UAE setting course to a blue-water navy

Command of the multinational Task Force 152 will provide the UAE Navy with practical experience in long-distance operations.

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ABU DHABI // Rear Admiral Ahmed al Tunaiji said earlier this year that it was imperative for the Armed Forces to acquire deterrence capabilities "because deterrence is important for defence".

His statement reinforced a shift in military doctrine announced in February by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE. The doctrine moved the Emirates from passive "defence" to "advanced, deterrent defence". The Navy has been moving in this direction since commissioning the building of six 72-metre warships in 2004. Its officers are expected to operate the first of the Baynunah-class corvettes by 2011, according to officials from Abu Dhabi Ship Building, the vessels' contractor.

As part of its expansion, the Navy is expected to finish the construction of a new naval base. During the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (Idex) in February, the UAE Armed Forces announced plans to sign a contract with the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri for a Dh430 million (US$117m) anti-submarine vessel. But the story does not end here. The navy is now looking to acquire further operational skills. Yesterday it assumed command of Task Force 152 (TF152), part of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a coalition of naval assets from 24 countries that conducts operations in a 2.4-million square-mile expanse of water that includes, besides the Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Since 2004, when the force was created, the UAE has contributed troops, ships and helicopters in operations and exercises carried out by TF152, which operates exclusively in the Gulf. TF152 focuses on fighting terrorism, drug-trafficking and human smuggling. But the Navy had never commanded the force; that was left to the UK, the US and others. Being in command of complex operations will provide UAE naval officers with the experience of overseeing operations throughout the Gulf, from Kuwaiti territorial waters to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz.

Dr Mustafa Alani, senior adviser and security programme director at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said taking command of the task force was consistent with UAE leadership's new strategy. "They have a vision that co-operation at the naval level needs to be pushed up and improved, if not for strategic level [then] for non-strategic" such as counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations. Dr Alani said that in order for the UAE to meet that "vision" it was important to build a capacity that goes beyond its territorial waters.

"They're developing blue-water capacity and this will give them a role in piracy efforts," he said. The attack last November on the giant Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star, which Somali pirates released in January for a Dh11m ransom, was a turning point, he said. "The GCC countries woke up to the fact that you need to put out your own ships, and without naval capacity you can't do it." Dr Alani stressed that maritime security could not be achieved only by the national navies in the region; a multinational force in the area was also required, he said.

The Gulf force had been very effective without becoming overtly political, he added. "It's not politically sensitive because the job is not strategic," he said. "It's not against certain states. They deal with counter-terrorism and crime."