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Special Report

HMCS Ottawa and USS Boxer

DND photo IS2006-0430

HMCS Ottawa in foreground with the USS Boxer, flagship of the 5th Expeditionary Strike Group (5 ESG).

Anatomy of Maritime Excellence

by Captain (N) Darren Hawco

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There are going to be times during this article where it is self-complimentary to HMCS Ottawa to the point that it verges on bragging. For that I do not apologize. Rather, I acknowledge both my bias and my appointment as the commanding officer of an exceptional warship and ship’s company. You see, there is much of which the Canadian Forces and her navy can be proud. Tradition, heritage, extremely capable ships, and experienced ‘state-of-the-art’ professional sailors and aviators are some of the most notable elements Therefore, it should not be a surprise for you, the reader, to find chronicled here Ottawa’s successes during her recent deployment to Southwest Asia in support of the Campaign against the Threat of Terrorism (CATT). If it is, it is likely because being Canadian, we tend to downplay our accomplishments and avoid the spotlight. Since Ottawa’s deployment (September 2006 – March 2007), HMCS Toronto and HMCS Charlottetown have conducted Standing Naval Maritime Group and Operation Altair deployments showcasing Canadian excellence in their own rights. As well, Command of Combined Task Force 150 in the Persian Gulf has been assumed by Canada, including the deployment of a three-ship task group, consisting of HMCS Iroquois, HMCS Calgary, and HMCS Protecteur. These recent contributions by Canada having been acknowledged, my profound pride in the navy and my crew is such that I stand at the fringe of the spotlight, pushing the Ottawa’s story front and centre.

It was a bright sunny day on 10 September 2006 when Ottawa slipped and proceeded to sea for a six-month deployment to the other side of the planet. This is ‘ops normal’ for the Canadian Navy, whose global reach and flexibility enable her to quickly prepare and deploy tailored forces anywhere that our government requires. In my career, I have conducted a number of operational tours, including a year-long deployment in 1993 in support of stabilizing efforts off the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, and three 61⁄2 month deployments to the Persian Gulf. As the commanding officer of an operationally deploying warship, I was trained, experienced, and ready. The challenge for me would be to maximize the extraordinary capabilities of the Canadian sailor and aviator to achieve strategic effect for Canada and to bring the fight against terrorism to the enemy, and to do so on distant shores.

Ottawa’s deployment was in support of Operation Altair.1 While Ottawa was the third Canadian Navy warship to hold the line during Altair, she actually represented the 20th warship to deploy to the Persian Gulf since the 9/11 attacks. In fact, Ottawa has already been to Southwest Asia three times in her short 10-year service life to date, during 1998, 2002, and 2007. Naval deployments to the Persian Gulf have been conducted independently, as part of a Canadian Task Group, or integrated within a United States Navy (USN) Carrier Strike Group (CSG). Ottawa’s deployment would be different, as the ship constituted an integrated unit within an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG),2 and this would involve differences in tactical pre-deployment training doctrine to which the navy had never been exposed.

Let there be no doubt, Ottawa deployed to the Persian Gulf to strike at terrorism as far from our shores, home, and hearth as possible, and to deny terrorists the use of the sea in any way. If called upon, my ship was also trained and ready to support a wide range of actions, from United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) enforcement to humanitarian aid. In Ottawa’s case, we operated in every major body of water in theatre, and we operationally covered over 30,000 nautical miles of ocean in the region.

Flexibility, command and control capabilities, and scope of operations are the classic advantages a navy can provide, and Ottawa was called upon to deliver in each of these facets. Assessed by my operation control authorities (the commanders of Combined Task Forces [CTF] 150 and 152) as one of their most experienced and capable ships, Ottawa was assigned a disproportionate weight of warfare duties. She was also an alternate flagship for both CTF 150 and CTF 152. While in theatre, Ottawa’s deployment was divided into three one-month patrols. Upon reading the following paragraphs, I hope readers will understand my pride in the crew’s accomplishments, and the operational impact that Ottawa brought to the fight against terrorism.

Boading party in zodiac

DND photo IS2006-0485

Patrol # 1

I should have known that when my Cryptologic Direct Support Element3 gave me actionable intelligence just days into theatre that this deployment was going to be a ‘fast ride.’ Ottawa had just departed the USN/Indian Navy/Canadian Navy joint and combined Exercise Malabar and reported for duty to CTF 150 when our first direct action went down. It was a thing of beauty the way my onboard intelligence team liaised with shore-based coalition staffs. This tight liaison enabled Ottawa to position herself to execute a high speed, operational boarding. At that point, the effectiveness of our demanding national training protocols became evident as the team executed like combat clockwork. The high-speed, high-seas chase unfolded as follows:

