The Royal Canadian Navy in NATO

HMCS Vancouver and "The Rock"
HMCS Vancouver and “The Rock”

By Tomasz Trembowski

On August 16, 2011, the Canadian government announced the re-naming of Canada’s naval forces from “Maritime Command (MARCOM)” to its original designation, the “Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).” The last time Canada’s naval forces were known as the RCN was in 1968, when Lester B. Pearson amalgamated the three branches of the Canadian military under one command, named the “Canadian Forces.” Whatever name they operate under, Canada’s naval forces will continue to prove their importance in decades to come by playing a key role within NATO in increasingly critical waters.

Canada is proving its maritime mettle in a number of NATO operations around the world. Canadian vessels have played an active role in the NATO operation Active Endeavour. The operation was initiated on October 6, 2001, as a response to the September 11th attacks, which invoked NATO’s collective-security defence clause – Article 5. The aim of Active Endeavor is to keep the Mediterranean trade routes open and safe from pirates or terrorists, and to track and control vessels suspected of transporting weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Among the Canadian vessels that have participated in Canada’s portions of Active Endeavour, operations Sirius and Metric, are the Halifax-class frigates HMCS Charlottetown (FFH 339) and HMCS Vancouver (FFH 331). Most recently, Charlottetown returned to the Mediterranean in January 2012, continuing to patrol the area for suspect vessels until re-tasked to join Operation Artemis in April as part of Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) in the Arabian Sea. To date, Active Endeavour operations have hailed over 100,000 vessels and boarded some 155 suspect ships. Continued RCN participation in this operation not only gives Canada the capability to respond to crises in the immediate region but offers security to a region where a tremendous amount of world trade is conducted.

Another recent Canadian effort has been as part of Standing NATO Maritime Group One (SNMG1). SNMG1 is an integrated maritime force, consisting of four to six destroyers and frigates from different NATO Member and Partner countries, that plays an important part in maritime security. It normally operates in the eastern Atlantic Ocean during peace time. However since August 17, 2009, SNMG1 has been operating in and around the Gulf of Aden, a body of water that lies between the southern coast of Yemen and Somalia. The current operation, Ocean Shield, has made significant contributions to international efforts aimed at combating piracy off the Horn of Africa.

Within Ocean Shield Canadian vessels  have played crucial roles. Among them, Charlottetown helped disrupt the movement of illicit cargo off the coast of Yemen. On May 5, 2012, for instance, Charlottetown successfully intercepted 600 pounds of hashish.  Speaking at the changeover of Charlottetown with HMCS Regina (FFH 334) on August 19, Canadian Minister of National Defence, Peter Mackay stated, “Regina’s deployment continues our strong tradition of participation in overseas operations with our allies, while making meaningful contributions to international security and stability.” Ocean Shield is expected to end in 2014, but until then the Canadian Navy will no doubt continue to take an active role in the operation.

CDR Craig Skjerpen, commanding officer of HMCS Charlottetown, uses the "Big Eyes" binoculars to look for small boats crewed by Libyan pro-regime forces.
CDR Craig Skjerpen, commanding officer of HMCS Charlottetown, uses the “Big Eyes” binoculars to look for small boats crewed by Libyan pro-regime forces.

On March 23, 2011, NATO initiated Operation Unified Protector, under the command of Canadian Lt. General Charles Bouchard, to enforce UN resolutions 1970 and 1973 concerning Libya. The resolutions authorized NATO forces to maintain a no-fly zone and arms embargo against the Libyan government.

Both Vancouver and Charlottetown participated in the operation. On May 12, 2011, Charlottetown, along with French and British warships, engaged several Qadhafi regime small boats involved in an attack against the port of Misrata, and 18 days later came under fire from BM-21 rockets launched from shore. Meanwhile Vancouver worked alongside NATO allies to enforce the arms embargo placed against the Libyan government until its fall. As shown, Canada can and does play a leading role in NATO operations on the seas and oceans of the world.

