Maritime presence: Canadian naval operations in European waters


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The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily mirror the views and opinions of the Royal Canadian Navy.

By Dr. Lee Willett

Re-posted courtesy of Jane’s Defence Weekly

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is maintaining a pattern of continuous presence in European waters to meet a high national policy priority and to support NATO interests.

Canada’s geostrategic position means that the country is faced with addressing maritime matters in three oceans: the Arctic, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. Covering such vast areas would challenge the capacities of many naval services.

However, as well as securing its immediate maritime neighbourhood, Canada also supports interests much further afield, including in the Caribbean, the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, off the coast of West Africa, and in the waters around Western Europe.

A cursory overview of recent NATO naval activity in the European theatre reveals a consistent presence of RCN surface ships and submarines, with RCN platforms deployed from north European waters to the Black Sea. Like many NATO member states have done since the return of tensions with Russia in 2014, Canada has reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining defence, deterrence, and assurance in the region.

“Certainly, since really [mid-]2014, we’ve had a near-continuous presence with NATO here in the Standing NATO Maritime Groups [SNMGs],” said Rear Admiral Craig Baines, the RCN’s commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic.

This presence and commitment is currently being delivered by the Halifax-class guided-missile frigate HMCS St. John’s and the Victoria-class diesel-electric submarine (SSK) HMCS Windsor. Since 2014 the Halifax frigates have provided continuous presence, deployed with either SNMG1 or SNMG2. For the Victoria-class boats, Windsor’s deployment to the region is its third since 2015.

“The reason that we have sustained this commitment is because it is one of our very highest priorities: to support NATO,” Rear Adm Baines told Jane’s.

In 2017 Canada published its latest defence policy, Strong, Secure, and Engaged. The policy “talks about ‘strong at home’, which speaks to [the] three-ocean piece; ‘secure in North America’; and engaged in the world’,” said RAdm Baines. Supporting NATO is “about being engaged in the world,” he continued. “We believe in a rules-based international order and NATO is one of our very highest priorities in terms of supporting that concept.”

Policy priority

Within a policy structure designed to define Canada’s defence priorities out to a 20-year horizon, Strong, Secure, Engaged states that Canada’s commitment to NATO remains robust, steadfast, and unwavering; it also reaffirmed that Canada “takes seriously its responsibility [as a NATO member] to contribute to efforts to deter aggression by potential adversaries in all domains.”

In a foreword to the policy Minister for National Defence Harjit Sajjan said, “We cannot be strong at home unless we are also engaged in the world.” Under the policy’s ‘engaged’ element, participation in global affairs will reinforce the role of Canada’s armed forces in contributing to international stability, as Canada seeks to “be a credible and engaged international actor.”

The policy requires Canada’s armed forces to meet Article V [collective defence] commitments; to lead and/or contribute to NATO efforts to deter and defeat adversaries; and to support alliance international peace support and stabilization missions.

Citing several issues – including Canada’s role and obligations as a NATO member, the re-emergence of major-power competition in the Atlantic and Pacific theatres, the importance of global stability in underpinning the rules-based international order, and the need to maintain secure sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and international trade – Strong, Secure, Engaged underlined the enduring importance of deterrence for Canada and its allies. It also noted that NATO has been “re-examining how to deter a wide spectrum of challenges to the international order by maintaining advanced conventional military capabilities that could be used in the event of a conflict with a ‘near-peer’ [competitor].”

According to Strong, Secure, Engaged, Canada’s conventional military capabilities are designed to defend its own territories and NATO interests, in the latter context “maintaining high-quality, interoperable, and expeditionary forces, which Canada can deploy as needed to effectively contribute to NATO deterrence posture, operations, exercises, and capacity-building activities.”

In terms of maritime capability, the policy states that “naval forces provide Canada with a responsive and agile means to respond across a wide spectrum of maritime situations, and serve as an instrument of national power on the international stage.”

Rear Adm Baines said that Canada’s enduring commitment to international engagement “has given us the policy that underwrites what we should be doing.” Alongside ships and submarines at sea in Europe, Canada’s contribution to NATO includes an army battlegroup and, as required, fighter aircraft to support air policing tasks. “When you wrap all of that capability up together,” the admiral said, “it’s a very, very strong commitment from Canada to NATO.”

