MIDDLE EAST MARITIME MUSINGS... By Terry Colfer (Article)
First off … full disclosure and brief background! I have absolutely no naval service experience. I was a soldier; a grunt, dog face, ground pounder or whatever. My uniform was a khaki colour, not navy blue.
As a member of the Regular Officer’s Training Program (ROTP) from 1960-65, I attended McGill University and Royal Military College. After graduation, the following four years in the army were exciting and included training as a para-trooper and jumping out of “perfectly serviceable” Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft plus a year of duty in the Gaza Strip (cut a bit short by the Six Day War in 1967).
In 1969 I wrote the Foreign Service exam, left the Army and joined Foreign Affairs. Following diplomatic postings in Europe, Africa, USA, Australia and Ottawa, it appeared that I might never return to the Middle East in a professional role again. However, it was difficult to project the wisdom and strategic vision of the government career management folks, as some of you probably know. This was reinforced in 1996 when I was appointed Canadian Ambassador to Kuwait and Qatar (resident in Kuwait) and returned to the burning sands. Three years later my tour ended in Kuwait but I remained in the same rough neighbourhood with a posting as Ambassador to Iran.
In response to a request to jot down some ‘maritime memories’ from my Kuwait days I have briefly focused on two adventures that took place during that period. One involved the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the other the United States Navy (USN). Perhaps there may be some inaccuracies or technical shortcomings in my reminiscing but please keep in mind that this all took place almost two decades ago. So, I am well past my ‘best before’ date and, of course, this naval perception is through the eyes of a landlubber.
Colfer at Royal Military College: 50th Grad Reunion.
In early 1997 during my second year in Kuwait, I received a copy of a message advising that HMCS Regina had sailed from Esquimalt to join a USN carrier battle group that was exercising off San Diego. This was in preparation for duty in the Persian Gulf. HMCS Regina was to be part of Operation Prevention, a Canadian naval deployment scheduled from February to August. This operation was to support the UN Multi-National Maritime Interception Force (MMIF) in the Persian Gulf. The main role of this force was to monitor shipping in the Gulf and ensure compliance with various UN Security Council resolutions concerning the import and export of Iraqi commodities, especially oil. The Captain of Regina was Commander (later Rear Admiral) Tyrone Pile.
There was limited involvement with the Embassy during the months following that message but towards the end of her deployment HMCS Regina was scheduled to make a port call in Kuwait. This visit was billed as a major event for the Canadian community that numbered several thousand in Kuwait City.
As an aside, it was difficult to count the actual number of expat Canadians in country as not all would register with the Embassy. But, during a crisis such as when Saddam was targeting Kuwait with Scud missiles (as in the 1998 Operation Desert Fox) and evacuation was being considered, the number of resident Canadians on the Embassy roster multiplied quickly. While not confirmed, it was rumoured that some Canadians residing abroad wished to remain invisible to the Embassy perhaps due to their personal tax interests or other reasons.
During the Kuwait port visit, Regina and the Embassy worked in lock step as a proud Canadian team promoting and defending Canadian interests in the region. The ship itself served as a platform for varied initiatives. For example, we hosted a large reception on board for the Canadian community as well as smaller more select gatherings for influential Kuwaiti and other contacts. We even had a special function for Canadian families where parents and children could visit the ship, enjoy some refreshment and interact with crew members. These and other gatherings served to raise the morale of both the embassy staff and the Canadian community in Kuwait. Importantly, this visit demonstrated to the Kuwaitis the sound commitment of Canada to the security of the region and promoted our commercial, political and other interests. Commander Pile and his crew fully appreciated and supported the leveraging of such visits for Canada. Both the embassy and Regina were on the same page. Indeed, Regina represented a floating piece of Canada and the crew all served as Canadian ambassadors.
A personal highlight of this ship visit was an invitation for me to join Regina on the final mission of her Gulf deployment. This included accompanying the ship to Muscat, Oman, where I disembarked. While on route to Muscat, we spent a few days monitoring and enforcing the UN resolutions re the import/export of Iraqi goods. This mission marked the end of Regina’s 1997 tour of duty in the Gulf. She then headed south for an official visit to Australia.
The most common ploy to end-run the contraband patrols by the Navy was for the smuggling ships loaded with Iraqi oil or other prohibited products to set sail out of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq. Then the vessels would hug the Iranian coastline and at a suitable time, normally under cover of darkness, sneak south across the Persian Gulf to Dubai. On arrival, the goods would be sold in short order. Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi, Oman and Qatar attempted to prevent these smuggling merchant vessels from using their coastalwaters but the Iranian navy normally turned a blind eye. Reversing the process, smuggling also took place from Dubai into southern Iraq.
Naval vessels operating under the MMIF rules had the legal authority to stop and search ships in the Persian Gulf. In the sector of the Gulf where Regina was operating the USS Independence aircraft carrier battlegroup was the local coordinator. Normally interceptions were accomplished by two warships acting in tandem with sailors from one of the ships conducting the boarding operation if such was necessary. Ships were routinely stopped and queried as to their destination and cargo. If suspicious, then the ships were boarded and the cargo was inspected. Accordingly, Iraq was denied critical parts for its war machine and oil exports were almost completely shut down thus denying Iraq the foreign exchange that it needed so badly.