NATO’s Arctic Future
In addition to its involvement in NATO operations abroad, Canadian vessels can perhaps play a key role in shaping NATO’s Arctic policy. As the Arctic becomes more navigable, there will be much more traffic in the region, commercial and military, which will necessitate a stronger RCN presence. On June 3, 2010, the Canadian government announced its new National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS). This strategy will see $35 billion dollars spent to construct both large and small combat vessels. Among the first batch of vessels slated for delivery are the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships in 2018. These vessels are seen as fundamental to securing Canada’s security and sovereignty in the Arctic.

The Canadian government was initially quite bellicose in its rhetoric regarding Arctic sovereignty, but more recently that stance has softened. The number of speeches mentioning new science and economic endeavours are outnumbering those proposing military bases, for example. However, in leaked US cables dating from 2010, Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper apparently cautioned NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that NATO had no role in the Arctic and any such moves would only serve to increase tensions with Russia. According to the cable the PM commented that there is, “no likelihood of Arctic states going to war, but that some non-Arctic members favored a NATO role in the Arctic because it would afford them influence in an area where they don’t belong.”

In fact, there are plenty of reasons to get NATO involved. While a war among Arctic nations is indeed a far-fetched and unlikely event, there are other considerations to take into account. First, as the Northwest Passage becomes more easily navigable, experts predict the route may become the busiest waterway in the world. As the passage sees increased commercial traffic, a greater military presence will be required to inspect passing vessels for illicit or dangerous cargo, and to enforce possible environmental regulations.

Furthermore, Russia, the other major player with a massive interest in the Arctic, is already militarizing the region. Over the past few years, Russian air and submarine activity in the Arctic has reached levels not seen since the Cold War. It has even re-opened its old airbases on frozen archipelagos located above the Arctic Circle. Since Canada’s Arctic forces at current can’t hold a candle to Russia’s, a simple solution would see Canada include all NATO allies in current discussions taking place in the Arctic Council. This would be followed by working closely with all NATO allies to establish a new force primarily dedicated to the Arctic. This new force would naturally include the new Canadian vessels being built to operate specifically in the region. Such a move would no doubt give Canada a leading role in the matter considering the country’s proximity and forward position in the region. Why wait until Russia has moved deeper into the region and takes advantage of slow-moving talks in the Arctic Council?

Canada has already proven that it is a power on the oceans and seas of the world by aiding in counter-terrorism operations, anti-piracy operations, and naval warfare operations. It can be proud of its RCN and the contributions and leadership it provides to both past and present NATO operations. Now, however, is the time to codify a new role for the RCN for the new century – the Arctic. This of course, is solely in the hands of the Canadian government. All it has to do is reach out and include its NATO allies.

This article appeared in its original form and was cross-posted by permission from The Atlantic Council of Canada.

Drones of the Navy SEALs

ScanEagle Launched from Mk V SOC
ScanEagle Launched from Mk V SOC

The mystique of Navy SEALs has been heavily celebrated in the media and films due to recent real-world exploits.  Yet Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Sailors have been heavily engaged in combat operations for more than 11 consecutive years.  Warfare is still a decidedly human endeavor, and America’s naval special warriors are quick to embrace the truth that “humans are more important than hardware.”  Nevertheless, today’s SEALs, Special Warfare Combat Crewmen, and other supporting personnel in the NSW community have benefited greatly from technology, which increasingly includes unmanned systems.

Two primary realizations within the NSW community drove the rapid introduction of UAVs for combat operations in Southwest and Central Asia.  The first realization was that even the best shooters in the world are ineffective if they are unable to locate their targets.  Simply, UAVs are a force multiplier for SEALs and enable an exponential increase in their ability to find, fix, and finish targets.  Secondly, as more and more small UAVs were added to the force, NSW began to understand that as valuable as these unmanned systems were, the skills required to operate and maintain them were a distraction for highly trained shooters.  This epiphany led to the creation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Troops at Naval Special Warfare Support Activity (SUPACT) One in Coronado, California, and SUPACT Two at what is now Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia.  According to Naval Special Warfare Command, each UAS Troop totals 35 personnel among three detachments of UAS operators, a group of instructors, and military and civilian maintenance technicians.