  • T-3H45 – Ottawa’s intelligence team brings forward the information on position of the target vessel. Plotting confirms it to be approximately 75 nautical miles (nm) away. The ship begins closing the position at operational speed.
  • T-2h10 – Ottawa informs regional operational control and national authorities.
  • T-1h50 – Having tasked the on-station coalition Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) to investigate the position, Ottawa confirms there is one contact in the area. The MPA is tasked to covertly track as the ship closes at maximum speed to intercept before the contact enters nearby territorial waters (TTW).
  • T-1h35 – Ship conducts internal Rules of Engagement (ROE) briefs and clears for action.
  • T-1h28 – Ottawa is brought to ‘Ops Red’ boarding stations. The ship’s helicopter, Monty 29, is launched at range to take over tracking from the MPA as it proceeds off station.
  • T-0h28 – It becomes apparent that the target is closing nearby TTW, and that, if not deterred, a ship intercept will not be possible. Monty 29 is tasked to actively hail the vessel, and to get it to heave to for boarding.
  • T-0h20 – Monty 29 is successful in diverting the target, which stops just short of TTW. The target’s crew begins jettisoning its illicit cargo in earnest as the Monty 29 documents these actions photographically.
  • T-0h12 – Managing concurrent launch of the boarding boat and true tailwind recovery of Monty 29, Ottawa conducts the final approach on the target.
  • T-0h10 – Naval boarding party embarked in the rigid inflatable boat (RIB).
  • T-0h06 – Ottawa commences loud hailer broadcasts to the target in Arabic and Somali. Target ceases all activities.
  • 0h00 – Ottawa’s boarding party secures the target.

DND photo IS2006-0583

The effects of these direct actions at sea are extremely important. After all, the end state of a deployment is not to deploy, but to generate effects on the ground. Admiral Jay L. Johnson (USN Chief of Naval Operations 1996 – 2000) put it best when he said: “The purpose of Naval Forces is to influence, directly and decisively, events ashore from the sea – anytime, anywhere.” When Ottawa successfully interdicts and/or impacts upon terrorist use of the sea, there is a chain of effects that supports our troops on the ground.4 In this case, Ottawa’s operational boarding had a direct and significant impact upon the ability of terrorists to fund their heinous activities.

With the first operational boarding complete, Ottawa resumed ‘baseline’ operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Certainly less ‘sexy’ than direct-action events, baseline operations are nonetheless essential activities. As the ‘cop on the maritime beat,’ baseline units provide presence, and they conduct information-gathering operations, such as maritime awareness calls,5 recognized maritime picture compilation, and approach operations.6 This information is examined by a host of shore- and sea-based analysts who generate actionable intelligence gems that lead to direct action at-sea and ashore. Ottawa’s baseline patrol was conducted mainly along the Somalia coastline. It is a generally held opinion within the maritime community that this area is unstable and rife with piracy – a situation that terrorists could predictably exploit. This vital baseline work was interrupted in its latter stages with yet another operational boarding smoothly coordinated by Ottawa and her ESG sister ship, USS Benfold. Successful completion of this second direct-action event, as well as baseline operations conducted en route Muscat Oman, marked the end of an action-packed and very effective Patrol # 1.

Boarding party questioning a sailor

DND photo IS2006-0674

Patrol # 2

This patrol also commenced ‘with a bang.’ Sailing just hours short of Muscat, and into the early evening, Ottawa received a MAYDAY on the international distress frequency, VHF Channel 16. While difficult to break the language barrier, it was clearly an Indian cargo ship that was taking on water fast, located about 15 nautical miles distant. Realizing that time was the enemy, I replied that ‘Coalition Warship 341’ was responding, and subsequently came up to full speed. It was an intense, choppy, midnight rescue that was successful, due to the skill and seamanship of Ottawa’s Search and Rescue (SAR) team. After delivering our grateful 18 Indian merchant sailors ashore,7 Ottawa was off at high speed through the Straits of Hormuz, en route Bahrain.

As the designated ‘Alternate Flagship,’ Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Ottawa was assigned the honour of hosting the Task Force 150 Change of Command Ceremony, when Royal Navy Commodore Bruce Williams relieved the German Rear Admiral Heinrich Langë of duty. Diplomatic events such as these are very important and visible indications of Canadian support and commitment to regional coalition building, maritime security operations, and the campaign against terrorism, and they constitute a classic force multiplier that the navy brings to the government. This is manifested in the ability to position indefinitely a warship off a foreign shore, and then reposition alongside in another country, both to further governmental foreign policy objectives. During Ottawa’s deployment, she supported a host of very productive diplomatic support activities, which added to the overall effects on shore.8

