The Swedish Navy exists to protect Sweden. But, in recent years, the neutral, non-aligned nation has participated in United Nations and European Union deployments far from the home waters of the Baltic for which it was designed to operate. This required an innovative and adaptive approach.

"As part of the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR), we participated in Operation Atalanta, protecting World
Food Programme shipments to the people of Somalia, and patrolling in the Gulf of Aden," says captain Magnus Jönsson, Royal Swedish Navy, commander, Third Naval Flotilla. "If the shipping in the Gulf of Aden were shut down, or the Suez Canal, it would have a huge impact on the global economy.

"We have had some international experiences with our corvettes and with HMS Trossö as a support ship, and later with HMS Carlskrona, which is actually an old mine-layer that we used as a supply vessel, and command and control vessel," says Jönsson.

"Operation Atalanta was an operation that had, up to that point, been conducted by frigates or destroyers. We arrived with two small fast patrol boat (FPB)-sized corvettes. I think we filled the gap quite well because we took care of escorting ships along the coastline, doing operations close to the coastline of Somalia, in this case, which made it possible for the frigates to operate further out to sea.

"We’ve made one deployment in the Gulf of Aden with Trossö as the command ship. I was in command of that first operation in 2009, with two corvettes, the Stockholm and Malmo, and Trossö as my command ship. Trossö is a former survey vessel that we use as a supply ship. It’s actually a former Soviet vessel, built in Finland for the Soviets, used by Estonia, and bought by the Swedish Navy. We had a small staff working on Trossö, but there was no way of using helicopters on her, which is something we can do with Carlskrona, even though she can only carry smaller helicopters," says Jönsson.

"Carlskrona is bigger than Trossö. We adapted Carlskrona to use her as a support ship, and command and control unit, as well as an OPV [offshore patrol vessel] at sea."

Jönsson says it was a successful operation; the corvettes proved themselves.

"We found out they are quite capable of operating for quite a long time at sea, and we had the Trossö for refuelling and support," he states. "I think that the biggest issue was that our only possible port in the area was Djibouti. We couldn’t go to Aden, and there were no ports in Somalia. So the area of operation was too big for the small units. We would have preferred to have at least one safe port somewhere else – should we need it. We fulfilled our task, but when we shifted and sent Carlskrona the next time, I think she was a better unit for the mission."

"To communicate with other units in other task forces or operating independently, Swedish ships used a communications network called Mercury."

When Jönsson was deployed as commander of the Swedish task unit on Trossö, along with the two corvettes, he reported to the commander of the task force.

"All the rest of Operation Atalanta was single ships, but we were there with a task unit," he says.

According to Jönsson, Carlskrona served as the flagship – FHQA, or force head quarters afloat – the first time she was there. She subsequently deployed as a single unit, like the other frigates. The coordination of units working in the area was conducted from the Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa (MCSHOA) staff in Bahrain. Overall direction of Atalanta came from EU NAVFOR HQ in Northwood in the UK.

Communication and coordination

Multinational and coalition operations have become the norm, but have also underscored the need for coordination and sharing of information.

To communicate with other units in the other task forces or operating independently, Jönsson says the Swedish ships used a communications network called Mercury.

"It’s like chat. We could pass our intentions, and contacts we had, or forward reports from a merchant ship," he points out.

"Mercury provides shipping with the ability to report real-time details of piracy attacks or suspected piracy events over great distances to the counter-piracy forces in the region so that a quick military response can be provided to ensure the safe transit of all shipping through the region," says Captain Craig Powell, Royal Australian Navy, Combined Maritime Forces director of operations in Bahrain.

The web-based Mercury network is run by the EU NAVFOR through MSCHOA, and provides near-real-time chat between participants in any of the counter-piracy missions to share threat notifications and declare intentions.

In addition to the European Union Operation Atalanta (CTF 465) task force, the US leads the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and its three task forces comprised ships, aircraft and personnel from more than 30 nations. There is also NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield (CTF 508).

CTF 150 is the counter-terrorism task force seeking to stop terrorist acts and related illegal activities that can fund illegal activities, or enable or conceal their movements. CTF 151 supports the counter-piracy mission to disrupt piracy and armed robbery at sea, and build and improve partner capacity and capabilities in order to protect global maritime commerce and freedom of navigation. CTF 152, the third task force operated by CMF, enhances regional naval cooperation and coordinates theatre-security cooperation (TSC) activities among regional partners in the Arabian Gulf.

Operation Ocean Shield is NATO’s counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa, helping to deter and disrupt pirate attacks, protecting shipping and providing maritime security in the region.

"Asymmetrical threats, now increasing and spanning from the West African coastline across to central Asia, coupled with diminishing naval capabilities, particularly those of EU member states and the US military due to sequestration and repivoting towards Asia, emphasise the need to move from military cooperation to military collaboration," says colonel Martin Cauchi Inglott of the Armed Forces of Malta, currently assigned to the European Union military staff in Brussels. "Key to this shift would be the ability to exchange information on the basis of ‘responsibility to share’ rather than one based on ‘need to know’, not only nationally amongst agencies, but across borders as well."