Staying sharp on Exercise Keen Sword

S2 Blake Castelein participates in small boat training. Photo by S1 Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

S2 Blake Castelein participates in small boat training. Photo by S1 Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

Captain Chelsea Dubeau
HMCS Winnipeg
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Exercise Keen Sword arrived at an interesting time in HMCS Winnipeg’s deployment.

Nestled in-between Operation Neon patrols, Exercise Keen Sword kicked off on Oct. 26 and continued until Nov. 5, overlapping the U.S. election and rounding out a month that started with Winnipeg’s transit through the Taiwan Strait.

The biennial exercise is designed to increase combat readiness and interoperability of U.S. forces and the Japan Self-Defense Force.

All told, it was quite a busy month for Winnipeg in the Asia-Pacific, one of the most headline-making regions in the world.

Exercise Keen Sword is a formidable affair. If you were on the upper decks during the PHOTOEX on Oct. 26, you could have thrown a stone in any direction and hit a warship. Approximately 10,000 U.S. service members from the U.S. Pacific Fleet, U.S. Forces Japan, 7th Fleet, 5th Air Force, 374th Airlift Wing, 18th Wing, 35th Fighter Wing, and III Marine Expeditionary Force took part, along with approximately 40,000 Japanese personnel.

To put that into perspective, the number of personnel participating in this year’s Keen Sword is about 10 times that of the 5,300 personnel who participated in this year’s Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC).

The Royal Canadian Navy participated in Keen Sword for the first time in 2018 as an observer. This year, however, Winnipeg had an active role.

This year’s exercise

The exercise included anti-submarine warfare serials (ASW), cross-deck landings between Winnipeg’s embarked CH-148 Cyclone helicopter and helicopters on board U.S. and Japanese ships, a replenishment-at-sea with the USNS Tippecanoe, and a final war at sea exercise.

From a warfighting perspective, and being that Keen Sword is primarily ASW-focused, the exercise is an opportunity to sharpen those capabilities as well as hone the ship’s ability to integrate with other forces and strike groups in the execution of a mission. 

One of the serials saw an “enemy” submarine attempting to reach a particular target vessel, otherwise known as a “high value unit,” or HVU in exercise speak. It was Winnipeg’s job to help find the submarine before it could reach the HVU, and when it comes to ASW, Winnipeg is a uniquely capable platform for this type of warfare.

“In addition to a very capable passive towed array sonar system, we also carry the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter with its own state-of-the-art, low-frequency active dipping sonar,” says Lieutenant (Navy) Iain Richardson, an Operations Room Officer on board Winnipeg and Keen Sword Planner. “No other surface ship involved in the exercise serving in a role similar to ours is as capable in ASW as Winnipeg is.”

The ASW serials took place over several days and several iterations, putting members of the operations room, such as Sonar Operators, through their paces.

One such member is Master Sailor James McPeak.

“It can be very challenging being the eyes under the water looking for that needle in the haystack,” says MS McPeak, referring to submarines. “As a team we had to stay alert at all times and keep a clear picture of everything around us so we could find what was under us. As a part of the ships company I think we’ve proven our professionalism and as a team we learned how to overcome a lot of the small barriers that came up.”

In fact, Winnipeg was so good at the ASW that the ship was given the moniker of “Submarine Samurai” in correspondence with Keen Sword staffers on both the U.S. and Japanese sides.

“There was a number of air, surface, and sub-surface assets participating (in the serials),” says Lt (N) Noelani Shore, an Operations Room Officer on board Winnipeg. “This is exciting because it’s a unique opportunity to work with our allies, practice and develop our tactics, and continue to train the team in a realistic environment.”

The value of Keen Sword

The value of exercising with other like-minded and partner nations cannot be underestimated. Not only does it offer a glimpse into new warfighting tactics, it helps ensure that the Royal Canadian Navy remains adaptive while enhancing partnerships which are critical to security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Working with other nations always presents a fun but challenging experience,” says Lt(N) Anna Childerhose, Navigating Officer on board Winnipeg. “Every navy approaches situations a little differently. There can be a lot learned when watching how others do things, and the PHOTOEX was no exception. As a watch keeper, I had never before been in a formation at such close range. It was impressive to see how so many ships and air craft carriers could safely maintain station at such a little distance. Overall, it speaks to the professionalism of all the nations involved and, more importantly, the ship handling, mariner ship, and ability to plan and execute complex evolutions that is so key to a strong naval force.”

Cyclone participation

It wasn’t just the ship having all the fun, however. When not participating in ASW serials, Winnipeg’s embarked CH-148 Cyclone helicopter conducted several deck landings on board other ships, including the USS Ronald Reagan and JS Kaga aircraft carriers, and the USS Shiloh. Concurrently, helicopters from the USS Shiloh and JS Kaga conducted cross-deck training on Winnipeg.

Cross-deck training is conducted to increase the interoperability of Maritime Helicopter (MH) crews and allied naval ships. Landing on ships is a unique skill to the MH community and one MH pilots need to master to operate safely and effectively at sea with the Royal Canadian Navy. Familiarization with the procedures of allied navies allows our MH crews to react to tasks requiring intra-navy cooperation, such as medical evacuations. 

War at sea portion

Keen Sword culminated in a war at sea exercise, consolidating each participant’s warfighting capability in an effort to improve and practice joint and bi-lateral interoperability and mutual tactical skill for maritime operations.

“For HMCS Winnipeg, it’s also the culmination of six months of hard work,” says Commander Mike Stefanson, ship’s Commanding Officer. “It also allows us to build upon lessons learned during RIMPAC, see how far we’ve come, and integrate with these forces and test our mettle against some of the most combat-capable forces in the world today.”

HMCS Winnipeg is deployed in the Asia-Pacific region on Operation Projection Asia-Pacific and Operation Neon until December 2020.

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