For some additional first-person historical perspective on the evolution of unmanned air systems (UAS) in NSW, former Navy SEAL UAS expert and current lighter-than-air unmanned systems entrepreneur John Surmount discusses the origins of unmanned air systems in Naval Special Warfare in Operation Enduring Freedom in this podcast.  Since those early days, the breadth and depth of unmanned systems used by Naval Special Warfare Operators has expanded tremendously.

The exact tactics, techniques, and procedures for UAS use with NSW are a closely guarded secret (as well they should be), but in general, SEALs use drones to support the four core missions of NSW:

  • Direct Action (DA) – offensive missions to capture/kill enemy targets
  • Special Reconaissance (SR) – surveillance and monitoring of enemy activity and the littoral environment including beaches and ports
  • Counter-terrorism (CT) – conducting DA against terrorist networks
  • Foreign Internal Defense (FID) – assisting foreign military partners in developing their own special operations capacity.

UAVs are especially critical for finding and fixing the exact location of an enemy in DA and CT.  They also support, and in some cases replace, the eyes of operators in SR missions.  On a micro-scale, a demonstration the utility of UAVs can be seen in the film “Act of Valor” where a Raven UAV – launched by actual operators from Special Boat Team 22 – provides ISR over-watch of SEAL operators on a mission.  A more-capable, marinized UAV, the Puma AE, is also part of NSW’s inventory.

The beauty of these rucksack-portable systems is that they can provide organic support to a platoon or smaller-size group of SEALs.  The primary drawback is limited endurance.  Enter the Small Tactical UAS (STUAS).   NSW has embraced the ScanEagle for missions where long endurance ISR is a requirement.  NSW ScanEagles can be sea-launched from vessels as small as a MK V Special Operations Craft or based ashore at expeditionary sites.  Another example of the value of UAVs in the over-watch role was demonstrated in April 2009, when a ScanEagle provided a real time feed to assist SEALs in rescuing the Maersk Alabama’s Captain Richard Phillips from his pirate captors.   

More recently, NSW has benefited from the Navy’s introduction of the shipboard vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Fire Scout.  Requirements for the next-generation VTOL UAS, the Fire-X MQ-8C, are also driven by special operations forces.  Future developments in Navy UAS integration for NSW will undoubtedly include armed tactical UAVs providing fire support to operators on the ground and sea.

The same concept of ISR support and armed over-watch applies to more complex operations with larger UAVs.  Land-based Air Force Predator and Reapers support NSW missions in Afghanistan and other areas.  A low-signature RQ-170 drone reportedly assisted the SEALs who conducted the raid to kill Usama bin Laden in May 2011.  NSW is also slowly progressing in the implementation of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV).  These systems are used for missions such as hydrographic reconnaissance reducing the risk to operators and letting them focus on other core missions.  Much as the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance community has embraced autonomous underwater vehicles to help them hunt and neutralize mines, SEALs will eventually find themselves reliant on robots to survey beach landing sites.

Along with other underwater assets such as swimmer delivery vehicles, UUVs fall under the auspices of Naval Special Warfare Group Three (NSWG-3).  In 2010, Naval Special Warfare Command ordered some Iver2 autonomous undersea vehicles for experimentation.  NSW has also purchased 18 Semi-autonomous Hydrographic Reconnaissance Vehicles (SAHRV) outfitted with side-scan sonar and an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler.  SAHRV is an adaptation of the REMUS 100.  On the USV side, earlier this year, Naval Sea Systems Command’s Naval Special Warfare Program Office sponsored a test of a Protector USV armed with Spike missiles.  The application of such a capability in support of NSW missions is unclear.