There is a clear link for Canada between engagement, presence, and deterrence. “I think deterrence works best if you have both presence and capability,” said RAdm Baines. “You can have both of those in a latent fashion somewhere, but if you’re actually in the region … and you’re working together with other partners, I think that’s the ideal situation.”

The presence of RCN surface ships, for example, “represents a tangible commitment … to our allies,” said Commander Gord Noseworthy, Commanding Officer (CO) of St. John’s.

Under Operation REASSURANCE – Canada’s national contribution to NATO’s collective defence and assurance measures in Europe – Cdr Noseworthy said the RCN is “operating more directly [in support of] our European allies in the Baltic, North, and Mediterranean seas, by providing military capabilities for training, exercising, and other assigned NATO tasks, while demonstrating Canada’s commitment to promoting security and stability in the central and eastern European areas of responsibility [AORs].”

St John’s is deployed with SNMG1 and has been undertaking missions across the spectrum of operations in support of NATO requirements, the CO told Jane’s during an interview as the ship sailed in the North Sea.

Despite the increasing focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in the European theatre, Windsor’s deployment is a routine one in support of NATO. Captain(N) Christopher Robinson, commander of the RCN’s submarine fleet, said that Canadian policy has two priorities that apply to the Victoria-class SSKs: “One is we are mandated to operate the Victoria class globally, and to be able to sustain [the boats] globally; and two, we are mandated to work with our allies and our alliances, and strengthen those partnerships.” Talking to Jane’s on board Windsor at Augusta Naval Base, Sicily, in March – before the boat sailed with SNMG2 to participate in NATO’s DYNAMIC MANTA ASW exercise in the Mediterranean – Capt(N) Robinson said, “Windsor’s deployment … is in support of both of those.”

Generating readiness

Given Canada’s responsibilities at home and across the international stage, it could be assumed that many navies might struggle to continuously support such commitments. However, the RCN has no concerns in meeting its commitments in Europe.

“From the European theatre perspective I have to be completely frank …. I don’t have a force generation challenge because it’s such a high priority,” said RAdm Baines. “Because it’s enshrined in policy, because it’s got the support of government, the European challenge just isn’t one for me.”

Given the high-level priority assigned to REASSURANCE, “We only send our very highest level of readiness of ships on that mission,” he continued.

The planning cycle underpinning Canada’s commitment has been enhanced during the past four years by a re-alignment of how the RCN is organized, said the admiral. “We now have a functional organization, as opposed to a geographic organization,” he explained. This means that RAdm Baines is responsible for operations and readiness for Canada’s naval forces.

“What this has allowed us to do is to better plan out to 10 years our readiness cycles, and then in smaller timeframes – five years and in – to be able to say today what a ship is going to be doing five years from now,” the admiral explained. While recognizing the need to retain flexibility to respond to world events, this structure enables the RCN “to engage earlier, further out, get agreement on the plan, so that we can generate the ships as required,” he continued. “So, for instance, a ship knows already, two years out, that it’s going to be deploying into NATO, so it is already doing what it needs to do to make sure it is ready to take its turn in that cycle.”

Such forward planning, the focus on deploying high-readiness units to Europe, and the ability to send the same ships on repeat rotations also seem to support the pre-deployment preparation process. St. John’s returned to Europe in mid-January, relieving sister ship HMCS Charlottetown, having only returned home from its previous deployment in July 2017. Upon returning home St. John’s underwent a 100 per cent crew change before spending the rest of 2017 getting ready to deploy again, said Cdr Noseworthy. With six months being “certainly more than sufficient” to prepare the ship for deployment on REASSURANCE, according to Cdr Noseworthy, the preparation period “is deliberately designed to prepare our ship and its company to reach a high-readiness status.”

The RCN is also focused on maintaining the high-readiness status of its ships and submarines once they are deployed in theatre. For example, RAdm Baines noted that “St. John’s – of all my ships – is at the highest levels of readiness, even though it’s been deployed for a couple of months.” Here, Cdr Noseworthy said the RCN uses a series of combat readiness requirements to assess and maintain in-theatre readiness. These metrics enable the identification and planning of drills and exercises across all areas essential to the performance of a deployed warship, he continued. Demonstrating the importance of interaction with NATO, Cdr Noseworthy added, “through co-operation and co-ordination with the NATO flagship and [its] staff, we are able to organize and manage our activities in a way that allows us to continue honing our warfighting skills while maintaining readiness.”

