HMCS Halifax departs as second ship to join Operation Reassurance
By Joanie Veitch,
As the crew of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Halifax readied for their mission to join Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) in northern Europe, Commander Dale St. Croix said he and the crew felt buoyed by the support they’ve received, not just the extra help from base and dockyard colleagues, but also well-wishes from the general public.
“Canadians usually don’t pay much attention to their armed forces, except at times of strife,” said Cdr St. Croix, Commanding Officer of HMCS Halifax. “We’ve received a lot of encouragement… from people and politicians to business leaders — all telling us that they’re proud of what we’re doing. It’s been very touching.”
On February 22, the federal government announced that HMCS Halifax would join HMCS Montreal on Operation Reassurance, to provide additional military support to NATO operations in Central and Eastern Europe.
Montreal is currently with Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) in the Mediterranean region, having left on their scheduled deployment on January 19.
While HMCS Halifax had been scheduled to deploy to Operation Artemis in the Middle East in April, the ship was re-tasked to Operation Reassurance instead, leaving on March 19, with a crew of 253 on board.
Plans were for more than 200 family members to be on the jetty waving good-bye, with masking and other restrictions still in place. It’s the largest gathering to send off a ship from HMC Dockyard in Halifax since restrictions were put in place in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19.
While the ship is scheduled to arrive in the Baltic region in early April, Cdr St. Croix said the crew will be doing extra training activities on their way across the Atlantic Ocean, primarily working with the embarked helicopter air detachment.
“We are at a level of high readiness, but with this final training we’ll be able to refine our skills, so we’re even more prepared by the time we arrive.”
Last year at this time, Halifax was also deployed on Operation Reassurance, as SNMG1 flagship, when the Royal Canadian Navy assumed command of the task group.
After returning from that deployment last July, 65 percent of the crew were switched out, including the Command Team, with Cdr St. Croix assuming command of HMCS Halifax from Cdr Christoper Rochon shortly after the ship’s return.
RCN frigates have maintained a consistent presence on Operation Projection, deploying on a rotational basis for exercises and operational tasks in the NATO Maritime Command area of Europe since 2014.
While past deployments would see Canadian warships involved in a wide range of multinational NATO exercises over the course of their six-month stint, the war in Ukraine has made the schedule of activities on this deployment much less certain.
Their main focus, Cdr St. Croix said, will be on combat-readiness operations within the greater mission, as well as providing general security, including search and rescue operations and any needed humanitarian assistance.
“Any time there are people on the move in large numbers there’s a concern from a Navy perspective for any incidents at sea with people in unseaworthy ships. It’s always something you prepare for,” he said.
The main goal, he added, is to be present “to assure our NATO allies that we’re ready to respond should anything occur.”
Just as the schedule for activities is not fully known with this mission, exactly how long Halifax will be gone is also a shifting target.
“The schedule has changed so many times already… and it will change again. Right now, we’re tracking to return mid- to end of July but with what’s going on in the world right now, we just can’t know for sure,” said Cdr St. Croix. “I’ve told the crew to be flexible.”
While there are inherent risks with any mission for members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the situation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 has made this deployment feel different than previous iterations of Operation Reassurance, both for the crew and for their families and loved ones at home, said Cdr St. Croix.
While everyone in the ship’s company is feeling that tension, Cdr St. Croix said he’s impressed with how well the crew has pulled together in getting ready for the mission.
Shortly after it was announced that HMCS Halifax would be going to Europe, the Halifax & Region Military Family Resource Centre hosted a meeting for any families with members going on the deployment.
“We talked about the deployment and the sense of uncertainty that everyone is feeling. With all the discussions in the news about the ship being assigned to this mission, naturally some family members were feeling more concerned about the danger,” said Cdr St. Croix.
“There is a lot of political instability in eastern Europe right now. Does that have the potential to boil up into something more? Of course it does. We have prepared the crew for any tasking. They are very well prepared already and will be even more prepared by the time we get there. Hopefully the situation will be resolved diplomatically but in the meantime, we have to remain vigilant and remain at a high level of readiness.”