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From seizing narcotics to providing intelligence, the Royal Canadian Navy works with dozens of nations worldwide to support a rules-based international order
Capital Daily’s educational series spotlighting Canada’s Navy is supported by Babcock Canada but the stories and journalism are produced independently by Capital Daily. Per our policy, Babcock Canada had no editorial input into this story.
Though the ships of the Canadian Fleet Pacific (CANFLTPAC) begin and end their journeys in the Esquimalt harbour, their missions will take them all over the world.
Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Calgary left Esquimalt’s harbour in February of this year, and won’t be returning until September. In the intervening months, they’ve travelled through numerous countries and regions, and worked with over 30 different nations on a variety of operations.
The Halifax-class frigate has just wrapped up Operation Artemis, a mission that the Royal Canadian Navy refers to as counter-terrorism operation in the Arabian Sea. The work they’ve done on Op Artemis is part of the multinational Combined Task Force (CTF) 150. At the moment, CTF 150 is led by Canada in partnership with 33 other nations who all take turns overseeing its command. CTF 150’s overarching mission is to ensure maritime stability in the area. They’re mostly on the lookout for illegal goods being smuggled through the region, which is crisscrossed by important global shipping routes.
Captain (Navy) Scott Robinson is the Deputy Commander of the Canadian Fleet Pacific, based out of Esquimalt. He provides oversight on the operations of CANFLTPAC’s surface fleet.
The majority of HMCS Calgary’s work during Operation Artemis involved boarding ships to interdict the flow of narcotics through the region.
“What happens is a lot of narcotics come out of Asia, and they're sold on the black market, and they go to various areas around the world. People take that money and then they can use that to buy arms, and directly support terrorist activities,” Robinson said.
According to Robinson, the recent mission was very successful. HMCS Calgary set two all-time records for Combined Maritime Forces Bahrain: the largest heroin seizure, and the most narcotics seizures by any ship on a single deployment. In seventeen seizures, the crew was able to confiscate 29 metric tons of hashish, 3 metric tons of heroin, and one metric ton of methamphetamine.
Generally, the ships they’re boarding are small wooden sailing vessels known as dhows. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Navy can board a ship to verify which country the ship is registered to, known as a flag state verification. If the ship is unregistered, they’re authorized to conduct search and seizure.
Robinson says the majority of the time, Navy crews will confiscate narcotics, but will let the dhow’s crew continue on without arrests or detainment.
“A lot of these people are just doing a job. You can debate the morality of their job, but they're not trying to engage in any kind of combat, per se, they're trying to deliver a product, get money and get paid,” Robinson said.
Though there are risks associated with boarding ships, the boardings are conducted by a specialized team called the Naval Tactical Operations Group, made up of 10 or more individuals.
“[They are] highly trained in boardings, they're in really good shape, they do a lot of small arms, hand to hand kind of combat. So when they get into a situation, and if things don't turn out, well, they have the ability to defend themselves and take appropriate action if required,” Robinson said.
The biggest risk at the moment is the pandemic. Crews have to be incredibly careful to eliminate their risk of contracting the virus while on board another ship. They use N95 masks and carefully sanitize their equipment. Were they to bring the virus back on board, it could easily spread. The logistics of doing a medical evacuation while at sea, sometimes many days from the nearest port, is no easy feat.
“There's a reason why the cruise industry is shut down. And when you're in close proximity to people on board a ship, mask or no mask, it's hard to keep from touching the same thing or just being around people,” Robinson said.
Though HMCS Calgary’s participation in Operation Artemis is finished for now, the crews still have work ahead of them. Between now and September, they’re working under the umbrella of Operation Projection. The mission encompasses a variety of things, including training, exercises with other navies and international security partners, and supporting Operation Reassurance’s deterrence measures in Europe as part of NATO.
“Projection itself … it’s kind of a catch-all. It can be deployment anywhere around the globe that isn't covered by another mission that we do,” Robinson said.
“A lot of that is partnering with different nations. So [HMCS] Calgary will actually head to Australia shortly and do a big exercise called Talisman Sabre with the Australian [and] US Navies, and some others.”
International exercises like Talisman Sabre and the biennial US Navy-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) function to ensure tactical readiness of the fleets, but they also serve as a form of relationship building between allies.
“I always like to say you cannot surge trust,’ Robinson said.
“If conflict happens, or bad things happen, and we need to work with our allies for a common goal ... you can't just show up and expect to know how to work with each other, flash to bang very quickly. You actually have to integrate with them, work with them, understand the nuances of how they do things,” Robinson said.
Understanding cultural differences like language barriers, differing customs, and differing traditions all take time.
“The more you interact with your friends and allies, or other people, and you understand how you operate, then when something does happen, you've already built that trust, and that competency on how to work together. Because as we all know, when you apply stress to something, you generally make mistakes. But if you've practiced enough, and you work together, you can hopefully reduce that from happening,” Robinson said.
In terms of international allies, Canada works the most closely with the United States on both coasts. On the Pacific coast, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia are the RCN’s closest partners.
In August, HMCS Winnipeg will head out to the Asia-Pacific region on Operation Neon to support the United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea.
“That one is really to stop the importation or exportation of contraband to North Korea, which can be used to fund their weapons of mass destruction programs. So they don't board those vessels, but they report them to a coordination cell,” Robinson said.
Once the ship is reported to the government of its country of origin, the nation can choose to take action on the vessel.
At the moment, the crew of HMCS Winnipeg is out at sea “working up” the ship and doing combat integration training.
“Through our training we go through any kind of warfare scenario. So if it's ships out there firing missiles at you, or submarines firing torpedoes at you, those are the high end warfare competencies we have to have. … Thankfully that doesn't generally happen,” Robinson said.
At any given point in time, CANFLTPAC will have a maximum of three of their five frigates out at sea. When they aren’t out in international waters, they’re preparing for their next mission or undergoing the deep maintenance needed to keep them afloat.
Those who closely scrutinize the role of the Canadian Armed Forces from a global perspective are keeping a close eye on the growing aggression and naval powers of China. Elinor Sloan, a Carleton professor of International Relations and former defense analyst with the Department of National Defense, says the Esquimalt base and capabilities of CANFLTPAC has grown more significant in this context.
“There's been a greater concentration of assets on the west coast than there was previously,” Sloan said.
“The global security environment has shifted from one where it was purely Atlantic focused, Russia focused, NATO focused, to increasingly one that looks at the Far East, China, the South China Sea, Northeast Asia, as the threat environment increases in that area,” Sloan said.
She says the shift in focus to the west coast mirrors a similar shift to what’s happening in the United States. Generally, the US focused 60 per cent of its naval power on the East Coast. That balance is now a 50/50 split between the country’s two coasts. Most troubling to the international order at the moment is China’s behaviour towards Taiwan.
“Over the past four or five years, the issue has accelerated, and there are concerns that Taiwan might be forcibly re-integrated with China. China is going and becoming more aggressive in many ways. China's navy is dramatically increasing in size and capability over previous decades,” Sloan said.
What that may mean for the Pacific Fleet in the coming years remains to be seen. Missions are determined in a five year cycle, based on government priorities and limited by ship availability and capability.
“We generally have a good idea of what we want to achieve, and the it’s updated all the time. But things change. The world can change, of course. So then it's up to really the government to decide,” Robinson said.
This is the fifth in a six-part series exploring the history of Canada’s Navy from a Victoria perspective. Find part three, about the domestic security role that the Pacific Fleet plays in Canada here, and part four, about the people and families of CFB Esquimalt here.