The discovery in September of HMS Erebus in the frigid waters of the Queen Maud Gulf was a public relations bonanza for the government of Canada. But it was also a small triumph for the Royal Canadian Navy and a reminder of the sort of capability required for its new fleet of Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS).

Erebus, one of the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition, was detected in her shallow grave by a search party involving four ships, including the Canadian Coast Guard’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the navy’s HMCS Kingston.

Rear-Admiral John Newton, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic, was aboard Kingston for periods of her search. As the point person for generating the RCN’s warfare and competencies readiness, his command has a role in defining the technology and capabilities of every new class of ship and understanding and refining the skills, training and education required to deliver that ship for operations.

“Science” might not be the first word that comes to mind when considering the needs of a warship like the recently named Harry deWolf-class of patrol ships, but its scientific role is a key consideration for Newton.

“This year’s voyage of Kingston into the deeper archipelago ostensibly looking for the Franklin’s lost ships was actually about the cooperation of a series of federal departments that typically don’t work together,” he explained on a foggy morning in Halifax just days after the Franklin discovery was made.

“The Canadian Hydrographic Service was looking for ships of opportunity to generate survey-quality data for mapping and charting purposes for the corridors through which the Coast Guard wants to flow all shipping in the North. So although we were building new relationships as a result of the expedition, what we were really generating was mapping and charting. In fact, when Kingston couldn’t get to the search area because of bad ice, she was already fitted with her Hydrographic Service survey equipment and just continued mapping the sea channels.”

Consequently, a “science package” and the ability to support other agencies has been factored into the design. That includes capacity for launching and recovering unmanned systems, carrying containerized labs, and dedicating connectivity and bandwidth for teams from other departments such as Fisheries, Border Services, Transport, the RCMP or Health Canada to plug into their own networks.

“We are moving from an era of having a dedicated research ship for the navy – Quest – to a model like the AOPS which has the modular capacity, the cranes with the lifting capacity and the boom reach to do more than just launch a boat. The ISO footprint for containerized packages are being designed into the ship so that we can get a multi-purpose science capability onto the ship,” Newton said.

Each iteration of Operation Nanook, an annual Canadian Armed Forces and whole-of-government exercise, reinforces the challenges of operating from Arctic waters. Whether it is complex systems such as SATCOM or straightforward equipment like ATVs and landing craft, the Arctic makes its own unique demands. “It’s often beach work and outcrops, so the AOPS has designed into it the lessons of the Coast Guard and the type of connectors needed to work from the ship to the shore,” Newton said. “Those lessons get reinforced every year.”

However, of all the new capabilities, range and endurance remain the most critical. “Everybody harps on about speed and icebreaking but fundamentally the ships must be able to range freely and not worry about where they are getting their next load of gas from,” he explained. “One of the biggest lessons of working in the North over the last decade is that while fuel sources ashore are well known, you can’t be held to a schedule for point-to-point transits. The North conspires against schedules. You’ve got to be able to hold for a week if necessary or move 500 kilometres north instead of west because you need to rearrange a program in a hurry. That 6,000-mile range is one of AOPS’ key qualities as is the logistical capacity of the ship to support that.”

Understanding the nuances of the North will also play a vital role in the patrol ships’ future. In that vein, the RCN is working with Canadian Joint Operations Command as it expands its footprint through support hubs. “It’s about knowledge, not necessary about going in and building a whole bunch of capabilities,” Newton said. “It’s about understanding where the airfields are, were the safe anchorages are, where hospitals and clinics and bed down for forces are. A lot of it is building a knowledge base about what is in the North that can be employed for military purpose.

“Our aircrews have to learn about those landing strips built out of the sides of mountains and on the water’s edge, about a flying environment that is typically overcast and with low ceilings, that is inherently dangerous and skill based. There are not many anchorages in the North where ships can anchor safely in a storm. We’ll have to educate the rest of the CAF where those natural naval sites are, but we are just learning that ourselves.”

Newton points to an array of technological requirements that will have to be addressed in the coming years, from underwater seabed intervention capability to surveillance assets and sonars tuned the cold weather environment, as well as communications and bandwidth that can work with existing satellite infrastructure and still meet the ship’s range.

As an example, he notes the Northern Watch technology demonstration project near Gascoyne Inlet on Devon Island, which is trialing a multifaceted surveillance capability, remotely controlled from DRDC Atlantic in Halifax that involves underwater radar, electronic intercept, satellite uplink and the navy’s fusion centre, known as Trinity.

“All that is being built into the ship,” he said. “We have to make sure we pick the best technology and look forward to what is being delivered with Polar Epsilon and RADARSAT II, as well as products being used by the Coast Guard to successfully operate their icebreakers.”

In terms of skills, Operation Nunalivut has provided the navy’s diving fleet with opportunities to work on diving through ice, but it’s a skill they will have to continue to hone, Newton said. “Their technology is good and their skills are exceptional, but they have to make sure they are tuned to the Arctic environment. They brought home a number of lessons on diving and using robotics. We are looking for some new equipment. We have to be able to dive in high currents, ice cover and that technology has to adapt to the North.”

The AOPS has been subject to much criticism about its Arctic capability but Newton is quick to point out that today the Kingston-class “operate in a body of water that 20 years ago critics would have said that ship was never designed to operate. So can you imagine what we are going to get as we build AOPS, which we have taken the time to design as we learn firsthand about their operational missions.”

In an address to DEFSEC Atlantic, Newton urged his audience to see the patrol ships not as simply a new class of ships, but as a new capability.

“We are going to lead the navy in a new era of Arctic operations – sovereignty operations in our own northern waters. Through this class of ships, we are going to be able to develop external relationships with our key allies. [AOPS] is a capability that will not only serve the navy, it will serve science and technology, it will serve government packages, sea to shore connections. We are about to embark on a whole new era of operations and one of my jobs under warfare competency is to develop that plan for the people, equipment and operational tactics that will bring that ship and her crews to life the moment we start taking delivery in the 2018 timeframe.”