Regina worked very closely with the USN Fifth Fleet during these operations and was held in particularly high esteem by the US Navy. In fact, in conversation with a USN Admiral a few months later he made a point of praising the important role that Regina had played and he hoped for similar cooperative arrangements with RCN ships in the future. This info was passed to Ottawa.
Immediately following that demanding anti-smuggling mission in the Gulf, I witnessed Regina facing yet another challenge. Navigating the Strait of Hormuz by night proved to be an experience that would validate the overall skills and abilities of Regina and her crew. Sailing through such a volatile and hostile checkpoint successfully tested all systems on board.
During my stay on board HMCS Regina I had free reign of the ship to explore, speak, observe or whatever. The various systems including communications, maintenance, operations, and weapons were particularly intriguing. I was especially fascinated with the activities on the bridge and the crucial role of the Captain. Of course, the Captain is the leader of the entire vessel which in this case included about 250 souls. It was apparent that the Captain needed to be proficient in running just about every aspect of the vessel including operations and maintenance. In fact, how the Captain led the crew would be crucial to the outcome of the mission. In my humble view, Commander Pile consistently did a first class job.
The helicopter is one of the key weapons systems deployed in the Halifax class ships. It was envisaged for use primarily to seek out and destroy enemy submarines. While the submarine threat may have diminished, there was a CH-124 Sea King on board the Regina. Considering that these helicopters were introduced in 1963 there were ongoing maintenance “challenges” during this deployment. Perhaps there still are. Nevertheless, it was remarkable to note the extraordinary advantage that the capabilities of a reliable helicopter on board would provide for so many different types of missions. This was especially true during stop and search challenges.
In retrospect, I cannot help but recall so many fond memories and interesting interactions with the crew while on board Regina. Several examples follow.
The night view of the Persian Gulf sky was spectacular. It presented a parade of planets, the moon, the Milky Way, different constellations and aurora displays. Stargazing was amazing (when there was time).
While understanding that the food experience on board ship can vary depending on the type of ship and where one is sailing, the meals on board Regina were excellent. Of course, institutional food might not always taste like a home cooked meal but I had a chance to eat in the different messes and the food for all crew members was nutritious and tasty. Replenishment took place regularly and I heard no complaints from the crew.
I recall chatting with a few of the crew members about the difficulty of being separated from family and loved ones when away from home on long deployments. Keeping in touch was obviously important. With today’s technology using cell, text, email and so on it should be easier than during the pre-internet era. Nevertheless, time from family can take big slices away from those key formative periods of growing children for instance. This can strain relationships. One crew member noted that the worst part of a long separation took place on the actual departure day. The following day you begin to look forward to returning. While there may be no easy solution, most sailors (both male and female) seem to make it work somehow … probably with considerable compromises on both sides.
Following the exhilarating experience of Regina’s 1997 Kuwait visit I forwarded a comprehensive report of my few days on board, the port visit and other associated issues to my Ottawa masters at Fort Pearson. A main recommendation stressed that National Defence and Foreign Affairs (Global Affairs; or whatever is the current name tag) should work closely together and attempt to increase the number of port visits abroad. It was emphasized that leveraging such visits with the local embassy to promote our overall geopolitical interests would pay valuable dividends for Canada.
HMCS Regina with boarding boat in foreground.
HMCS Regina. Gun Crew at Action Stations for boarding
On the Regina bridge observing target ship through 'Big Eye' binoculars
Regina ship crew at work entering Kuwait City Port
USS Enterprise (the “Big E”):
USS Enterprise; somewhere in the Persian Gulf
Enterprise flight deck ... stay alert
Enterprise underway: Beware of Jet Blast, Props and Rotors
Up 'n Over the Big E
In certain regions, Canada and the US as well as other allies, cooperate closely when grappling with evacuation contingency plans for their Embassy personnel as well as for expats. With this as background, I had a discussion with the US Ambassador in Kuwait in late 1998. On account of the deteriorating circumstances in the Gulf at that time (Saddam was not cooperating with the UN weapons inspectors) it was suggested that we meet on board the USS Enterprise to update our evacuation plans and review other issues of importance. The following morning we took off from Kuwait International in a USN C2A Greyhound COD (carrier on board delivery) aircraft bound for the “Starship Enterprise”. She was on station in the southern Persian Gulf.
The landing on the Enterprise (CVN-65; the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier) was picture perfect as was noted in a photo presented to us by the captain shortly afterwards. Landing on a four acre steel flight deck was certainly exhilarating. The tail hook caught the arrester wire and we were screeched to a halt in seconds. Blood can rush to the head and for a short time the G force can restrict vision. According to the pilots with whom I spoke, landing on an aircraft carrier was difficult during the day, more difficult during inclement weather but exponentially more difficult at night.