The combination of the world’s most proficient naval special operators enhanced by modern technology will continue to produce powerful strategic effects through tactical actions.


This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at

Piracy in West Africa: Preventing a Somalization of the Gulf of Guinea, Pt. 1

Locations of attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2012 (Source: IMB)

Gulf of Guinea Pirate Attacks in 2012. Source: IMB

On August 4, 2012, pirates attacked an oil barge, killing two local security personnel and kidnapping four foreign workers. Two weeks later, pirates hijacked and held for five days a British-managed oil tanker as they unloaded its cargo, a style of attack that repeated the following fortnight on a much larger Greek owned tanker.

While such events were routine of late off the coast of Somalia, these attacks occurred on the other side of the continent, in the West African territorial waters of Nigeria and Togo. Piracy has now declined in the Indian Ocean—a trend attributed to international naval patrols, the increased use of armed guards aboard ships, and political developments in Somalia—but in the Gulf of Guinea it is on the rise. The region reported 47 incidents of piracy (it is estimated that up to 60% of attacks go unreported) to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2010, a number which rose to 61 in 2011 and will likely be surpassed by 2012 figures.

Highlighting this growing danger, Lloyd’s Market Association, a London-based group of insurer representatives, recently added the Gulf of Guinea to its “Hull War, Strikes, Terrorism and Related Perils Listed Areas,” placing the waters of Nigeria and Benin in the same category as those of Somalia and Iraq. Seeking to examine the intricacies of this oft-overlooked security threat, this article intends to do three things in three posts: chart the evolution of West African piracy, assess whether or not a “Somalization” is occurring, and evaluate regional and international plans to combat the mounting crisis.

From Fishermen to “Freedom Fighters”

MEND Pirates/Militants. Likes: Walks along the beach; oil.
MEND Pirates/Militants. Likes: Walks along the beach; oil.

The problem of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea extends from Senegal in the north to Angola in the south, and affects over a dozen countries in between. The historical epicenter is Nigeria, where pirates have parasitically fed off the country’s oil boom since the 1970s. During Nigeria’s first iteration of piracy, the crime began as simple economic opportunism. Ransacking docked ships was common, while bolder pirates—equipped with little more than canoes and machetes—ventured slightly further from port in attempts to board and rob slow-moving vessels. The theft of crude oil from refueling or anchored ships, referred to as “bunkering,” also brought a tidy profit through resale on a black market that spans the continent.

In the early 2000s, a drastic change occurred as piracy, while remaining an economic-minded crime, became infused with politics. The basic grievance was that the federal government in Abuja had taken too great a share of Nigeria’s petroleum wealth, while distributing little back to the oil-soaked communities of the Niger Delta. A plethora of militant groups emerged to “reddress” the oil issue during this period, the most significant of which was the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

Seen by its practitioners as an effective tool for the “redistribution” of oil wealth, pirate attacks increased dramatically at the turn of the century. From 2000 to 2005, Nigeria’s waters were more pirate-prone than those of Somalia. By 2006 an estimated $1.5 billion in annual revenues for the country was lost through a combination of piracy, bunkering, and militant attacks on oil infrastructure.1

Politically motivated attacks on offshore platforms, the kidnapping of oil workers, and the theft of crude oil has challenged the traditional definition of piracy, as the crime is only recognized under international law if it is committed “for private ends.” Certain incidents are clearly socio-political in nature. In 2000, for example, militants stormed a Royal Dutch Shell oil storage platform, taking 165 employees hostage before releasing them in exchange for talks with the government.2

Piracy expert Martin Murphy concludes that in West Africa, the “line between the political and the criminal is hard to draw.”3 In Somalia, pioneering pirates first made claims of “restitution” for illegal foreign fishing and toxic dumping before expanding into indiscriminate hijacking and hostage taking, driven solely by profits. Similarly in the Gulf of Guinea, bunkering began as a form of economic protest but has grown into a multi-million dollar industry as oil tankers’ valuable cargos are robbed and resold.

Go Forth and Multiply

Not at all a tempting target...
Not at all a tempting target…

Attacks off the coast of Nigeria have ebbed and flowed in recent years. Intensified naval patrols and a 2009 government amnesty offered to Delta militants resulted in a decline in reported attacks – from a high of 42 in 2007 to 10 in 2011.4 Nigerian piracy has increased in 2012, however, with 23 incidents already reported in the first three quarters.

According to piracy expert J. Peter Pham, the gangs now operating across the Gulf of Guinea are “composed mainly of, and certainly led by, Nigerians, with perhaps a smattering of other nationalities.” They have shifted their operations into neighbouring states as the authorities there lack the capacity to survey and patrol their own waters.

Piracy is but one symptom of the lack of maritime order in the region, as endemic drug smuggling; human and weapons trafficking; and attacks against oil infrastructure have threatened to turn West Africa’s seaways into a criminal super-highway. These manifestations of maritime insecurity are linked, speculates Bronwyn Bruton, as international criminal syndicates previously involved in weapons and drug trafficking “[jump] on the pirate ship” as a new source of revenue. This claim was reiterated by Abdel Fatua Musah, Director of Political Affairs for the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), who reported to the UN Security Council that piracy has dovetailed into other forms of transnational organized crime.

Piracy and theft are believed to cost Nigeria 7% of its annual oil revenues. Benin’s port of Cotonou—taxes from which account for 40% of the country’s GDP—is witnessing a reported 70% decline in shipping activity due to piracy.5 In total, it is estimated that piracy costs the littoral states of the Gulf of Guinea an annual $2 billion in stolen cargo, rising insurance premiums, and other security costs. As the menace expands, the export of metals, cocoa, and agriculture products—vital to both local development and world markets—will also come under threat.

James Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist at Delex Systems Inc. He can be reached at This article is a modified form of James’ work with the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program publication “From Sea to Sea: The Search for Maritime Security“.


1. Martin Murphy, Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World, London: Hurst and Company, 2009, pg. 117

2. Ibid, pg. 119

3. Ibid, pg. 122

4. International Maritime Bureau, “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report for 2011,” International Chamber of Commerce, January 2012.

5. “An Emerging Threat? Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea”.

On the Wings of the Sun? Harnessing Solar Power for Aviation

Solar Impulse HB-SIA in flight
         It may be a little gangly, but that’s just a sign of growth spurts

A few months back we had a guest post from NavalDrones on the site discussing power needs for drones, focusing on the advantages of batteries compared to today’s combustion engines. Engines are noisy, limiting drones’ stealthiness, and both engines and batteries require refueling/recharging. Thus, lengthy, days-long on-station operations aren’t in the cards for today’s drones. (For example, the Global Hawk can fly continuously for about 28 hours.) A balloon or dirigible could stay aloft for longer periods, but at the expense of maneuverability and speed. For reasons like these, harvesting solar power during flight has captured the attention of many aerospace engineers.

One challenge terrestrial solar-powered vehicles face is the variability of cloud cover. In contrast with its grounded brethren, solar aircraft can often negate a cloudy day by just climbing to a sufficient altitude. However, night is, of course, still an obstacle to long-term flight (or short-term missions not in the daytime).

Nevertheless, with the aid of batteries, today’s solar drones and UAVs can fly non-stop for weeks. The British-US aerospace and defense company QinetiQ developed the drone Zephyr, which stayed aloft for 14 days in July 2010 (h/t to Solar Impulse). Zephyr is not small (12-m [39-ft] wingspan), as one can see in the following video, but it is light—only 27 kg, or ~60 lbs, hence the hand-launch. It reached an altitude of 21.6 km (13.4 mi) on that first flight, boosting its observational capabilities.


