HMCS Winnipeg’s Operation Projection & Neon

S2 Chad DeMan, a Boatswain, cleans the bridge windows during Operation Neon as the ship patrols in the East China Sea. Photo by S1 Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

S2 Chad DeMan, a Boatswain, cleans the bridge windows during Operation Neon as the ship patrols in the East China Sea. Photo by S1 Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

Captain Chelsea Dubeau
MARPAC Public Affairs

One ship. Two operations. Three multinational exercises.

Plus, an incredibly busy Intermediate Multi-ship Readiness Training Program on the way to and during Exercise Rim of the Pacific.

A deployment experience unlike any other, it was also one that tested HMCS Winnipeg’s crew’s resilience and proved what is possible when positive people-first leadership meets innovation.

More than that, it was a learning experience in every possible way: from planning to deploy and then deploying in a COVID environment, incorporating the latest-and-greatest Wi-Fi technology, keeping the crew engaged and morale high during a deployment deprived of port visits, and managing supply chain challenges brought on by the global pandemic. There was much uncharted water to navigate.

Even if it is a region in which Canada has operated for decades, Winnipeg’s time in the Asia-Pacific – one of the most newsworthy regions in the world today – continued to provide learning opportunities, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. The waters of the region are alive, electric, very busy, and anything but benign.

Operations Projection and Neon

Winnipeg deployed Aug.1, 2020, and commenced Operation Projection in September to conduct forward naval presence operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

While deployed in the region, Winnipeg also operated under Operation Neon, Canada’s contribution to a coordinated, multinational effort to support the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution sanctions (UNSCRs) imposed against North Korea. The sanctions aim to pressure North Korea to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs and respond to North Korean nuclear weapon tests and ballistic missile launches.

Primarily a surveillance mission, units operating under the auspices of Operation Neon are tasked to collect critical evidence on Vessels of Interest (VOIs), or vessels suspected of maritime sanctions evasion like Ship-to-Ship transfers of fuel and other commodities banned by the UNSCRs. This evidence is then submitted to higher authorities, including the UN Panel of Experts, which gather, examine, and analyze information to evaluate cases of non-compliance.

The East China Sea and Winnipeg’s Eye in the Sky

But if the Taiwan Strait was busy, the East China Sea was electric.

At night, the waters were lit up for miles from the lights of hundreds of nearby vessels.  Operation Neon is conducted in one of the busiest marine traffic areas in the world, which makes it that much more difficult when you’re trying to find and conduct surveillance on a handful of Vessels of Interest.

“This particular area of the globe has an extremely high density of shipping traffic and fishing vessels,” said Major Kris Sutton, Air Officer on board Winnipeg. “Between crew resource management between sorties, to strategizing the best way to cover the tasked areas, to gaining proficiency with the helicopter’s sophisticated system of sensors to locate VOIs, the lessons came quickly.”

The CH-148 proved itself to be an invaluable asset during Operation Neon, extending Winnipeg’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance reach beyond the horizon and allowing for a greater amount of surveillance conducted on these Vessels of Interest.   

“The CH-148 is effective at what it’s designed to do,” said Maj Sutton. “It’s nice to have validation of its capability in executing this type of mission in an actual theatre of operations.” 

One with the Strength of Many

Of course, the CH-148 wasn’t the only asset using radar to confirm who was in contravention of the UNSCRs.  In Winnipeg’s operations room, that’s the bread-and-butter of many, including Sailor First Class (S1) David Mason, a Naval Environment Sensor Operator (NESOP).

“My job as a NESOP is to provide early warning for any surface or air contacts that may be around us at any given time,” said S1 Mason. “We help paint a picture of the surrounding area and give situational awareness to the ship’s command team. During Op Neon, it was our job to locate VOI radars.

“There were a lot more merchant and fishing vessels than I realized, all of which utilize general navigation radars,” S1 Mason continues. “While looking for our assigned VOIs, the only radars we could search for were general navigation radars, which was like looking for a needle in a stack of needles. Luckily, we were able to count on the assistance of our allied maritime patrol aircraft and an RCAF CP-140 Aurora to assist in locating these VOIs.”

Sailor Second Class (S2) Chad DeMan is a boatswain on board HMCS Winnipeg who frequently stood watch as a lookout on the bridge. As lookout, his job was to visually detect and report ships, debris, and other navigational hazards. During Operation Neon, S2 DeMan reported and helped visually identify VOIs, and it wasn’t without its challenges.

“Sometimes it looks like you’re on the highway in the middle of the ocean,” said S2 DeMan. “It’s hard to keep track of where each vessel is going, which one is priority, and even the different countries they represent.”

Another difficulty in visually tracking VOIs is the tactics these vessels can employ in order to conceal their identity.

“Sometimes when we came upon a VOI, the intelligence provided wouldn’t match up to the ship,” said S2 DeMan. “For example, colour of the hull, hull numbers, or even certain features and characteristics on board the VOI.”

Between the operations, multinational exercises, ongoing training, Winnipeg’s deployment was successful by any measurement.  Notwithstanding the strides taken in terms of professional qualifications attained, lessons learned, and of course, mission objectives reached, Winnipeg earned several accolades from many levels of command, both domestic and international, for its performance across a range of activities including imagery and intelligence collection and anti-submarine warfare capability.

The deployment afforded a learning experience that simply can’t be bought, or taught, and certainly won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

More than anything, however, it demonstrates that even in the most challenging of circumstances – a global pandemic, for example – the Royal Canadian Navy remains ready to heed the call of Canada and deploy wherever and whenever needed.


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