Northern operations: Developing skills in a challenging environment

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Crowsnest - Fall 2017 / October 31, 2017

Op Nanook highlights unique Arctic scenarios

By Lieutenant Matt Howse

On a crisp summer morning in August, nearly 900 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and civilian personnel descended upon Nunavut and Labrador for Operation Nanook, Canada’s largest and best known annual operation in the north.

A wide range of tasks were conducted throughout the 12-day operation, which ran from August 14 to 25. While a mass casualty scenario was playing out in Nunavut, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Montréal was defending itself from two CF-188 Hornets off the coast of Labrador. While members of the Canadian Army and Canadian Rangers patrolled the tundra on ATVs and by foot, others were strengthening local ties at Simon Alaittuq Middle School in Rankin Inlet.

For the first time in its 10 iterations, Op Nanook was carried out across two lines of operations: one by Joint Task Force North (JTFN) in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and the other simultaneously by Joint Task Force Atlantic (JTFA) in northern Labrador.

JTFN operated under a general safety scenario in Nunavut, which focused on a whole-of-government response to a resupply barge being compromised. Meanwhile, JTFA operated under a defence and security scenario. This scenario required the CAF to provide temporary radar coverage after two NORAD north warning system sites along Labrador’s northern coast malfunctioned and required repair.

Op Nanook has become a staple of summer training in the Arctic for CAF members, as it provides them with an opportunity to train and operate in Canada’s north. It highlights the challenges that are unique to summer in the Arctic; other exercises such as Exercise Arctic Bison and Exercise Northern Sojourn take place in the Arctic in the winter months and present different challenges.

As the ice thaws and routes travelled by snowmobile in the winter become inaccessible, traversing the north in the summer is arguably more difficult. Op Nanook presents an opportunity for all CAF members to understand how significant their role is, as a team comprised of army, navy, air force and Canadian Ranger personnel is crucial for navigating and protecting the north.

Op Nanook also extends beyond the jurisdiction of the CAF, as the scenarios presented required the expertise of governmental partners such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, and regional partners such as the Nunatsiavut Government and the Red Cross. This year’s operation included involvement from 10 other governmental departments/agencies and six regional partners.

JTFA employed HMC Ships Goose Bay and Montréal. Throughout the operation each ship conducted sea training, embarked members from the Canadian Army and Canadian Rangers, and participated in community outreach events. These provided members with a break from the scenario, as they displayed their equipment, aircraft and ships to the Labrador communities of Goose Bay, Nain and Natuashish. 

“Operation Nanook has given the junior members of the ship’s company the opportunity to develop their skills in an unfamiliar and challenging environment, and to sail to parts of Canada that many people will never see in their lives,” says Lieutenant-Commander Scott Meagher, Commanding Officer of Goose Bay.

Goose Bay was specifically chosen to transport members from the Canadian Army and Canadian Rangers between small communities along the coast of Labrador because of its manoeuvrability.

“The challenging terrain of Labrador’s coast makes troop transport a more complex problem than in more southern locations where we often sail,” says LCdr Meagher. “The Kingston class of ships is ideal for navigating the narrow inlets and we made use of small boats when required to provide the necessary support to ground-based forces.”

One of Montréal’s primary roles on the operation was maintaining critical radar coverage until the radar site was restored. As land elements made their way back south, the onset of inclement weather compressed flight schedules. Montréal was rerouted to assist with troop transport to meet timelines.

Montréal also conducted an ex-filtration of 69 troops from Nain to Cartwright, where they were then transported over land to 5 Wing Goose Bay, Labrador, marking the end of the operation. The flexibility of a well-rounded team of planners and operators proved to be one of the greatest assets during this year’s operation.

Op Limpid provides opportunity to connect with northern communities

Also in Canada’s north from late August to late September were three maritime coastal defence vessels (MCDVs), Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships Kingston, Edmonton and Yellowknife on Operation Limpid, a routine domestic surveillance and presence operation in Canada’s maritime and land domains.

It is led by the Canadian Joint Operations Command with supporting component commanders from six different Regional Joint Task Forces (Atlantic, Pacific, North, West, Central, East) that also integrate and coordinate with federal, provincial and territorial departments and agencies.

The ships were joined by HMCS Montréal for a few days before it detached and joined Op Nanook.

During Op Limpid, the ships were involved with community events at various locations, and worked with the Canadian Rangers (part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves working in remote regions). They also assisted the Canadian Hydrographic Society in charting northern waters.

“Our MCDVs have been helping the Hydrographic Office with charting our northern waters for each of the last two years at least,” says Lieutenant-Commander Jordan Holder, Senior Public Affairs Officer for Maritime Forces Atlantic. “For many areas of the far north, the data which our charts are drawn from dates back decades, and in some cases, even centuries. By providing platforms for this chart-work to be conducted, we’re essentially helping to map out highways through the north which vessels will be able to use as traffic increases in the years to come.”

The ships also assisted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans by plotting the location of icebergs they encountered throughout their transits and relaying the information back.

“Our ships were honoured to represent the Royal Canadian Navy in the north and to contribute to this year’s operations,” says Commodore Craig Skjerpen, Commander Canadian Fleet Atlantic. “This deployment gives our sailors an incredible opportunity to connect and strengthen our relationships with northern Canadian communities, and to work with local government partners.”