen very often because the headquarters is well aware of the different package of authorities of each Coalition partner”.

*Hans de Vreij was Security and Defence editor of Radio Netherlands. Story first published in 2005.

Over Hans de Vreij

Retired Dutch journalist. Covered EU, NATO, UN, security & defense. Was correspondent in Berlin, Brussels, Geneva, Prague. Studied Russian language & literature.
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