RN-led Gulf task force moves into new HQ

A Royal Navy-led force which safeguards merchant shipping in the Middle East has moved into new operational headquarters.

Coalition Task Force Sentinel was established in the autumn of 2019 to provide additional security and reassurance to tankers and cargo vessels at a time of heightened tensions in the region.

The International Maritime Security Construct consists of eight nations – the UK, Australia, Albania, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lithuania, United Arab Emirates, and USA – all committed to ensuring the safe passage of shipping.

They provide either personnel or military assets – warships, patrol vessels and aircraft – for the Sentinel Task Force, among them Plymouth-based frigate HMS Montrose which is deployed to the Gulf region long-term in a pilot initiative, alongside her sister HMS Argyll on a regular Middle East deployment.

RN-led Gulf Task Force opens it's new HQ

The HQ has operated from two large air-conditioned tents throughout its first nine months, but has now moved into more fitting facilities at the US Naval Base in Bahrain.

The new and improved operations centre will improve the flow of information and allow for greater coordination in tracking merchant shipping as it passes through key waterways in the Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Gulfs of Oman and Aden.

HMS Montrose has most recently been in the latter, patrolling the ‘invisible highway’ – the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor, waters off the Arabian Peninsula linking the foot of the Red Sea with the open waters of the Indian Ocean.

The Gulf of Aden is one of the most strategically important waterways in the Middle East region and it is vitally important that seafarers feel safe operating in the area

Commodore Rob Bellfield

Merchantmen are advised to use the corridor – 500 miles long and about 20 wide – which was initially set up in response to the pirate threat in the region in the late 2000s.

While that threat has subsided, ongoing regional conflict and unrest means that shipping remains at risk – Commodore Rob Bellfield, the Briton heading Sentinel, said there had been one attempted attack on a tanker, and one carried out, in the past six months, underlining the need for the “security umbrella” provided by Montrose and other Coalition warships.

“The Gulf of Aden is one of the most strategically important waterways in the Middle East region and it is vitally important that seafarers feel safe operating in the area,” he stressed.

An estimated six million barrels of oil and nearly 3.5 billion cubic feet of liquid natural gas pass through these waters and the Bab-el-Mandeb narrows into the Red Sea each day.

Beyond the physical presence of warships to act as reassurance, the Sentinel team provides the thousands of ships passing through their domain with the latest information about potential threats – and how to deal with them.

The most likely threats are posed by a suicide bomber in a boat – such as the one which attacked the American destroyer USS Cole off Yemen 20 years ago – or terrorists armed with rockets. Crew of a large cargo ship have just 75 seconds to respond if they see such an attacker 1,000 metres away bearing down on them at 25 knots.

“This coalition fulfils a much-needed role. Its watchwords of ‘vigilance, surveillance, and assurance’ tell you exactly what CTF Sentinel is about and why the task force plays such a key role in the region,” said Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, Commander of the US Fifth Fleet and the senior Coalition naval officer in the Gulf region as the new headquarters were inaugurated.

“They are providing the much-needed collective eyes and ears to some of the world’s most congested, contested waters.”