Somewhere off the coast of North America, in the cold grey swell of the Atlantic, HMCS Athabaskan’s radar operators have locked onto the target—an unidentified air threat, danger close, screaming low and fast toward the Canadian warship.
“Target acquired. Tracking…tracking,” crackles over the intercom.
The bridge is silent and all eyes are on Navy Captain Bruce Donaldson. He stares in the target’s direction, utterly calm. It is closing fast and he has one chance left.
Donaldson waits, waits, and then reaches for the handset—“fire-fire-fire.” The 20-mm Phalanx chain gun rips off a long burst that sounds like two-dozen jackhammers pounding into solid steel. “Splash, we have a splash. Target is down,” says the spotter.
Donaldson turns and gives the bridge a quick smile. This wasn’t an easy target to knock down. According to the layered defence tactics on Canadian destroyers, the target should have been hit before it got so close, but when Donaldson ordered the ship’s water-cooled 76-mm OTO Melara main gun to make the long-range kill there was a malfunction—the gun spurted a jet of hot water instead of a stream of heavy rounds.
Despite the main gun jamming, the Phalanx automated Close-In Weapons System, the ship’s last line of defence, worked as it should. And luckily, in this case, no Canadian lives were on the line because though the bullets were real the target was a radar drone being towed behind a Learjet and this display of Athabaskan’s air defence capability was one of many trials conducted during Combat Readiness Operations 104.
Held last November off the coast of Norfolk, Va., this multi-purpose continental defence, training and interoperability exercise involved more than 21 ships from five NATO countries. It included the NATO Standing Force Atlantic, an American force led by the USS Saipan and a Canadian task group led by Athabaskan.
The single biggest factor drawing all these ships together is the chance to practice their interoperability. In order to be effective in alliance operations, everything from communication protocols to the command and control of large, multi-national task groups needs to be practiced regularly.
During the course of the exercise, Athabaskan conducted a huge variety of exercises—sub hunting, maritime interdiction, damage control, range practice—and despite some rollicking bad weather, some very difficult tasks and an assortment of aging equipment, including a Sea King that had to be grounded, the officers and crew pulled it all off in a fine and strong Canadian spirit. “In order to sustain the readiness required for these ships,” explains Commodore Tyrone Pile, commander of the Canadian Fleet Atlantic, “we have to do these things. Sailors have to physically go through the act of firing the weapons, operating the sensors… otherwise they set themselves up for failure if they have to do it under duress.”
From the cockpit of an approaching Bell 407 helicopter, Athabaskan looks like a long, lean shark thrusting through the Atlantic chop. Despite being almost 35 years old, the ship cuts a modern profile—all steel and glass, with turreted guns, an array of spinning radar masts and a small, bright green helicopter landing pad at the stern where the former United States Marine pilot will land the Bell. Though it is rare for a non-Canadian Forces helicopter to land on a Canadian warship, during the exercise civilian helicopters were chartered to conserve the aged Sea Kings flying hours for operational training.
In the original order of naval battle, the destroyer earned its name by using its speed to protect big battleships from quicker adversaries and by closing with damaged enemy ships to finish them off. And though Athabaskan could conceivably fulfil that original role, the prominence of air power and long-range missiles has changed the dynamics of naval warfare. Instead, the ship has been optimized for two very specific roles, namely area air defence and command and control. “First and foremost the Athabaskan’s a warship, a Canadian warship that can be turned to a multitude of tasks from support and diplomacy to sending a point about national resolve and enforcement, to military action and destruction of the enemy,” says Donaldson.
With 29 state-of-the-art SM2 missiles in its forward bay, Athabaskan is well equipped to send a message about national resolve. The SM2 has a range of more than 80 kilometres and can attack almost anything—it can knock planes out of the sky, sink enemy ships, destroy land-based targets and even intercept other ballistic missiles.
In addition to Donaldson’s crew of 250 sailors and officers, Athabaskan is also home to Pile and his staff of 27 flagship officers. “Flagship capability means extra communications pathways that allow the fleet commander to operate. In a multi-national joint operation you need to be looking at what’s going on now, what’s going on in the next few days and what’s going on in the next few months to achieve synergy of effort,” explains Donaldson.
Though more than 25 per cent smaller than an American Spruance-class destroyer, Athabaskan is by no means a small ship. She is 129.9 metres long and weighs 5,120 tons, with three generators producing enough electricity for a town of 30,000 and two main turbine engines that produce 50,000 horsepower while using an astonishing 396 litres of fuel per minute at top speed.