Meanwhile, the goals of the Solar Impulse team might be even more audacious: a solar-powered flight around the world in 2015— with a pilot. While it’s perhaps not the most agile, the HB-SIA has already demonstrated 24-hr flight in the past year (with a battery system) from Switzerland to Morocco. And the team has strong backing; it was launched by Bertrand Piccard, who made his name in aviation by circumnavigating the world in the Breitling Orbiter balloon in 1999. Industrial partners include Solvay, Décision, and Bayer MaterialScience, who increased their funding for the project in October [h/t to Flightglobal]. In contrast to Zephyr, HB-SIA’s mass is 1600 kg (3500 lb), about as much as a car, and its 63-m (208-ft) wingspan is about 60% longer than Global Hawk’s – necessary to fit enough solar cells to lift that mass.

So what’s next for solar aircraft? A higher-density storage system than batteries would help by extending flight time. NASA tested a series of solar UAVs in the early ’00s, including Helios, which included an “experimental fuel cell system” that used solar power to regenerate its fuel, storing more energy per pound than batteries. Unfortunately, a crash in 2003 destroyed Helios, but a fuel-cell system remains a possible avenue of advancement. Surface-based lasers can also offer additional illumination for a power boost (also covered in Naval Drones’ post).

Increasing the efficiency of solar cells is another route. Aircraft using solar cells require large wings whose size and shape are driven in part by demands for enough surface area to power the aircraft. These designs limit maneuverability and high-performance (i.e. high-power-demand) attributes like sudden acceleration and changes in direction. Unfortunately, physics principles constrain just how much efficiency can increase. Solar Impulse uses cells with an efficiency of 22.7% — higher than most commercial modules in solar farms. But using only one kind of material in the cell to absorb light means it can harvest only part of the sun’s light, at maximum about 33% (something called the Shockley-Quiesser limit).

Multi-junction cells can capture more slices of the solar spectrum, but in practice their complex assembly limits them to two or three absorber materials. So far they are mostly used in spaceflight, where low weight is a bigger driver than low cost. Still, according to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab, the record triple-junction cell (without concentrators, which are another topic) has 35.8% efficiency. So assuming for the sake of estimation that these triple-junction cells weigh about the same per unit surface area (not true at present, according to Solar Impulse), they could reduce wing area by about 37%.  Or, depending on the requirements, they could produce 58% more power.

And power is the big difference between a solar airplane like HB-SIA and a fuel-burner like Global Hawk. HB-SIA’s electric engines produce a maximum of 30 kW (40 hp), whereas Global Hawk’s engine produces at peak 7600 lbs of thrust at a top speed of 357 mph, which works out to 5.4 MW (7200 hp). In part we could say that HB-SIA is more efficient, so it doesn’t need as much power, but on the other hand, Global Hawk can carry a 1360-kg (3000-lb) payload, whereas HB-SIA can carry… one human.

Doing the math shows the upper limit of improving power capture. The sun provides, at midday, 1.3 hp per square meter (of land surface). This handy figure gives you an idea of the maximum solar power wings of a given size could produce (with magical 100% efficient cells). Thus, performance improvements may come from vehicle lightweighting, rather than ratcheting up solar cell efficiency. For example, batteries make up one-quarter the total mass of HB-SIA (400 kg, or 800 lb). And while modern aircraft bodies are increasingly made of carbon fiber (instead of aluminum), companies such as Nanocomp and TE Connectivity are also beginning to manufacture data and power cables made of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) on the scale of miles. CNTs can match the conductivity of copper while saving ~70% of the weight.

Even if it doesn’t displace the combustion-engine in aviation when speed and heavy lift are required, solar power’s promise of nearly indefinite sustained flight is likely to expand its role in aeronautics in the near future.

Dr. Joel Abrahamson holds a PhD in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he created nanomaterials for lightweight, high-power electricity generators. He currently researches materials for thin-film, flexible solar cells at the University of Minnesota. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Minnesota.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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