On Tuesday, 12 January, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck the central region of Haiti, causing severe and widespread destruction and taking the lives of almost a quarter of a million people as well as displacing millions of Haitians.

The reaction was universal to what the United Nations called “a historic disaster, one that exceeds anything with which we have confronted in UN memory.” Not surprisingly, the government of Canada responded quickly by ordering a Foreign Affairs-led, integrated response to include the deployment of Canadian Forces (CF) to provide a joint force in support of the head of mission’s efforts to execute humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations.

In the early hours after the earthquake, when details of the CF response were being developed, the Navy and Canada’s Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) identified the certain requirement for the rapid generation of a naval task group comprising HMCS Athabaskan, a helicopter air detachment, and HMCS Halifax for operational employment. Further, I was designated the Maritime Component Commander (MCC) and I embarked in Athabaskan with a minimal staff.

In anticipation of need, Halifax had been re-rolled at sea within hours of the disaster. Athabaskan, meanwhile, was reactivated from a six-week extensive maintenance period. Both ships were then rapidly readied for deployment, embarking humanitarian assistance and disaster relief stores and equipment in addition to the usual sailing requirements.

Serving as a vanguard for a larger, but at the time yet to be determined joint task force, the naval task group sailed from Halifax within 48 hours of the earthquake, less than 24 hours after receiving the warning order.

The naval task group invoked the age-old precept that counsels: sail first, plan later (which, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the Canadian Forces operations planning process manual!). The task group staff and ships’ teams commenced operational and tactical planning in confidence that it would all come together despite the usual naval challenges stemming from possessing only broadly defined mission objectives, limited on-scene situational awareness, and not knowing the ultimate force structure or command architecture. Nonetheless, the teams worked up the variety of traditional and non-traditional skills anticipated as requirements, everything from urban search-and-rescue and remains recovery to personnel stress management, all under the watchful eyes of embedded media.

Meanwhile, CEFCOM established Joint Task Force Haiti under the command of BGen Guy Laroche, who then assumed command of all elements of the CF response, including the naval task group, which automatically became the maritime component of the joint task force. BGen Laroche was tasked with rapidly identifying necessary force packages and plan development to permit delivery of significant humanitarian and stabilization effects.

Following a strategic reconnaissance with the Canadian head of mission, Ambassador Gilles Rivard, BGen Laroche signalled that Joint Task Force Haiti would create three key effects in coordination with DFAIT and CIDA: assist Canadians through a non-combatant evacuation effort; save lives and mitigate suffering through HADR operations; and create conditions for relief agencies to work independently to assist medium- and long-term Haitian recovery. Further, he signalled intention to do so in two zones simultaneously, Leogane and Jacmel.

In BGen Laroche’s intent, we gathered the necessary insights into the campaign plan to permit task group planners to refine our emerging plans to produce a flexible, adaptive, synchronized and sequenced maritime plan that featured two distinct yet related lines of operation. Further, it also married up with gradual force build up, with international naval force collaboration, and of course with the unique challenges of the largest Canadian joint, whole-of-government expeditionary operation ever conducted.

And so, on 19 January, just five days after departing Halifax and less than seven days after the earthquake, the maritime component commenced concurrent single ship sea-based HADR operations off Leogane and Jacmel.

On arrival the ships effectively tripled the CF’s in-theatre strength and doubled on-ground presence through lodgement ashore of ship-based humanitarian assistance teams (HATs), comprising as many as 100 sailors per ship per day. Further, the ships doubled airlift mobility capacity through the contribution of two flight decks and the operation of the Athabaskan’s CH-124 Sea King.

The arrival and immediate employment of sea-based teams, unencumbered by congestion at the Port-au-Prince airfield affecting so much of the inflowing international aid, represented a significant strategic success. At a time when Haiti most needed hope, the maritime component, in consort with the Canadian Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in Jacmel and command elements of the 3rd Battalion Royal 22nd Regiment in Leogane, delivered hope from the sea emblazoned with a maple leaf.

Both ships then provided near continuous sea-based HADR ops for the duration of their service in Joint Task Force Haiti, pausing only briefly for periodic replenishments at sea from U.S. navy replenishment ships supporting the large American response, and also with pauses for sustainment stops of 6-8 hours duration in Kingston, Jamaica every 12-14 days.

No task was too big or too small. Maritime component personnel, often under DART or Royal 22nd tactical command and in consort with non-governmental organizations, helped deliver significant and enduring medical, nutrition, hydration and other aid.

Humanitarian assistance teams invested over 24,000 hours of labour ashore. Sea King sorties produced 225 flight hours, lifting over 160,000 pounds of humanitarian stores, including water production systems, generators, DART vehicles, air conditioners to keep communications systems running, and of course 352 soldiers and kit into theatre. We also did 150 Griffon cross-deck operations to allow the remainder of the Canadian air component to achieve their missions.

The ships also played a key role in protecting the vulnerable by adopting 12 local orphanages and directly aiding in several schools and retirement villages, delivering tailored medical, nutritional, hydration and shelter assistance.

While the maritime component was able to furnish the lion’s share of Joint Task Force Haiti’s strength and capacity in the early stages of the operation, the opposite became true as the mission reached maturity, beginning ironically with the arrival of the 352 soldiers sea-lifted into theatre by Athabaskan and Halifax. In other words, the maritime contribution was uniquely and particularly relevant in the critical early days of the response.

The Canadian effects from the sea and ashore were synchronized and coordinated with an enormous international effort. In keeping with the precepts of the American 1000-ship navy initiative, about 28,000 of the 48,000 military responders were sea-based from more than 30 ships from a dozen countries.

There is an important lesson about relevance for navies, and the Canadian navy in particular, in these facts. The operational circumstances as well as the inherent readiness, flexibility, sustainability, interoperability and tremendous capacities of maritime forces provided the recipe for success.

As a result, it is fair to say that the CF took a significant step forward in the conduct of truly joint expeditionary operations during Op HESTIA. I’m proud to say the maritime component contributed both uniquely and in a significant way, delivering strategic effects early and following that up with notable operational and tactical level contributions.

As part of a joint, integrated force during Op HESTIA, the navy proved once again that it is a relevant, national institution delivering international impact and influence. Given Canada’s overwhelming support for active internationalism, our compassion for those in need, and the government’s renewed priority on engagement and leadership, particularly in the Americas where nature will certainly deliver future crises, another opportunity to do likewise is not far off in our future. As an experienced, combat capable, globally deployable navy, we will surely be ready to answer that bell, and once again demonstrate to Canadians and their government that an investment in the navy is sound.

Capt(N) Art McDonald was commander of Operation Hestia’s Maritime Component. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Maritime Security Challenges Conference in Victoria, hosted by Maritime Forces Pacific.