Hans Uwe Mergener
The Danish frigate HDMS IVER HUITFELDT returned to her base on 10 December 2020 after a four-month deployment to Arab peninsular waters. From late August to late November 2020, it joined Operation AGÉNOR the military pillar of the European Maritime Surveillance Mission in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH).
This European-led mission’s goals include: assessing situations independently; monitoring maritime activities; and, guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and onto the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The Strait became a potential choke point for shipping in circa June 2019 when a multilateral “denuclearisation” agreement with Iran collapsed with the US withdrawal from the treaty. The Strait is close to Iran’s territorial waters and has a width of only 21 nautical miles (39 km) separating the United Arab Emirates and Oman from Iran. Extra-regional ships (European) were in particular danger of being detained indefinitely by Iranian maritime patrols as these ships passed through this narrow, strategic seaway that eventually leads to many vital commercial and industrial destinations.
Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal are taking part in Operation AGÉNOR as a maritime security initiative to ensure safe transit and freedom of navigation for merchant shipping. While force generation seems to be an issue for EMASOH, there are three nations contributing sea-going assets: Denmark, France and the Netherlands – also France contributed maritime patrol aircraft for intermittent missions. EMASOH is headquartered in the French military base in Abu Dhabi.
During the three months of Operation AGÉNOR, IVER HUITFELDT patrolled in designated waters and conducted numerous tasks in and around the Strait of Hormuz. An essential aspect of this mission is to establish a surface situational picture and recognise traffic patterns in order to identify anomalies that could indicate illegal activities or hostilities. IVER HUITFELDT logged long patrol periods weighed against comparatively short port periods for rest and replenishment. The ship’s company was complemented by her organic helicopter plus a detachment of the Frømand-Korps, a special forces unit.
Beginning in early 2021, Denmark takes command of the Force Headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Commodore Carsten Fjord-Larsen, Deputy Commander Royal Danish Navy, was assigned to this task. When coupled with the appointment of a Senior Civilian Representative – Ambassador Julie Pruzan-Jørgensen – to the mission, the strength of Denmark’s commitment to maritime security is clear.
Maritime Security & Defence (MSD) magazine recently spoke with Cmdr (s.g.) Kim Nybo Skjødt, the Commanding Officer of HDMS IVER HUITFELDT.
MSD: What is the background for Denmark’s participation in Operation Agénor?
Skjødt: Denmark’s participation with the frigate HDMS IVER HUITFELDT was based on a parliamentary resolution with a strong mandate in the spring of 2020. As the world’s fifth largest maritime nation, the right to free navigation is of crucial importance to Denmark. Danish merchant ships sails through the Strait of Hormuz on a daily basis and therefore constitute an important source of employment and prosperity for Denmark.
In light of the security incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in 2019, France took the initiative to establish a maritime surveillance mission in the Strait of Hormuz. The mission aims to protect freedom of navigation, ensure coordination between partners in the area and contribute to de-escalation through presence on both sides in the strait. Through increased international presence and monitoring, the mission is intended to reduce the risk of more of the type of incidents that took place in the summer of 2019.
It was thus an obvious task for the Danish Navy, and IVER HUITFELDT sailed from Denmark on 10 August 2020 with a view to join this classic naval task.
MSD: How did you and your crew prepare for the operation?
Skjødt: IVER HUITFELDT was on high alert in 2020, and the general training level was equivalent. There was therefore a primary need to focus the mission preparation training by integrating the external sub-contributions (helicopter crew, special forces, etc.).
In addition, it was obvious to train strait crossing. For that purpose, we used the inland Danish waters and straits. This gave a very realistic scenario, where also various input from other units and role players provided good training in the legal considerations that could be foreseen in the Strait of Hormuz.
After intense mission preparation weeks at sea in the summer of 2020, IVER HUITFELDT was ready to begin the transit to the area of operations.
MSD: How do you assess Operation AGÉNOR’S success from the IVER HUITFELDT perspective?
Skjødt: The operation seems to live a “quiet” life, there is not much publicity on a larger scale. It can also be categorised as a “success”, as there have been no significant security incidents since the operation started in 2020.
AGÉNOR is a mission at the ‘soft’ end of the conflict scale. The task itself and the geography are somewhat reminiscent of the coastal environment in Danish waters. The task is thus an uncomplicated task for a highly certified frigate.
The operation can generally be categorised as a simple task in a very complex environment. I was very aware that a possible mistake on my tactical level or other misinterpretations among the actors at sea and in the air could ultimately have military consequences and strategic implications.
This mentioned, we did not actually see any activities we had not been prepared for. And after about a month in the area, we had a very clear picture of the pattern of life and could gradually begin to anticipate movements and activities.
I foresee that this successful European mission – and I say this even though some of the member nations still have not participated with ships or aircraft – could lead to other case-by-case European missions in the future. In this context it will be important that one or more members of a mission already have a kind of a footprint in the specific region. This will make all the infrastructure setup smoother – just like the French facilities in Abu Dhabi for the EMASOH mission.
MSD: What are the lessons learned?
Skjødt: Due to the complexity of the area and the fact that an actual military confrontation cannot be ruled out, it should be maintained to deploy actual combat units with a high degree of self-defence for operations in the Strait of Hormuz or the Persian Gulf in general.
The countries around the Strait of Hormuz clearly demonstrated that they distinguished between EMASOH units and units from other missions in the area. They appeared polite and professional.
The cooperation within our task force was uncomplicated. It was a kind of ‘plug and play’ since we used to operate together in other contexts. Using a French naval base in Abu Dhabi was also an important pre-condition for both the staff and the ship’s logistics.
Other lessons learned – besides the challenge with the force flow – I could have wished for even more strategic communication, both to the entire world in general, but also specific to the merchant shipping units operating in the area. Also, more interaction and cooperation with other local actors could be prioritised, but I know that these topics are well-known by the force headquarters.
My overall conclusion from the tactical level is clear: it has been an easy and successful mission with very good cooperation within the task force.
MSD: Cmdr Skjødt, thank you. Fair winds and following seas.
The questions were asked by
Hans Uwe Mergener