But I digress… after a briefing by the captain we got to work on the contingency plans. However, there was some spare time available. With the exception of a few sensitive locations we pretty much had a free run of the ship. I was billeted in a guest suite which was very comfortable except for the regular roar and crashing sounds of launches and landings. At times, it seemed that the fighter aircraft were penetrating the deck as the noise was often deafening. The landings (aka: controlled crashes) seemed loudest of all.
With a crew of more than 5,000 (including the air wing), the Enterprise functioned much like a small US town, although there were clear hierarchal lines. Updating our plans involved a couple of nights on board so we meshed into the normal ship routine as much as possible. The massive flight deck was unusually quiet in the early hours of the morning and I took advantage of this for my daily run. One had to be prudent. On arrival I had met the chief naval medical officer on board (he had grown up in Newfoundland) who mentioned that a lot of his work involved sewing up sailors who would injure themselves bumping into wings, tripping over chains, etc. on the flight deck. The flight deck was an extremely hazardous area. In fact, a number of the enlisted crew with whom I chatted had never even ventured up to the flight deck during their several months deployment on board. The exceptionally well equipped sick bay also served as the main hospital afloat for the entire battle group. Coincidently, when I was on board I visited with a Canadian sailor who had been flown to the carrier from a Canadian frigate (HMCS Ottawa, I believe). He was a patient in the sick bay recovering from an appendectomy.
While the size of a US carrier may be enormous there seemed to be little in the way of extra space available. Every square inch appeared to be occupied. For example, if there was any room available in the hangar when an aircraft was flying, the area was quickly occupied by off duty sailors taking part in a pickup game of basketball or whatever.
The fighter pilots appeared to be top of the food chain on board ship. After witnessing aircraft launch and recovery at night it was definitely “hats off’ to those skilled aviators. The overall sound and light show of nocturnal flight operations was beyond impressive. Landings included burnt rubber odours, sparks and smoke everywhere. Launchings were ferocious involving a solid wall of flame from the jet blast not to mention the screech of metal enhanced by the rolling deck.
Aviator call signs displayed on the side of the aircraft intrigued me. Apparently these nick names have to be carefully screened before approval as they can sometimes border on the unacceptable. Derogatory call signs are the order of the day and it is considered bad form to try and give oneself a call sign. After landing, the pilots were normally greeted by the members of the flight deck crew responsible for the maintenance of that particular aircraft. Interestingly enough, one of the fighter pilots had the call sign “Bunny” on the side of his F-18. It was even more surprising when after “high fiving” his ground crew he removed his helmet and revealed that “Bunny” was a female fighter pilot. The flight deck was full of surprises!
The aviators were indeed high spirited. While present at one of the pre-flight briefings I notedthere was a large bolt suspended from the ceiling by a string above the chair of one of the pilots. It seemed that the pilot who experienced the most “bolters” (overshoots for failing to catch the arrester cable) during the previous operations was thus identified. “Bolter” aircraft needed to accelerate at full power to become airborne again and re-attempt the landing after a go-around.
My brief but intense carrier sojourn ended too quickly. Following a couple of days at sea I was buckling up after climbing into the Greyhound-COD for the return flight to Kuwait. The deck crew did their magic between the catapult and the under carriage, the jet blast deflector was raised and we were ready. Seconds later the steam pressure of the catapult slammed the COD forward like a rocket over the edge of the flight deck. That sudden movement propelled Mr. Greyhound from 0 to 266 KPH in 2 seconds. It was like getting hit in the butt by a speeding freight train. Difficult to put this experience into words … it was indeed a rush!
The return flight to Kuwait International was uneventful and observing the 10,000 foot runway ahead while on final approach I could not help but contrast how straightforward it looked to land this aircraft. It was not just the length of the runway but, unlike a carrier landing, the runway was not even moving.
Operation ‘Desert Fox’ took place in December 1998 shortly after the ‘Enterprise’ visit. Some Canadians, US and other nationals were evacuated from Kuwait around that time. A few Iraqi Scud missiles hit Kuwait and hundreds of coalition air sorties attacked Iraq.Our contingency evacuation plans were successfully tested during this conflict and further fine-tuned in preparation for expected crises. We did not have to wait long for future upheavals. Three years later there were the 9-11 terrorist attacks followed closely by the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As a former soldier, these Persian Gulf maritime experiences left a lasting impression that served to reinforce my understanding of the agility, utility, flexibility, and professionalism of naval forces. Appreciating that the current RCN frigates were acquired primarily for our national defence it was impressive to witness how Canadian naval assets can project commitment, power and influence so far from home. Significantly, this is accomplished with minimal logistical or human resource support needed on foreign soil.
The Persian Gulf (and the Middle East generally) remains an extremely unpredictable and volatile region. The naval challenges are constantly changing but, whether they be surveillance, control, boarding, combat operations, showing the flag, or whatever, the members of the Royal Canadian Navy have demonstrated over the years the leadership, judgement and overall capacity to expertly meet Canadian domestic and international expectations. Bravo Zulu!
Tags: Terry Colfer