Canadians may wonder what the Cyclone helicopter that crashed, and its mother ship, HMCS Fredericton, were doing so far away from their home base in Nova Scotia.
For sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy and the RCAF helicopter detachments that often sail with them, such deployments to the far side of the Atlantic Ocean are what they train for.
For some time now, the RCN has been present alongside other NATO navies in Europe. HMCS Fredericton is one of seven frigates based at Halifax that maintain a persistent, year-round presence in Europe for what is called Operation Reassurance. It is meant to deter Russian aggression in Europe.
The Fredericton was three months into a standard, six-month deployment.
The Cyclone helicopter, the CH-148, has only been operational for about 18 months. It’s equipped with a sophisticated, ultra-modern suite of anti-submarine warfare or ASW equipment. Its operators say it is as good as anything in the world. They cannot say much more than that because so much of their work is classified.
What the Russian navy is up to has been of particularly keen interest to NATO since Russian submarines fired cruise missiles into Syria last year, a retired senior Canadian officer said. While the Cyclone was a very effective platform, he said a lot of practice at sea was required to become expert at identifying submarines.
Helicopters such as the Cyclone allow Canadian frigates to extend their “eyes and ears” out several hundred miles. When working with several other warships that have helos, they can keep watch over a lot of ocean.
Canadian warships sometimes sail north into the Baltic Sea or off the Norwegian coast, or through the State of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf on a separate NATO mission that is mostly concerned with Iran and arms and drug smugglers whose profits sometimes support terrorist groups.
But the Canadian ships usually spend a lot of time in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea conducting presence patrols and ASW patrols (they can be one and the same). This reflects a surge of Russian naval activity in those waters, which are adjacent to an important Russian naval base in Syria on the Mediterranean coast and other nearby bases in Russian-occupied Crimea.
“This has been one of the busiest years that I can remember, and I’ve been doing this since 1983,” Adm. James Fogo, commander of Allied Joint Forces Command in Naples, told U.S. military journalists last December.
The lifelong submariner added: “Russia has continued to put resources into their undersea domain. It’s an asymmetric way of challenging the West and NATO alliance.”
The Freddy, as the Canadian frigate is often lovingly called by the crew, was showing the flag and exercising with the Italian and Turkish navies at the time of the helicopter accident. Many recent missions will likely have been to try to detect and monitor Russian surface warships and especially the surge of highly regarded Russian submarines.
Canada’s navy has 12 Halifax-class frigates equipped for helicopter operations. I have sailed on many of these vessels, including a 13-day trip on HMCS Regina last June in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The Regina had a new Cyclone helicopter embarked. I was briefly on the Fredericton five years ago when, with then-prime minister Stephen Harper on board, the ship was closely tailed by several Russian warships off the Polish coast in the Baltic Sea.
Shipboard life takes place in cramped quarters. It is usually fairly easy to get to know the flight crew as they share three meals a day with other officers and visitors at a single long table in the wardroom. Aircrew are easy to spot because they wear khaki flight suits. Sailors wear blue working uniforms when at sea.
The aircrew tend to be a tight, often gregarious bunch. Their Cyclone helicopters have become a frequent sight in the sky above CFB Shearwater in Dartmouth, which is across from the Atlantic fleet’s port in Halifax and close to Cole Harbour.
The warships’ aircrews are among the RCAF’s best pilots. Pilots must routinely land helicopters weighing as much as 15 tons on a tiny deck, often in heaving seas. It can be scary for passengers as they dance the aircraft around, waiting for the ship’s deck to be at precisely the right angle to set down.
Despite such dramas, the pilots and mission specialists are very calm as they go about their business.
The Canadian warships sent to Europe sometimes sail solo but they generally work with anywhere from two to five or six other NATO warships and tankers in the Atlantic, Mediterranean or Middle East, or with U.S., Australian, South Korean or Japanese warships and tankers in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Because the hangar and land deck are relatively small on frigates, only one helicopter can be deployed at a time. As well as conducting patrols, they often are used to ferry supplies and personnel to and from other ships in the flotilla, or to bases on shore.
The Cyclone is the replacement for CH-124 Sea King helicopters which, because of a string of procurement problems going back to the 1980s, were only retired last year after 55 years of service. The Cyclone has had some teething problems, including a “hard landing” in the western Pacific last spring on the RCN supply ship MV Asterix that involved a long period to repair the aircraft at the U.S. Navy base on Guam.
Twenty-eight Cyclones were purchased for US$1.8 billion in 2004. Because of a series of technical challenges and U.S. military export restrictions, the first aircraft was not delivered until 2015. Nineteen of the aircraft have joined the RCAF so far.
The CH-148 is a military variant of a helicopter made by Sikorsky Aircraft. The civilian model is often used to service oil rigs off Newfoundland and elsewhere in the world.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas