Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Coalition of Nations Watches Over the Maritime Chokepoints of the Middle East

Waterways Under Constant Observation for Potential Problems
Shipping News Feature

MIDDLE EAST – Sometimes the requirement for a phrase to be diplomatically acceptable can bring a smile to the face. Never truer perhaps than in the mission statement of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), which was created July 2019 as a way to deter 'unprofessional behaviour' in the waters of the Middle East region through its operational arm, Coalition Task Force (CTF) Sentinel.

The work undertaken by the IMSC, a construct of eight nations collaborating to ensure safe transit through potentially dangerous waters is however no smiling matter. Since establishing CTF Sentinel, the focus has been on building presence within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Southern Red Sea, with the reassurance of legitimate mariners within the commercial shipping community the paramount objective.

The IMSC comprises eight nations, Albania, Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lithuania, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and United States, all of which deploy personnel, ships and aircraft throughout the region as part of the international surveillance and detection effort. The Royal Bahrain Naval Force (RBNF), a regional partner, patrols Bahrain’s territorial waters contributing to the IMSC mission. RBNS Al Muharraq is a corvette patrol craft assigned to CTF Sentinel as a Sentry ship and her captain, Commander Khaled Mubarak Isa Bin Hindi, commented:

“This mission is important for shipping companies, we want them to feel safe when they transit the Gulf. This region is important to global trade, so if our presence provides stability and reassurance to the people who operate tankers and cargo ships, then we shall remain vigilant and dutiful to the IMSC. We know these waters well, Bahrain’s waters are home to the RBNF giving us an operational advantage we share with IMSC coalition members. Together, we are stronger, safer.”

Commercial shipping transits regularly through the Strait of Hormuz, with approximately one sixth of global oil production and one third of the world’s liquefied natural gas channelled through this chokepoint each year. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait, another significant maritime chokepoint, sees approximately 17,000 merchant ships pass through annually.

‘Sentries’ and ‘Sentinels’ are placed strategically throughout the region to provide constant oversight and deter ‘unlawful, unsafe or unprofessional’ activities. Sentries are smaller naval platforms such as corvettes and patrol vessels while Sentinels are larger naval platforms such as frigates and destroyers.

CTF Sentinel Commander, Royal Navy Cdre. Rob Bellfield assumed command of Bahrain-based CTF Sentinel, April 30, providing new direction and vision for the IMSC. Having previously served as deputy commander for all Royal Navy maritime operations in the Gulf region and Middle East, he worked closely with US 5th Fleet staff to integrate UK and US Navy war fighting capability from 2013-2014. He commented:

“One of the major advantages of IMSC is that we have this strong relationship with regional nations who belong to the coalition. This provides shared awareness of activities across the region which strengthens our interoperability and coordination to deter actions that put merchant mariners at risk. I have served more than 30 years, much of it at sea or in supporting operations, which has helped me develop a keen insight into the merchant maritime community particularly in this region that is vital to international trade.

”Ensuring the free flow of international commerce is our top priority and we do this through the three tenets of our mission: vigilance, surveillance, and assurance. Sentinel ships such as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton and Royal Navy Frigate HMS Montrose provide a presence in the region that demonstrates the high level of capability we have to provide over watch of the security situation in the Gulf.”

HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy Type-23 frigate has been deployed to the Middle East since November 2019 and recently completed a third roulement of ship’s company. Her Commanding Officer, Cdr. Ollie Hucker explained the duties of her crew:

“During a typical day at sea we conduct maritime security operations and patrol an area based on the needs of the region. We provide maritime awareness calls announcing our presence via radio to all mariners in the area. Our message is simple. IMSC promotes freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce. If you observe any suspicious activity or require advice or emergency assistance, say something.”

Maritime awareness calls are performed by CTF Sentinel warships every hour to ensure the information reaches mariners in the area. The call encourages mariners to contact United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), a Royal Navy capability which provides a conduit between the military and the international maritime community. UKMTO provides timely maritime security information and serves as a primary point of contact for merchant vessels travelling in high risk areas. Commander Bellfield concluded:

“IMSC coordinates with UKMTO and Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS), a US capability which serves a similar purpose as UKMTO. We are well-connected and provide support between agencies. We cannot operate as individual entities here in the Gulf. If we are to provide reassurance to the maritime community, then our missions must be woven together to ensure there are no gaps in coverage or support.”

Photo: RBNS Al Muharraq operating in the Arabian Gulf during a sentry patrol in July 2020. (Image courtesy of Royal Bahrain Naval Force).