The second patrol was a baseline patrol that focused upon the Persian Gulf. Ottawa was assigned a number of warfare duties and forces to conduct a so-called pulse operation in the Southern Persian Gulf. During Pulse Operation Eager Beaver (Ottawa’s crest is a beaver, and the ship’s motto is Regae Reveab [Eager Beaver spelled backwards]), we coordinated the activities of the assigned coalition aircraft and ships in order to maximize presence in-line with my Operational Commander’s Intent. It was during this patrol that Ottawa conducted the larger proportion of its hails, maritime awareness calls, small boat inspections,9 and approach operations. Ottawa would drive herself and the program, conducting an average of 10 approaches a day when conditions permitted and sometimes as many as 16 approaches. Professionally demanding, the operational tempo over the Christmas period was a challenge that prepared the ship for the next patrol, as well as Ottawa’s leadership role in the Red Sea.10

Boarding party and dohas

DND photo IS2006-0585

Patrol # 3

By this time, I was quite sure that Ottawa’s Patrol # 3 would start off as the other two had – with a challenge. This turned out to be the case. The first item on our program was an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) exercise that Ottawa had been assigned to plan and lead with four coalition ships, maritime patrol aircraft, maritime helicopters, and a US submarine. It was not to be. Due to unforeseen events, the exercise was cancelled and Ottawa was assigned, at short notice, to conduct an extended force protection escort of the USS Newport News through the Straits of Hormuz over a 24-hour period and a transit distance of 240 nautical miles. Again, the flexibility of naval power was demonstrated, as my warship was suddenly re-roled at a moment’s notice in favour of a completely different, high priority mission. With the escort, conducted under close Iranian surveillance, safely completed, Ottawa proceeded at high speed to the last un-patrolled body of water in our Area of Responsibility (AOR) – the Red Sea.

Op Altair patrol summary

DND map

Operation Altair patrol summary.

For the next 10 days, Ottawa was assigned the duty of Pulse Group Commander in the Red Sea. The region is the third-busiest waterway in the world, and, strategically, one of the most important. This tasking was to prove very different from my last Pulse Group Commander tasking, in that the Red Sea was a far-less-understood waterway than the Persian Gulf, and the resources assigned Ottawa were much larger. Under CTF 150, Ottawa was assigned as Pulse Group Commander for Pulse Operation Argo Butes. Over a 10-day period, I exercised tactical control of five multi-national coalition warships, an AOR, and daily maritime patrol aircraft resources, coordinating patrol activities and replenishment support requirements.11 Ottawa’s task was to understand the Red Sea maritime environment, to collect intelligence, and to communicate coalition messages to the community. For a deployed Canadian Patrol Frigate (CPF) without any attached staff, Ottawa would execute this focused-duration tactical control mission aggressively and with style.

Pulse Operation Argo Butes was extremely successful. Ottawa coordinated the efforts of the forces assigned, and, during the 10-day mission, obtained considerable intelligence on arms movements, and legitimate and illicit traffic. Traffic patterns were first assessed by my intelligence team, and then validated by Pulse Group forces. This baseline information obtained will help provide the backdrop for follow-on operations. Of significance, this form of coalition command role further reinforces Canada’s commitment to international security, and the Canadian Navy’s relevance and effectiveness as a world-class navy. Canada and her navy have proven they can get the job done – period.

Sailor aboard a dohas

DND photo IS2006-0680

Anatomy of Excellence

Why did Ottawa excel at every task assigned during Operation Altair?

There are a number of contributing reasons why Ottawa was successful during this deployment, but I will highlight just three: the high standard of training of the Canadian sailors and aviators, the balance and the quality of our navy’s ships, and the clear Commander’s Intent demonstrated throughout the chain of command.

At the beginning of this article, I purposely amended the typical wording and stated that we have state- of-the-art professional sailors and aviators. Canadian naval training is under regular review, which makes it responsive to operational advances. The Canadian sailor and aviator are at the ‘top of the heap’ because they learn from mistakes and adapt procedures, be it through the training pipeline and/or in applying lessons learned from post-deployment reports. I have acquired considerable operational experience with other navies, and I know that our training standards make us a leader, if not the leader in the world. Typically, the navy and her air detachments will ‘beat themselves up’ for achieving only 95 percent of a given task. What happened to that other five percent, they will demand? In essence, a defining characteristic of the Canadian sailor and aviator is stubborn pride and the demand for excellence.

This is not the navy’s first operational deployment to Southwest Asia. It was the 20th since the 9/11 attacks, and we are still adding to that Rotation (Roto) total. Additionally, Canadian and US navies have worked closely together for decades. This has driven our navy to operate apace of and to be routinely integrated into USN deploying strike groups, the most technologically advanced and powerful navy in the world. It is therefore no surprise that our extremely capable ships are completely up to the task. The focus upon interoperability with the USN, and any other navy with which we operate, drives capability enhancement, most notably in the communications and bandwidth management areas. Combine our well-rounded and combat-capable ships with the integration of CDSE intelligence teams, and one increases the navy’s ‘punching power’ exponentially.

