Royal Navy ships and personnel have joined a new international task force to safeguard ships passing through one of the world’s most dangerous ‘choke points’.
Frigate HMS Montrose and support ship RFA Lyme Bay joined the US-led Combined Task Force 153 for a demonstration of naval might and unity in the Red Sea, the Royal Navy said on 6 May.
The task force is the fourth international naval group – numbered 150 through 153 – dedicated to security at sea from the Suez Canal to the Western Seaboard of the Indian sub-continent, from the shores of Iraq to those of the Seychelles, in all more than three million square miles of ocean, tackling issues as complex and challenging as terrorism, piracy, smuggling.
Its focus is the Red Sea from the Suez Canal to the narrows of the Bab-al-Mandeb, one of the key straits on the world’s major shipping lanes.
Every 24 hours around 50 large merchant ships pass through the BAM – as it’s known by many seafarers: tankers, gas carriers, container ships, car carriers.
Should it become blocked or unsafe for merchant shipping the impact on the UK alone – which relies on regular supplies of liquid natural gas from the Gulf for example – would be severe.
Last year’s accidental blockage of the Suez Canal, when the Ever Given became stuck – cost global trade more than £280 million per hour, or £6 billion per day.
The BAM is just as much of a trade ‘choke point’ – roughly 20 miles of water separating Yemen and Djibouti – and passing shipping has been threatened on occasions by missile-armed rebels.
Operating under the banner of the Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Force – a coalition of nearly three dozen nations committed to safety and security at sea in the region – in its first iteration it’s led by the US Navy.
As well as providing direct security, its mission is to train and work with Red Sea navies to make the region’s waters safe for all.
For its inaugural patrol, command ship USS Mount Whitney was periodically joined by Egyptian frigate ENS Alexandria, autonomous US systems, a P8-A maritime patrol aircraft, Montrose, Lyme Bay, guided-missile destroyers USS Gonzalez and USS Fitzgerald, as well as fast transport ship USNS Choctaw County.
Alongside Royal Navy ships assigned to the force at times, RN personnel will also serve on its staff.
Lieutenant Commander Dave Smith, who normally concentrates on maritime security and stability within the Gulf, was drafted in to help set up the new task group and its staff, as well as work with allies and partners in the region.
“It is a privilege to have been appointed to the leadership team of CTF 153 and chosen to establish its command afloat, and to be representing the Royal Navy and its commitment to the Combined Maritime Force and the region,” he said aboard USS Mount Whitney as the new force’s pennant was raised for the first time.
Although under US Navy command initially, like the other naval groups operating in the region, leadership will pass to one of the member navies.