And though this Athabaskan is a modern ship she is not without heritage. During a February 1944 battle in the English Channel near Brest, France, the first Athabaskan was torpedoed and sunk. Today, the people of that region still remember the 129 Canadians who died, many of whom are buried in cemeteries across Brittany. Last September, the people of Brest held a ceremony to rename a local traffic circle after the ship.
Lieutenant (Navy) Miguel Gowigati, a combat officer from Quebec City, went to Brest to represent Athabaskan’s crew. He witnessed the renaming of the traffic circle and attended graveside ceremonies. “I was extremely impressed by the welcome we got there…. They were very appreciative and they treated us very well. Most of the graves have new flowers on them on a daily basis and they didn’t even know the people. That was nice to see.”
The second Athabaskan also had an eventful career, fighting against the North Koreans and the Chinese during the Korean War and playing cat and mouse with the Russian navy during the Cold War.
The modern Athabaskan was built in 1970 and it has some history of its own. While on an exercise in 1988, in Vest Fjord, Norway, the ship ran aground and the hull was torn wide open. “We were ripped open from the bow to station 18, but we were able to contain the flooding. Divers were flown over and they put some repairs on the hull. But they didn’t hold well and as we were sailing they tended to rip away, luckily the compartments held,” says Chief Petty Officer Scott Daley, a damage control technician from Dartmouth, N.S., who’s been sailing on Athabaskan for almost 20 years.
Though keeping the water out is obviously a big concern, Daley says it is not the greatest danger these sailors face. When a fire breaks out on a modern warship, it can spread quickly and the smoke and flames can cause hundreds of casualties. And while sealing compartments to keep water ingress from sinking the ship can be relatively easy, surviving toxic smoke and extreme heat is not.
Before heading into firefighting battle, the damage controllers don heavy fire-retardant suits and full face masks with a bulky chest-mounted oxygen-generating breathing apparatus. Because they move as a crew, only the lead man will pick up a Thermal Imaging Camera, a handheld device that lets the firefighter peer through the dark and smoke to find sources of heat like injured sailors or flames.
After entering a fire zone the smoke quickly becomes overwhelming. Even the non-toxic smoke used to simulate fire training renders all normal senses useless. The experience of navigating through the cramped gangways while carrying the heavy breathing gear, camera and bulky fire suit is probably not unlike trying to run through a labyrinth full of daggers with a pillow strapped tightly over your face and a small pony riding on your back.
In a real fire, the dangers are myriad. Beside the obvious problems presented by the flames and the exponentially increasing heat inside the small steel rooms, operators must be aware of power lines, as hitting one with a stream of water can be deadly. Perhaps the greatest danger to the sailors, however, comes from their own equipment.
The breathing apparatus has two sets of delicate inflatable lungs that are vulnerable to being bumped and deflated. Just brushing against the lung can reduce oxygen flow and if one is deflated entirely oxygen stops, forcing the sailor to make a quick retreat to a smoke-free environment. “They are very, very vulnerable. You can crush those lungs very easily. You have to be aware that no matter how experienced people are, the collapsing of the lungs happens,” says Daley.
Another potentially deadly problem with the equipment is that the masks make it hard to communicate. While trying to talk above the deafening noise of the fire and high-pressure water, the crews have to be careful not to yell or speak too loudly. “With the adrenaline factor, if you start yelling the mask vibrates too much and your voice is distorted,” says Daley. “We’ve seen other navy’s that have helmets with built in cameras and better oxygen systems. (That) would always save lives, from fighting a war to fighting a fire. I’m not sure if it is a money issue, but a lot of the time it boils down to money.”
Though life at sea is a little cramped—the crew lives stacked on top of each other in tiny quarters and every passageway is an obstacle course full of rushing sailors—everybody seemed remarkably happy. One reason for the high spirits is that no matter where in the world Athabaskan sails, it always brings the comforts of Canada along for the ride.
Several common areas on the ship feature satellite television, video game systems, surround sound movie theatres, well-stocked bars and very good food. Many crew members also have their own laptops with satellite Internet access.
But despite all the modern technology, there is one ancient marine curse some unlucky sailors just can’t escape. When the ship starts rolling and heaving, the blurry distress of sea sickness won’t be far behind. It starts somewhere in the inner ear, the tilting horizon plays tricks on the mind and soon it is time for unrelenting nausea.
Sub-Lieutenant Shantell Wile, 25, from Halifax, knows all about the trauma of sea sickness. During the stormy exercise, Wile spent more than three days enduring the vomiting, weakness and unease. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s like your brain’s exploding and you feel like you’re dying. You can never get away.”
According to the ship’s physician’s assistant, the best treatment is to take a shot of injectable Gravol into the buttocks. This not only calms the stomach, but tends to put the patient into a deep sleep.