Exercising readiness

Alongside the readiness requirements the RCN ascribes to its units, NATO’s own focus on making exercises more robust helps to maintain readiness levels and boosts operational outputs. NATO’s exercise program provides “an opportunity to do activities that allow you to maintain that readiness over a six-month period”, said RAdm Baines.

Since deployed in European waters, St. John’s and SNMG1 have participated in the Norwegian-led NATO exercise DYNAMIC GUARD (held in February off Norway) and the UK-led NATO exercise JOINT WARRIOR (held off Scotland in April). During June the group will return to the Baltic for NATO’s BALTOPS exercise.

“We’ve also done a series of PASSEXs [passing/passage exercises],” noted Cdr Noseworthy. These included working with Dutch, French, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish ships and covered activities including communications, tactical formation and manoeuvring, advanced electronic communications, and digital co-operation serials including target acquisition work.

“In addition to building the combined operational picture and understanding the patterns of life in and around the Baltic Sea, some of the greatest value that I believe we’ve generated comes from the international, navy-to-navy engagement that we’ve been able to conduct, through exercises, with our NATO allies,” said Cdr Noseworthy.

SNMG1 ships have also conducted port visits, including in Denmark, Germany, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom. In Copenhagen, said Cdr Noseworthy, “the entire naval group had its ships open to visitors, which allows us to be seen by the local population.” Port visits also are a key part of Canada’s diplomatic engagement with allies during deployments.

SNMG1’s AOR encompasses West European waters, including the Baltic, North and Norwegian seas and the western Mediterranean, each region bringing different environmental and operational challenges. To date St. John’s has been particularly active in the Baltic and North seas, including in the waters between Denmark and Norway, but has also been operating in the Norwegian Sea.

In the latter instance, Cdr Noseworthy explained that, “compared to the open oceans that we’re used to operating within off the coast of Canada, the deep and narrow fjords of Norway have certainly required a change in our mental models … in how we operate in those areas, with the dense traffic, the poor weather, and the fairly constrained navigable waters”.

Windsor’s CO, Commander Peter Chu, reinforced the importance of adapting to different environments, for example with the boat operating in the Mediterranean for the first time. “The traffic density, I would say, would be the primary challenge for my team,” he noted. “I think it’s just dealing with the massive amount of contacts and traffic, and then just being accustomed to the waters and the environment that they’re working in.”

Interoperability and outputs

In Strong, Secure, Engaged, Canada underscores the requirement for its armed forces to pursue leadership roles, prioritizing interoperability in planning and capability development to support co-operation with allies, especially NATO. Reflecting this requirement, Cdr Noseworthy said that the high-readiness status of the in-theatre frigate enables the ship “to take on a leadership role in planning warfare and seamanship serials within the task group.”

Alongside providing deterrence and reassurance outputs, a substantial part of the latest deployment of St. John’s has focused on building interoperability, particularly in ASW and anti-air and anti-surface warfare (AAW and ASuW). Cdr Noseworthy said the ship “has followed a very specific operational training plan” to enhance preparedness and readiness, working not only with surface and sub-surface naval assets but also, for example, participating in air-defence exercises with Royal Danish Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft.

Canada’s contribution to in-theatre exercise and operational outputs has been enhanced by the improved capabilities embarked on its frigates and submarines.

The completion of the Halifax-class modernization/frigate life-extension (HCM/FELEX) program means that all 12 Halifax-class frigates are available to meet operational demand around the world. Finishing the HCM/FELEX program “has really given us all the flexibility that we require,” said RAdm Baines. This flexibility is evident in the central role the frigates are playing in the RCN’s European deployments.

