The Royal Canadian Navy returns to Arctic ice

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Crowsnest - Spring 2015 / April 27, 2015

By Lieutenant-Commander Tom Sliming

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is making a concerted effort to expand its operations in Canada’s Arctic region, increasing the frequency and duration of its annual forays into remote and desolate waterways long ago visited by intrepid explorers such as Amundsen, Franklin and Peary.

However, it must do so with great caution, as its current Halifax and Kingston-class vessels were not designed to function with this type of operation in mind. In fact, the RCN’s presence in the Canadian Arctic is only possible if conditions permit; that being essentially ice-free waters. In reality, in the face of its prevailing ice conditions, the RCN has to leave the “heavy lifting” in our Arctic to the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), whose vessels and sailors have a well-deserved reputation of “owning” the North. 

It was not always that way. In fact, a look back at the nascent CCG of 1962 reveals that it was not the first government agency to operate in the Canadian Arctic. In the mid-1940s the RCMP vessel St. Roch, a small wooden sailing schooner, made a couple of remarkable journeys through the Northwest Passage despite its diminutive size. However, notwith-standing the successes of St. Roch, the first real icebreaking ship to operate in the Canadian Arctic belonged to the RCN.

Canada’s first icebreaker

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Labrador was Canada’s first purpose-built icebreaker. Labrador was constructed in Sorel, Que., and commissioned in the navy in 1954. She was at the time the most advanced icebreaker in the world and had a remarkable, albeit short, naval career.

Labrador achieved many notable firsts while patrolling and supporting research in the North. For example, after sailing from Halifax in July 1954 she rendez-voused with two U.S. Coast Guard ships off Melville Island, marking the first time ships met in the Arctic sailing from both the east and west. Transiting westward to the Bering Sea, she then became the first large vessel to fully navigate the Northwest Passage. Later that same season, she continued on to Esquimalt, B.C., for a brief visit, after which she returned via the Panama Canal to her home port of Halifax, in the process becoming the first ship to circumnavigate North America in a single voyage. 

Labrador was later transferred to the Department of Transport, where she served until the birth of the CCG in 1962, at which time she became that service’s first icebreaker. CCG Ship Labrador continued her illustrious career with the Coast Guard until 1987.

Security in the Arctic

So, while the RCN is now preparing to commit to patrolling the North once again, it did at one time consider the Canadian Arctic its daily business. And, with the arrival of the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship, or AOPS, it will once again.

The Canadian Government has made a commitment to the development and security of the Canadian Arctic and has given the RCN a mandate to provide sovereignty presence in the region. For this, the RCN needs a vessel that can operate effectively in all Canadian waters.

The AOPS has been designed to provide the RCN a platform to conduct year-round patrols out to the limits of our economic exclusive zone in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and most importantly, in the Arctic during the navigable season. What this means in practical terms is that, when seasonal ice conditions in the North permit access to commercial interests, tourists, adventurers and illicit activities, the RCN will be there. The new class of ship will provide active surveillance, perform constabulary duties and respond to any urgent situation as required. 

The Harry DeWolf Class

The AOPS will be known as the Harry DeWolf Class, named after Vice-Admiral Harry DeWolf, a Canadian naval hero of the Second World War. The ships will be well equipped for their domestic constabulary role, and will be armed appropriately with their main armament consisting of a remotely-operated 25 millimetre deck gun and two 12.7 millimetre heavy machine guns as secondary armament.

The ships will be able to support the CH-148 Cyclone, Canada’s new maritime helicopter. However, for most northern deployments where the Cyclone’s highly sophisticated warfare systems may not be required, a smaller more practical aircraft will likely be carried for routine ice surveillance and other miscellaneous tasks.

The ships can also carry several small boats, such as rigid-hulled inflatable boats, enclosed lifeboats, a landing craft and a diving support boat. Their missions will determine how many and what type of boats they will carry.

In addition to boats, there is a vehicle bay for pick-up-sized trucks and utility vehicles such as snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. Depending on conditions, these could be placed onto sea ice, transported to shore in the landing craft, or offloaded to a jetty with the ship’s crane.

The vastness of the Canadian Arctic is not often realized. A voyage from Halifax to the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage is further than a trans-Atlantic voyage to Europe. In the west, it is shorter to sail to Japan from Esquimalt than to reach our Arctic waters. With a sparse population spread out in small villages and hamlets over this huge expanse of territory, there will be very little support for AOPS in the Arctic. 

Self-sustaining AOPS

For what will essentially be expeditionary deployments, an AOPS must be as self-sustaining as possible. As the small northern communities do not have the capacity to resupply or fuel large ships, an AOPS will be able to carry enough supplies to see it through a 120-day mission. It will also have a robust cargo capability with the ability to carry up to six containers on its quarterdeck and an additional two on its flight deck. Additionally, as the ship cannot carry enough fuel for a full northern deployment, fuel will be pre-positioned at the Nanisivik Naval Facility, which is a fuelling and berthing facility being built near the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage.

One of the most important capabilities an AOPS will possess is her ability to navigate in ice, critical for a ship that operates in the Arctic. The question often arises as to whether or not the ship is an ice breaker. While an AOPS will be extremely capable at breaking ice, it is not commonly referred to as an ice breaker. This is because the term “ice breaker” refers to the role of a ship, and the AOPS’ primary role will not involve breaking ice for other ships. It is a naval vessel and it will conduct primarily naval missions. The ships will operate in new ice up to one metre thick and maintain forward progress at up to three knots in these conditions. So, though they do possess the capabilities of an ice breaker, they will generally only break ice for their own mobility.

Construction of the AOPS

The contract to build the AOPS was awarded to Irving Shipbuilding Inc. in January 2015, with construction scheduled to begin in September 2015. The lead ship, HMCS Harry DeWolf, will be delivered in 2018, with the remaining five ships to be delivered by 2022.

 After tests, trials and workups, the RCN will conduct its first operation in ice in 60 years – HMCS Labrador would be proud.