- Feb 8, 2007
- Land of Swine and Maple Syrup
It is great to see other branches get the recognition they deserve.
Canadian sailors shine in huge Pacific military exercise
Published on Saturday July 28, 2012
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Canadian Forces photo 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron, Comox, The derelict USNS Concord is sunk by HMCS Victoria during the RIMPAC XXIII military exercises off Hawaii. (July 17, 2012)
Robin V. Sears
To the young first-time sailor at sea there is no threat more chilling than a cruise missile racing toward her ship, centimetres above a roiling dark ocean, and closing the gap by two football fields a second.
On the bridge — in the green-glow gloom, the piercing klaxons, the roar of the massive naval cannons, the cacophony of bellowed orders, and the constant ping of multiple tracking systems marking the enemy’s relentless progress — the tension is high. But this specially fitted Tomahawk missile will miss as this is an exercise.
It would surprise most Canadians to learn that their sailors were this summer important players in naval engagements such as this, the largest since the Falklands War. They were exercises but as close to real combat as experienced warriors and modern technology can simulate.
As one of a few Canadians invited to observe the opening rounds, I am awed at the scale of the exercise and at the quiet professional determination of every one of the Canadian sailors I meet. Unnoticed by the world’s media, more than 25,000 men and women, on 46 of the most powerful naval fighting vessels drawn from 22 navies, hammered each other day and night off the coasts of Hawaii.
Our navy is widely respected among its peers and Canada played an important role. Our sailors are recognized as leaders in electronic navigation and tracking, in hostile ship boarding and a variety of other naval skills. Like Canadians in many international roles they consistently punch above their weight. A Canadian naval commander was chosen to lead one of the key task force battle groups in RIMPAC XXIII.
Despite “40-year-old ships and 50-year-old helicopters,” as one seasoned Sea King pilot said with a proud grin, “we do pretty well. I land the largest and heaviest helo, on the smallest floating landing pad of any navy in the world. The Brits and the Americans are stunned when they fly with us. Sure I wish we had new equipment, but I’m proud of the job we do with these.”
First-timers, perched nervously at the cargo door, watch these ancient shaking machines being gently eased — sideways! — onto a pitching frigate deck. The length of two hockey sticks separate the rotor tip, the hangar wall and disaster. We are exultant, speechless and green stumbling onto the deck.
Never have so many recent enemies and ancient allies conducted naval engagements on this scale. Imagine the potential for chaos as, for example, a Russian and a Korean take radioed orders in English from a distant Canadian commander as that Tomahawk missile raced toward them.
When you next hear sneers about our perennial defence procurement fiascoes and wince at the latest stuttering defence minister under attack, spare a thought for these sailors: the 3,000-flying-hour veteran pilot and the job she does in these machines — in Haiti, off Somalia, in Libya and in Bosnia. Or the young navigation officer whose ship may not be new, but whose navigation skill on bleeding-edge electronic tracking and jamming gear is so admired that he offers lessons to his American peers.
The Royal Canadian Navy is more modest about its achievements than others. But it is Canadian sailors who were the first responders to the Haiti disaster. They were the essential backup in the support for the Libyan revolution. They save disaster victims, seize drugs and people smugglers year round.
“So what! Those millions would be better spent on schools!” you say. Maybe. But for all of us for whom Pearl Harbor is merely a bad movie, it’s useful to recall how the Pacific war was launched. One nation badly underestimated the capability of another. One group of military and political leaders seriously misread consequences. It is surely worth discouraging another dissatisfied rising Pacific nation from repeating that mistake.
These displays of multinational co-operation and naval firepower have two objectives: to hone skills within and between navies and to ensure that no one outside this naval partnership has any illusions about its capability. That essential deterrence role is a difficult pill for progressives to swallow.
It is expensive. It requires regular aggressive muscle flexing. Just as it did when hundreds of Roman triremes patrolled the first mare Pacifica two millennia ago. We have found no better alternative to maintaining peace since.
The next time you read that ships or choppers are arriving late and overbudget — again — think of the thousands of young Canadians who have created a first-class navy with the equipment they do have. And if you know a young graduate frustrated at the prospect of a McJob at the mall, consider introducing them to these uncommon young Canadians at sea.
Robin Sears is a communications consultant and formerly a national director of the NDP.