RCN diplomacy in West Africa deployment

BLAIR GILMORE  –  Jul 24, 2017

24 Jul 2017

On 7 July 2017, I had the pleasure to board Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Summerside to participate in a ‘round table’ group discussion regarding the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) spring 2017 deployment to West Africa, called Neptune Trident 17-01. The Commanding Officers of the participating vessels, Lieutenant-Commander Nicole Robichaud of HMCS Moncton, and LCdr Paul Smith of HMCS Summerside, plus the head RCN planner, Commander David Finch, spoke at length about the tremendous success of the endeavor.

Participants of the exercise included HMCS Moncton and Summerside, 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 United States.

HMCS Moncton throws a line to HMCS Summerside as it comes alongside in the Port of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire during Neptune Trident 17-01 on March 30, 2017. (Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard)

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.

Why is a vessel that was designed to operate locally being 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 also been across ‘the Pond’ (the Atlantic Ocean) 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. With today’s technology, alternate southern routing and forecasting tools, the captain of an MCDV 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 heat as RCN ships are primarily designed for cooler northern climates.

25 Mar – Leading Seaman Sytchv provides instruction to members of the Republic of Sierra Leone’s Joint Maritime Committee, Fisheries Inspection and Boarding Team, onboard HMCS Summerside in Freetown, Sierra Leone during Neptune Trident 17-01(Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard)

There are challenges inherent to operating in less-than-optimal African ports, and LCdr Robichaud noted that Kingstons are excellent for this type of deployment. Once the MCDVs voyaged across the Atlantic, several considerations justified them as the perfect platform for the mission. With their smaller size and crew complement, a Kingston-class alleviates many of the practical issues that would have prevented the efficient use of a larger ship such as a Halifax-class frigate. Many 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. Importantly, expenditures on Kingstons come in at approximately $5000 a day for operating costs vice $35000 a day for a frigate.

Sub-Lieutenant Woodman gives a port information brief to crewmembers in the mess hall onboard HMCS Summerside, off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire during Neptune Trident 17-01 on March 29, 2017. (Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard)

During the roundtable, RCN officers explained some of the strong psychological components that contributed to its resounding success of the Neptune Trident mission. For centuries, the world’s navies have acted as their country’s diplomats. For example, 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 events held onboard the vessels. This time-honoured practice continues to this day. As part of the Canada Day 150 celebrations, several U..,S 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 in Africa, as there were plenty of opportunities for receptions, 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.

Members of the Liberian Coast Guard board HMCS Moncton for a training exercise with Royal Candian Navy, off the coast of Monrovia, Liberia, Africa during Neptune Trident. (Photo: Corporal Ryan Moulton)

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 related cooperatively with the smaller Kingston-class ships.

Another interesting aspect to this deployment results from the push for diversity in the Canadian Armed Forces. Coincidentally, LCdr Smith has 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.

28 Mar – Lieutenant Commander Smith, Commanding Officer of HMCS Summerside and Lieutenant (Navy) Whyte, Executive officer of the ship conduct small arms training off the coast of Liberia, during Neptune Trident 17-01. (Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard)

This led into an important point that LCdr Smith stressed. The Canadian flag and reputation were very powerful in that part of the world, he noted. Unlike the Americans and French, who also participated in the exercise, Canadians are seen as helpers wanting to do the right thing with no hidden agendas. 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, he said.

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 Canadian presence. 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.

24 Mar – Crewmembers from HMCS Moncton assemble a basketball court at West Point School in Monrovia, Liberia, Africa during Neptune Trident(Photo: Corporal Ryan Moulton)

The CAF is renowned for doing more with less. If there is a job that needs doing, the men and women of the Forces will find a way of achieving success 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.

The next Neptune Trident is scheduled for spring of 2018, with another pair of MCDVs. Plans are to bring along a UAV to work on "over the horizon" RMP with the local navies. There will be a foreseeable recurring demand for a RCN presence, which reduces some of the pressure of putting a peacekeeping force elsewhere on the continent.

The RCN has produced numerous descriptive articles about the Neptune Trident deployment, some of which can be accessed at:

– Blair Gilmore is a Research Fellow with the Nova Scotia branch of the Royal United Services Institute of (RUSI-NS)