Nfld. & Labrador

Boarding ships and air attacks: Operation Nanook begins in Labrador Sea

We take you on board an annual exercise that tests the military's ability to operate in the Arctic.

Annual exercise tests the military’s ability to operate in the Arctic

A round is fired from the main gun aboard HMCS Charlottetown, aimed at a remote-controlled boat heading toward the ship. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Cmdr. Nathan Decicco squints to try and see the small fast boat that's coming right at his ship.

The glare of the sun makes the fast black motorboat hard to see.

He picks up the black phone next to his chair on the bridge. He's ready to give the order.

"You can carry on with the firing run against the hammerhead target," he tells his operations room.

The big 57 mm gun on the front of HMCS Charlottetown swings into position and fires 10 shots.

Even from inside the bridge, you feel the boom in your chest.

Target practice, of a specialized sort

The splashes show the rounds landed just next to the little boat.

But Decicco isn't upset: his weapons room purposely adjusted their shot to just miss their target. It's a $100,000 remote-controlled boat, designed for target practice, but he wants to give the Danish navy ship VæVderren a shot as well.

Cmdr. Nathan Decicco is overseeing operations during Operation Nanook. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

The two ships are spending several days doing exercises together.

This exercise is good practice for the crew against what could be a deadly scenario. A small speedboat filled with explosives is a low-tech but effective way for someone to attack a warship.

"This is a threat to any warship, whether you're at sea abroad or even at home," said Decicco in an interview with CBC News from the bridge.

"It's a real threat."

An annual trek north

This is one of the first exercises for this year's Operation Nanook. Now in its 12th year, the exercise is the annual trek north for the military.

It's a chance for the navy, air force and army to practice working together in the north.

A boarding party leaves HMCS Charlottetown for training on how to board a foreign ship. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Former prime minster Stephen Harper would often visit the exercise, bringing media and attention to it and the north. Under Justin Trudeau, the exercise hasn't been given the same profile.

Even though the navy has had more than a decade of these exercises, Charlottetown's captain says there's tremendous value in coming to the Arctic every year.

"The environment is always changing and the sailors are always changing," said Decicco.

Like most of the sailors on his ship, he's travelled to other parts of the world but has never been up north.

He said the same people who were planning and executing the exercise in the early years have moved on.

The Danish ship Vædderen gets a chance to take on some target practice.

"You need to continue to expose the current cadre of planners and operators to the Arctic problem so they can understand the complexities of it, especially around the logistics and the weather of operating in this kind of environment," he said. 

"We can continue to have that as a real capability, rather than saying it's something we did in the past, and therefore we should be able to do that in the future."

Decicco says the economic, shipping and tourist activity in the North has only increased in the last decade, and the military's presence needs to increase with it.

Testing new technology

HMCS Charlottetown hasn't been modified to carry the new Cyclone helicopters, so it's travelling north without traditional air support on board.

The ship's only eye in the sky is a new drone it is testing out

Charles Harding, a weapons engineering technician, is operating the new drone on this trip.

HMCS Charlottetown is not designed to handle ice. Instead, its only option to steer around it. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

"If we have to come to a complete stop and look forward, we can fly out to a maximum of two kilometres," he said.

That will let the captain see what lies ahead, which will be be important when the ship encounters ice.

The 23-year-old frigate was not designed to operate in ice-filled waters. These warships were designed for hunting submarines not breaking ice.

It can take out ships, missiles and airplanes, but when it comes to sea ice, all HMCS Charlottetown can do is go around.

"They have a lot of fragile bits that would be exposed to risk if they were operating in ice environment," said Decicco​​.

Sunset on the bridge of the HMCS Charlottetown, as it heads north in the Labrador Sea. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

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About the Author

Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.