Finally, I learned the Operational Planning Process at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, and I understood that as a commander in the field, my actions and decisions need to be guided by my Commander’s Intent. In preparing for my deployment, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), and the Commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) provided me clear intent in terms of national policy, end states, coalition strategy, constraints, restraints, objectives, and risks, among other key planning elements. Further, the commanders of Task Forces 150 and 152 provided me with clear operational orders at all times, which included their Guidance and Intent. When your bosses are clear about the end-state for which they are aiming, and give you the latitude to execute, you are ‘in a wonderful place’ as a warrior. Keeping this ‘big hand, small map’ attitude within my own command enabled the chain of command, from the CDS down to my most junior boarding party member, to function effectively.

Arabian Sea at sunset

DND photo IS2006-0680

Final Thoughts

I conclude briefly by re-stating how proud I am to be in the navy. I am proud to have led the finest (every CO will of course say that, but in my case it is true...) warship in the Campaign against the Threat of Terror. It was by virtue of the excellence of her crew, the ship, and the support and guidance from my chain of command, that Ottawa was able to create operational effects in support of the Government of Canada and our deployed forces ashore. That has ever been and will ever be the role of the navy in the finest traditions of the service.

Ready, Aye, Ready.

Captain (N) Darren Hawco

CMJ Logo

Recently promoted to his present rank, Commander Hawco was the Commanding Officer of HMCS Ottawa from May 2006 to June 2007.


  1. Operation Altair was named after the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle, and is derived from the Arabic phrase Al Nasr Al-Tair, which means “The Flying Eagle.” Operation Altair is the Canadian maritime contribution to the Campaign against the Threat of Terrorism.
  2. Canadian Navy ships began integrating into American CSG’s in 1998 when Ottawa integrated into the USS Abraham Lincoln Battle Group for the Operation Mercator deployment to the Persian Gulf. The CAN/US level of interoperability is at such a seamless level that Canadian warships are assigned major warfare duties within deploying strike groups. In Ottawa’s case, the ship was assigned the duty of Anti-Submarine Warfare Commander.
  3. CDSE personnel are intelligence specialists who deploy in HMC Ships with a sophisticated suite of organic and non-organic intelligence resources in direct support of operations.
  4. Canadian ships interdict smugglers that support terrorists. This reduces funds to terrorists. Successful interdictions force changes in smuggler tactics, further reducing funding to terrorists. Reduced funds to terrorists curtail their operations on the ground, keeping Canada and deployed forces safer. Unreliable provision of munitions and materials impacts upon terrorist activities, making them more vulnerable to direct action by forces ashore. Intelligence collected by Canadian ships provides analysis basis for follow-on direct action against terrorists on the ground by coalition forces.
  5. Maritime Awareness Calls are radio communications made by coalition ships to vessels operating with the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to inform them of the coalition’s presence in the area.
  6. Approach operations are conducted with six- person teams on small fishing or cargo 2 with the intent of gathering human intelligence, learning about the local economy and community, and fostering a good working environment between coalition forces and local mariners. Approach operations allow the coalition to establish a baseline understanding of the region in order to be able to discern between normal and irregular activities.
  7. Perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of the deployment is a letter I received from the mayor of the town from which the rescued sailors hailed. The letter was a thank you to the ship for not only saving the lives of the 18 sailors, but for saving the lives of 18 families.
  8. During Operation Altair, Ottawa conducted a number of official diplomatic and ‘navy-to-navy’ events, including: hosting ambassador/high commissioner receptions in Singapore, India, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Malaysia, and Japan, supporting ‘think tank’ discussions in Singapore, hosting theatre security cooperation meetings with the UAE fleet staff, conducting numerous media conferences, conducting an underway interoperability training exercise with the Malaysian Navy, visiting Saiwan cemetery in Hong Kong to pay respects to the Canadian heroes who fell in defence of Hong Kong during the Second World War, and visiting Onagawa, Japan, to pay respects to Lieutenant (N) Robert Hampton Gray, Royal Canadian Navy Voluntary Reserve (RCNVR), and Victoria Cross recipient, in further tribute to those Canadian heroes who fell in battle in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War.
  9. Small boat inspection teams are tailored boarding party teams of between six and eight boarding party members, consisting of the Boarding Officer, Witnessing Officer (specially trained for evidence and intelligence gathering), and four to six members from the engineering, deck, and combat departments. This team is used for the boarding of smaller vessels where space is limited and the crews are smaller. The ‘six pack’ is a rapidly deployable and flexible team capable of carrying out approach operations or the boardings of very small vessels.
  10. During Ottawa’s six-month Operation Altair deployment, the ship conducted 175 approach operations, 452 maritime awareness calls, four operational boardings, 144 vessel queries, and steamed a total of 41,000 nautical miles.
  11. There were approximately 1200 sailors and aviators in the Pulse Group

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