In terms of the frigates’ improved capabilities, RAdm Baines pointed to two particular upgrades: the new Lockheed Martin CMS 330 command-and-control (C2) system, which augments weapon and sensor integration; and improved sensors, especially in terms of radar capability. In the latter case the admiral noted the significant step up from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional radar in the Thales SMART-S Mk 2 E-/F-band system. “Having a three-dimensional radar is very useful when you’re operating in a very congested area and you need to understand what that air traffic is doing so that you can provide appropriate air defence,” explained RAdm Baines. The radar’s integration with the new C2 system also provides “much better situational awareness,” he added.

Cdr Noseworthy said, “a deployed Halifax-class ship brings significant capability and expertise,” especially with extensive ASW, ASuW, and AAW capabilities. “The combination of our ship’s modernised weapons and sensor systems, coupled with our state-of-the-art damage control and machinery systems, means that St. John’s is fully prepared to integrate and operate … with our NATO allies,” the CO continued.

Strong, Secure, Engaged also committed to the ongoing modernization of the four Victoria-class SSKs, which are already bringing demonstrable operational output. Fourth-in-class HMCS Chicoutimi recently deployed widely across the Pacific, while Windsor, alongside being the first Victoria-class boat to operate in the Mediterranean, has embarked the full Lockheed Martin AN/BQQ-10 (V)7 sonar processing suite – another first for the class – during its current deployment.

In terms of outputs Capt(N) Robinson pointed to the Victoria boats’ relatively large size and two benefits this delivers. First, he said, it “allows a fairly large complement of sonars to be fitted.” Second, the crew size – 59 submariners, including seven officers – “allows a certain amount of data fusion and actionable information coming out of what is collected by the sensors.” With modern sensors capturing increased levels of data, he continued, effective data fusion can make an important operational difference. “Sonars are so effective … that you have almost unlimited data coming in,” Capt(N) Robinson continued. “Taking that and turning it into a pattern of life, a traffic pattern, something you can use, generally requires both advanced computer processing but more importantly people looking at it and deciphering the patterns.”

Cdr Noseworthy reinforced the importance of people. In building interoperability, he said, “the key to success … is not so much on a piece of equipment; rather, it’s on people.” He pointed to the ability to engage directly with fellow ship COs and with SNMG1’s command staff, who are embarked on the Royal Danish Navy (RDN) Iver-Huitfeldt frigate HDMS Niels Juel, and led by an RDN commodore.

Environment, experience, expertise

Ships operating within the SNMGs support a range of NATO requirements, including: providing presence; securing SLOCs; managing maritime security matters such as migration; countering terrorist activity; boosting maritime situational awareness; and deterring state-based threats. Alongside supporting these tasks, sustained deployments also provide the RCN with an “opportunity to understand the environment, to use our sensors in the environment, to get that experience now so that, in a crisis, you’re not learning that lesson while you’re trying to fight,” said RAdm Baines. “To get that experience now while supporting NATO on operations is terrific.”

This view was reiterated by Capt(N) Robinson. Canada’s commitment to NATO is reflected in “maintaining interoperability with our allies, having ship’s companies and submarine crews that are familiar with working together, practising the procedures, the tactics and stuff and, frankly, building trust,” he told Jane’s. Canada’s aim, he continued, “besides contributing to international security, is developing trust and the ability to work together so that in times of crisis we can seamlessly integrate.”

Building such integration – particularly, today, for high-end operations – is central to NATO’s exercise program. For the RCN, this was reflected in DYNAMIC MANTA and the complex serials and levels of engagement with other platforms it generated.

“DYNAMIC MANTA, because it’s a large exercise and because there’s a diverse complement of other units … allows [the boat] to do that high-end training that you don’t get on smaller exercises [and] that you don’t get on regular surveillance operations,” said Capt(N) Robinson. For Windsor’s participation in the exercise, and “particularly for the senior levels of the crew, [the CO] can put more stress on them and build those experiences such that, when they’re faced with challenges in the future, they’ve seen it before and they’ve done it before,” Capt(N) Robinson added.

ASW remains a core focus for the Halifax frigates. “While the frigates are absolutely multipurpose, deployed at high readiness in all of the warfare domains, I think Canada brings a bit of extra expertise in ASW,” said RAdm Baines.

Today, ASW tops the operational agenda for many Western navies, given increasing levels of sub-surface activity and competition in Europe. “Our ships are often given that sort of task and have developed significant expertise in that area,” the admiral said. Deploying to the NATO theatre enables the RCN to hone and share its ASW skills, he added.

