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Members of the Royal Canadian Navy, US Navy and Sierra Leone Navy watch as HMCS Moncton comes alongside HMCS Summerside in Freetown, Sierra Leone during Obangame Express on March 19, 2017.
Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

RCN innovation furthers Canadian diplomacy in West Africa

Recently, I had the pleasure to participate in a ‘round table’ group discussion regarding the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) spring 2017 deployment to West Africa, NEPTUNE TRIDENT 17-01. The Commanding Officers of the participating vessels, Lieutenant-Commanders (LCdr) Nicole Robichaud of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Moncton¸ and Paul Smith of HMCS Summerside, plus the head RCN planner, Commander (Cdr) David Finch, spoke at length about the tremendous success of the endeavor.

Participants of the exercise included the two Kingston-class patrol ships, often known as Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDV); a RCN Maritime Tactical Operations Group detachment (specialists in boarding); and ships and personnel from Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, France and the US. The RCN has produced numerous descriptive articles about the deployment, some of which can be accessed at:

The continent of Africa has significant strategic importance for Canada in relation to future security, humanitarian and trade missions. The RCN has participated in similar deployments in North and East African waters but this was a first for these West African countries. Keeping with the tradition of Canadian ingenuity, the RCN planners came up with an innovative solution to building a positive presence in the region.

Lieutenant-Commander Paul Smith, Commanding Officer of HMCS Summerside talks to students at the all-girl Saint Joseph’s Primary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone during Neptune Trident 17-01 on March 23, 2017.
Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

To begin with, why was a vessel designed to operate locally be sent all the way across the Atlantic? These 55 metre coastal vessels have been pressed into service on voyages well past their original design. They have been given ice ratings and regularly sail in Canada’s Arctic Ocean. They frequently sail the East and West Caribbean on Operation CARIBBE drug enforcement patrols. They have been across ‘the Pond’ (familiar navy name for the Atlantic) participating in NATO European exercises. Put into perspective, these ships are not much smaller than the 62.5 meter Flower-class RCN corvettes that were on Second World War convoy duty, so it is not that much of a stretch to have them sail so far afield. Thankfully, with today’s technology, alternate southern routing and forecasting tools, a Kingston captain can do a proper risk assessment before attempting the crossing. According to the Commanding Officers, the ships handled the voyage well. The only significant maintenance issues centered on excessive African heat as RCN ships are primarily designed for cooler northern climates.

Once the ships voyaged across the Atlantic, there were several justifications that led to their being the perfect platforms for the mission. There are challenges inherent to operating in less-than-optimal African ports. Kingstons, with their smaller size and crew complement, alleviate many of the practical issues that would have prevented the efficient use of a larger ship such as a Halifax-class frigate. Many of the African ports would not have been able to accommodate a larger vessel with berthing, fuel or supplies. Kingstons generally do not need tug assistance. While alongside, a higher percentage of personnel can participate in community relation events. Lastly, expenditures on Kingstons come in at approximately $5000 a day for operating costs vice $35000 a day for a frigate. As LCdr Robichaud stated, Kingstons are excellent for this type of deployment.

Lieutenant-Commander Nicole Robichaud, Commanding Officer of HMCS Moncton speaks to guests onboard the ship in Freetown, Sierra Leone during Obangame Express on March 20, 2017.
Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

As the RCN officers assembled at the round table explained, there were strong psychological components to their mission that helped contribute to their resounding success. For centuries, the world’s navies acted as their country’s diplomats. A ‘ship of the line’ would appear at a port, drop anchor and send a delegation ashore to make contact with the local dignitaries. Fancy receptions would be held at the local government houses with reciprocating parties held onboard the vessels. The practice continues to this day. For example, as part of Canada Day 150 celebrations, several US Navy ships including the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower were present in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One of the hottest tickets in town was to be invited to Eisenhower’s reception party. The Kingstons were used in a similar fashion during their port visits as there were plenty of opportunities for parties, hands-on training and day sails for guests. Canadian embassy staff remarked that more ‘diplomacy’ happened over these get-togethers than what they could accomplish in months.

Another point favouring the use of the Kingstons was the fact that they are not overwhelming ‘weapons of war.’ Many of the African navies are in the nascent stages of development. During joint training, they were still mastering basic seamanship and security skills. Boarding exercises are easier to accomplish with a smaller vessel. The guest navy personnel were happy with hands-on firing of the Kingstons’ .50 caliber machine guns with no need to learn about missiles or large naval guns. The African navies have limited resources, and if you don’t take an air of superiority, then they can relate and be greatly cooperative.

Another aspect to the deployment that is a result of the Canadian Armed Force’s (CAF) push for diversity was the coincidence of LCdr Smith being black with matriarchal ties going to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and LCdr Robichaud being a woman going to Liberia whose president is the first elected female head of a state of Africa. Cdr Finch joked that he couldn’t have planned the circumstances better. It is a testament to the dedicated efforts of the RCN for inclusivity that these types of situations will become normal, and the focus is on the person and the mission, not their race or gender.

This led into an important point that LCdr Smith wanted to stress. The Canadian flag and reputation were very powerful in that part of the world. Unlike the Americans and French who also participated in the exercise, the RCN was perceived to have no ‘history’ or ulterior motives. Canadians are seen as helpers wanting to do the right thing regardless of who you are. This built-in good will helped the RCN accomplish its outreach goal to such a point that next year’s mission has already been approved.

Members of the Christian Young Adult Fellowship of Sierra Leone go for a ride aboard a rigid hulled inflatable boat during a visit of HMCS Summerside to Freetown, Sierra Leone during Neptune Trident 17-01 on March 22, 2017.
Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

I asked Cdr Finch if there was any downside to this RCN success story. He replied that the only negative was they could not get to all the nations that asked for the Canadians. African nations want to be part of the wider world and are hungry for training and expertise to be able to secure their maritime interests. While Summerside and Moncton were present in the area, illegal fishing fleets kept their distance. With training, local navies will be able to build their own ‘Recognized Maritime Picture’ (plot of the situation at sea) to first document these criminals and then move towards interdiction and prosecution. Furthering that, the RCN is considering demonstrating during next year’s deployment of Kingston-class ships a number of ‘maritime domain awareness’ capabilities that would progress maritime security capacity building within the Gulf of Guinea. The concept of ‘like’ methods and training used to train ‘like’ capabilities coupled with affordable technology appears to be paying dividends.

The CAF is renowned for doing more with less. If there is a job needing doing, the men and women of the Forces will find a way of doing it with what they have. The Kingston-class ships not only accomplished this latest mission admirably but it was done cost effectively. Even though the recently released government’s Defence Policy contained no mention of replacing these 1990s era vessels, I predict that these workhorses of the RCN will be called upon for years to come. They are proving their worth, and a serious conversation is needed to either extend their lifespan or to start a replacement program.

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Blair is a personification of a ‘Jack of All Trades and Master of None’. He has held several careers and has all the T-shirts. Time to add the title Blogger to the list.

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