Sailors like Wile face a difficult choice. If they give into the illness and go lay down too often, it can have an impact on their career. Thus many choose to continue their duties, green-faced and sweaty.
When the ship rolls it doesn’t just cause unease among the bellies of the crew, it also makes landing the Sea King helicopter a bit tricky. Incredibly, the only way to safely get the Sea King onto the relatively small deck during high seas is to haul it out of the sky using a winch.
The operation is a sight unlike any other. The big bird hovers over the stern of the boat, drops a steel cable to the deck and then gets winched down under power. It may sound straightforward but in practice it is sort of like watching an angry 9,318-kilogram dragon fly being dragged from the sky against its will—not something you’d ever expect to see. When the Canadians first unveiled their new technique in the early 1970s our allies immediately dubbed us “the crazy Canucks.”
But now, at this late date in the Sea King’s life span, the craziness isn’t as much fun. The helicopter is so old—some of them more than 40 years—that the very first Sea King replacement program was announced in 1977. Now the helicopter has become legendary for its unreliability. It takes 30 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight and even then, malfunctions, groundings and forced landings are all too common.
The extent of the problem becomes clear during a Sea King pre-flight briefing, when the pilot goes into great detail about what to do if the helicopter crashes into the Atlantic. “If we hit the water in an uncontrolled landing, the chopper will flip upside down, fill with black fuel-tainted water and begin sinking within seconds. As we flip, hold onto your seat to keep your bearings and then feel your way across the cabin to the escape hatch. Let go of that f***ing seat and you’re dead. Once we’re in the water,” says the pilot, pausing to look everybody in the eye, “it’s every man for himself.”
Though that particular flight ended without drama, Athabaskan’s Sea King later suffered a rotor malfunction and was grounded for the last several days of the exercise. “There can be problems, sometimes they can be quite frustrating,” says Donaldson. “The Sea King helicopter is the Sea King helicopter and we face a whole series of technical challenges with that helicopter that sometimes sound a little more concerning than they really are, but we’re extremely careful.”
Though Athabaskan’s main gun had some problems during the drone target shoot, it performed impressively during several subsequent exercises. The gun, sitting just below the ship’s bridge, doesn’t look all that menacing. First of all, it is not very big, and second, there’s only one barrel. It hardly compares to the massive double or quad-barrelled monsters that hurl Volkswagen-sized shells from the decks of American warships.
However, it does something the big guns can’t—it absolutely rips. At its maximum rate, the 76-mm gun shoots two rounds a second—that’s 720 kilograms of high explosives per minute.
During the advanced surface shoot exercise, Donaldson makes use of the gun’s rapid fire when he orders the ship to zig-zag wildly and then, during the brief upright transition between the hang-on-for-your-life type turns, the gun burps off a stream of shells at a target several kilometres away.
In addition to the SM2 missiles, the 76-mm and the Phalanx, the destroyer has a whole room full of MK46 torpedoes to be launched at any submarine foolish enough to engage the ship. And though Athabaskan does have a stunning array of offensive weapons capable of destroying any enemy, it also has something potentially more important—the ability to discover, track and target the enemy at long range.
At the centre of that effort is the operations room, a small, dark space packed with rows of operators, each staring into multiple electronic displays. The bridge may be the ship’s eyes, but the operations room is its mind. More than 100 computers feed information into the room, laptops crowd every flat surface and there’s a steady electronic hum in the air.
The various surveillance and information networks on Athabaskan are central to the new kind of threat environment posed by trans-national terrorism. Operators have access to several levels of secret satellite-based intelligence networks. On the Coalition Four Eyes, (CFE), network, which is used only by the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia, an operator can call up a picture of the Atlantic revealing location and intelligence information on nearly every ship in the ocean. This surveillance technology is the front line of defence against terrorists seeking to attack North America by sea. “We do several things that help protect Canada against these types of threats,” says Donaldson. “We do it by establishing presence, contributing to surveillance, by helping to co-ordinate the activities of a wide variety of government and multinational agencies to establish clearly what is going on in our waters, and what is going on beyond that zone.”
Once a ship is determined to be suspicious, it is time for interdiction. After manoeuvring into position, the boarding crew is sent roaring off in the rigid-hull inflatable boats. Led by Lieut. Dave Schmidt, the assaulters wear dark baseball caps and have no rank on their uniforms. Trained in hand-to-hand combat and carrying a mix of shotguns, submachine-guns and assault rifles, the all-trades boarding party will storm the target ship and take control of the bridge.
Whether it is shooting down air threats, boarding suspicious vessels or just keeping a watchful eye on things, it is good to know that Canadian sailors on ships like Athabaskan are out there looking after the country’s defence. And though they do struggle with old and sometimes scary equipment, they still get the job done.