HMCS Charlottetown commander discusses his experience in Libya

Jon Pukila

Staff Writer

Canadian Forces Commander Craig Skjerpen gave a presentation at Lakehead University on June 5. He argued that the future of Canada’s armed forces is in providing humanitarian assistance to nations and assisting multinational forces during humanitarian missions abroad.

The presentation was a free public lecture hosted by the Thunder Bay branch of the Canadian International Council (CIC), a non-partisan organization that discusses Canadian foreign policy.

Skjerpen described his experience in Libya as commanding officer of the HMCS Charlottetown, a Royal Canadian Navy frigate sent as part of Operation Mobile, which was Canada’s contribution to the NATO mission in Libya in March 2011. Cmdr. Skjerpen was in charge of up to 247 people on board the HMCS Charlottetown.

Cmdr. Skjerpen said that the mission was always changing, and being able to adapt was paramount. “What we did with heads of the department in the ship was work on a performance measurement so that we knew exactly what needed to be done for us to deploy,” the commander said. “And any time any of that changed, we had an information flow between us and we were able to follow that matrix to know when we could sail.”

In the course of a few days, the information on deployment trickled down to individual crew members. By the time the HMCS Charlottetown deployed, everyone on board was aware of the mission.

Initially, the mission was supposed to be an evacuation of civilians from Libya. However, it became combative as the ship sailed toward the Mediterranean.

Skjerpen described a few incidents that the HMCS Charlottetown faced while off the coast of Tripoli and Misrata. One involved a distress signal regarding a boat taking on water north of Tripoli. As Gaddafi’s forces were firing into the waters nearby, several concerns were raised.

“We didn’t know if it was a ruse to bring us inside the missile envelope and launch a missile strike against us. Hitting a coalition ship would probably mean a number of nations would not be willing to get in close,” said Skjerpen. “Because of that, then Gaddafi would have much more freedom of manoeuvre from the sea.”

Because the training personnel had left the ship, Skjerpen and the crew had to work quickly to be updated on new mission parameters.

“All we did was refresh our skills and make sure the team was working cohesively,” he said.

In the end, the Charlottetown crew filled the boat with refugees from Libya.

Later, upon inspection, they realised that the boat had an empty fuel tank, and a loose connection that was affecting its steering. After an assessment by the crew, Skjerpen then had to make a choice.

“Even though the vessel was overburdened with that amount of people, I made the assessment that it was safe to stay on board. However, we stayed with them overnight and monitored them on infrared cameras,” he said, adding that situations like these “are always tricky and you can’t be too careful.”

The well-being of the crew was also important to the success of the mission. Some engaged in exercise as a stress reliever, others set up a mock Tim Horton’s drive-thru complete with cardboard car, to recreate the comforts of home.

To keep in touch with loved ones, the crew created two Facebook pages: one for public access, and the other exclusively for family members. It was good for public relations, “a great way to stop those rumours of ‘this is happening’ or ‘the ship is not coming back, they were fired on,’ etc. We were able to clarify things on there quite quickly, which stops those horrible rumour mills,” Skjerpen said.

Additionally, Skjerpen sent powerpoint presentations once a month to Military Family Resource Centres across Canada to update families, and briefings by teleconference were held.

“Even when all this is going on, . . . sailors are still progressing. They’re training still, getting certifications of the next level of qualification, getting ready for their next course so they could get promoted; and people were getting promoted while we were at sea,” he commented.

Skjerpen said that the mission in Libya was successful. He recalled meeting two Libyan-Canadians after giving a presentation at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy. “[They] shook my hand, thanked me ‒ in essence, the ship and ship’s company, for what they had done to allow Libyans to have a choice. I know it’s a huge struggle from here on out, but it’s their struggle.”

Cmdr. Skjerpen is currently attending Canadian Forces College in Toronto. He holds a BA in Maritime Studies from Memorial University, an MA in Defence Studies from King’s College in London, England, and is a graduate of the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Shrivenham, England.

The next schedule of lectures from the Thunder Bay CIC will be announced in the third or fourth week of September. A student club devoted to the CIC will be planned for September.