Regarding the Halifax frigates’ ASW capabilities, although Cdr Noseworthy did not comment on specific ship systems, he stated that St. John’s “has certainly been able to meet or exceed all of the operational requirements as part of this task group that we’ve been asked to provide.”

With the RCN facing ASW threats in Europe and elsewhere, RAdm Baines pointed to three factors shaping the nature of the ASW threat in different regions: the type of ASW capability brought by a potential adversary and the nature of the operational environment; the availability and type of supporting platform, such as a helicopter or a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA); and the geography and pattern of life of the region.

“Those situations can change from theatre to theatre,” he said. “I think the way we do ASW … is very similar in all the different theatres. However, the nature of the problem changes because of the environment and because of the geography.

“So what we really want to do is make sure that our teams are prepared for whatever theatre they’re going into and the differences in the geography, the enablers, and the countries that they’re going to work with.”

Although training can be done in home waters or in simulators, the admiral argued that, “until you actually work in the specific environments, you’re really not going to have that really great feel for how your sensors are working, what enablers you have to bring to the table, or how the environment is affecting your ability to do the job.

“There is absolutely no replacement for being able to operate in these theatres – whether it is the North Atlantic, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, or the Black Sea – so that we understand how those things are different, how that does affect our sensors, how that does affect who we’re dealing with and who we’re talking with,” he continued.

“So, I think one of the great bi-products of Canada’s continual presence [in Europe] over the last four years has been the fact that we understand these environments really well,” the admiral added.

“Every operating area has nuances to it,” said Capt(N) Robinson. “Working in the Asia-Pacific is different than working in the Canadian Arctic, for example, which is different than operating in the Atlantic or the Channel.” In every operating area the RCN’s submarines and their crews “are having to learn the patterns of life in that area: the ocean characteristics, the traffic patterns, and that kind of stuff,” he continued. “It’s why it’s so important to regularly operate in extended deployed operations, to get familiar with different areas and then to build that knowledge base.”

Its continuous presence gives the RCN significant experience of operating with the SNMGs and with other navies, building up expertise and interoperability in what RAdm Baines referred to as “a process of continual improvement,” adding, “There’s just absolutely nothing better than ironing out differences in tactics, differences in communications now so that if, in a crisis, we need to do more difficult or complicated things, we’ve ironed out all of these issues.”

As a result of its engagement in Europe the RCN is also building crew expertise in working with NATO, the admiral continued. “There’s absolutely no substitute for getting as many of our sailors as possible through this type of experience, where they understand both the opportunities and challenges of working in a coalition operation,” RAdm Baines noted. “As they move up in rank and position, they’re able to bring the experience that they’ve had on previous deployments.” Cdr Noseworthy himself, for example, deployed on REASSURANCE in early 2016 as the executive officer on Halifax frigate HMCS Fredericton.

One experience gained from the European deployments, said RAdm Baines, is improved understanding of how to provide logistics support for forward-deployed forces. The experience gained is being used to develop more effective logistics support concepts and is also being applied to other theatres, he said. This focus on forward-deployed logistics also reflects a central area of NATO effort and enables the RCN to demonstrate its flexibility.

RAdm Baines explained that a forward logistics team is deployed with each ship, tasked with supporting the ship and any changes in its logistics requirement. He noted that St. John’s had been scheduled to conduct a maintenance period in Riga, Latvia, but that ice had prevented access, so at short notice the logistics team worked with Denmark to enable the maintenance period to be conducted in Copenhagen instead.

“One of the things we’ve been doing in these deployments is trying to find different places to do this, so that again we deal with the logistical challenges now when it’s easy, as opposed to later when it might be hard,” the admiral told Jane’s. He pointed to HMCS Charlottetown conducting a maintenance period in Split, Croatia, during its recent deployment, noting that Split was “not a place we’ve ever done that before.” Now, he continued, “if in the future we ever need to go into Split, we know that we can do really hard maintenance in that NATO port.”

This article is re-posted courtesy of Jane’s Defence Weekly (by IHS Markit). Dr. Lee Willett is the editor of Jane’s Strategic Weapons, based in London.

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