Armed forces win narrow victory over Nunavut weather

“You can have the best equipment in the world but you can’t defeat it”



The Canadian armed forces came to the Arctic and got what they were looking for – a challenge.

Soldiers participating in Operation Narwhal, the joint military exercise between navy, army and the air force in Panniqtuuq, stumbled through a difficult two weeks around the Cumberland Peninsula, plagued by weather bad enough to ground multi-million-dollar helicopters, and cause two soldiers to get lost in the fog.

The exercise, which began in earnest when hundreds of military troops headed for Nunavut in mid-August, was the largest of its kind this far North.

By the time the massive operation ended on Tuesday, the military had suffered several setbacks, some related to technology untested in Nunavut’s harsh climate, and troops lacking experience in Baffin Island’s August fog.

Military brass considered the exercise a success, despite an internal investigation into how two soldiers were left to fend for themselves, without a tent or proper clothing, overnight on the tundra. The two men, both communications specialists, didn’t have any weapons to fend off a potential polar bear attack.

The soldiers were eventually found, cold and tired, after the weather cleared in the morning and helicopters were allowed to fly again.

Col. Normand Couturier, the head of the North’s military division, said this incident and others didn’t amount to failure.

During a press conference in Iqaluit, Couturier said the massive and historic operation achieved what it set out to do – challenge Canada’s military to adapt to the hazards of working in Nunavut’s isolated and rugged terrain.

He added that the Canadian military has proven it can keep Nunavummiut safe, and defend the country’s sovereignty.

“From a commander’s point of view, the exercise was no doubt a success,” said Couturier, commander for Canadian Forces Northern Area, based in Yellowknife.

In an interview just days before the soldiers were lost, Couturier admitted Nunavut’s fast-changing weather was an enemy that the armed forces could not beat.

Only days into the exercise, the military had to adjust their transportation plans because a heavy, low-lying fog made it too dangerous to fly the military’s Twin Otter planes or Griffon helicopters. In order to get to Panniqtuuq, more than 100 soldiers had to board HMCS Montreal, a navy battleship, to avoid waiting for the skies to clear.

Meanwhile, commercial planes continued to travel between Iqaluit and Panniqtuuq, in part because they had the fuel capacity to fly further to alternate landing spots, if the weather got even worse.

“There’s not much we can do about the weather,” Couturier said, while standing in the sun on the runway of the Panniqtuuq airport. “You can have the best equipment in the world but you can’t defeat it.”

Besides grounding helicopters and planes, the weather also got the upper hand on the military’s hi-tech surveillance equipment.

Lt. Col. Sandy Robertson, who oversaw the deployment of troops in Operation Narwhal, said poor weather meant he was unable to use information from a remote control spy plane as much as he had planned.

Also, the RADARSAT-1 satellite used in the exercise delivered digital printouts of the area only once, out of six attempts. The satellite is the same technology used in the much-vaunted Polar Epsilon project, meant to increase the military’s ability to keep watch over Nunavut and the other territories.

By the end of the exercise, each division of the military counted at least one significant battle with the weather.

Capt. Simon Johnson, who coordinated military flights between the Iqaluit and Panniqtuuq airports, said temperatures hovering around zero Celsius sometimes caused frost to build up on the blades of 427 squadron’s five Griffon helicopters. As a result, he said pilots sometimes had to wait on the ground for better weather because the frost on the blades would make the helicopter fly unevenly.

From the navy’s point of view, the exercise challenged their communication abilities, which were sometimes cut off by the fiord’s high cliffs.

Cmdr. Bill Woodburn, head of HMCS Montreal, said the remoteness of the area also posed overall problems for each section of the military, because their ground operations were so far away from decision-making centres, like Yellowknife.

“It definitely proves it’s a challenging environment,” Woodburn said during a news briefing in HMCS Montreal’s dining hall.

Woodburn noted that his ship was limited in its ability to sail the Arctic waters because its hull isn’t strong enough to risk running into thick pack ice or icebergs.

Problems aside, Operation Narwhal made history, as it brought together the three streams of the armed forces – the army, the air force and the navy – for the first time this far North. The exercise involved around 600 military personnel, who mainly worked from Iqaluit and Panniqtuuq, where soldiers patrolled the streets in green fatigues with about 30 Rangers.

After more than a year of planning, the exercise ran the forces through a fictitious role-playing scenario, specifically designed to test the limits of the Canadian Forces Northern Area Command centre run out of Yellowknife. CFNA focuses especially on maintaining Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic.

Military officials said they chose the Cumberland Peninsula around Panniqtuuq because of the difficult terrain and remoteness of the area, in order to challenge the military’s capabilities.

During the exercise, military brass pretended that a satellite had crashed somewhere near Panniqtuuq, and they needed to retrieve the debris. Against Canadian law, a make-believe Asian country named Sakla sends in a ship to try and pick up the pieces ahead of the Canadian military.

Canada’s military reacts by boarding the foreign vessel, and taking the debris away from them. At this point, the Canadian Coast Guard joined the exercise, sending the Henry Larsen, an icebreaking ship, to play the part of the suspicious vessel.

A plan to also pretend that a cruise ship had broken down in the region and needed to be rescued was scrapped due to weather delays.

Troops will leave Panniqtuuq on Aug. 30 after a community feast with local residents. Military officials are planning to have another northern exercise involving the army, navy and air force in 2008.

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