Transferring ESSMs in the time of COVID-19

November 25, 2020 – The morning of August 31, 2020, was a hot one in the Hawaiian sun. The Combat Systems Engineering (CSE) Officer of HMCS Winnipeg stood on the flight deck, ready to give a safety brief. Another successful Exercise RIM of the PACIFIC (RIMPAC) had just wrapped, and Winnipeg’s CSE department figured significantly in the many gunnery exercises – including missile and torpedo firings – that took place.

For Lieutenant Julien St-Aubin, the CSE evolution had been months in the making and was unlike any other he had done before. In fact, on the day in question, his team did something that hadn’t been done in many years: it lead the transfer of two empty Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) canisters and one spare Telemetric ESSM from HMCS Winnipeg, and the embarking of three Warshot ESSMs from HMCS Regina. The ammunition transfer was part of HMCS Winnipeg’s preparations in advance of its deployment on Operations PROJECTION and NEON.

Ammunition safety protocols — including regulating procurement, storage, transportation, inspection, maintenance, authorized modification, issue, use and disposal of all ammunition and explosives with the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) — are managed through the Director Ammunition and Explosives Regulation (DAER). What this means is that under normal circumstances, Winnipeg’s CSE team would have played a supporting role to the subject matter experts identified by DAER who would have been on-site in Pearl Harbor to lead the transfer. The DAER team would have been comprised primarily of staff from Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot (CFAD) Rocky Point, located about 25 km southwest of Victoria, B.C.

“The Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) ship staff members haven’t been in command of this type of evolution for decades,” says Lt(N) St-Aubin.

And the circumstances that were at play were anything but normal. This is 2020, the year of COVID-19 mitigations and all of the follow-on consequences that entails. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, flying CFAD staff out to Hawaii to oversee the missile re-arm, as would have been typical, was impossible.

“CFAD staff provided a lot of additional training and mentorship to both myself and my Fire Control Technicians,” says Lt(N) St-Aubin. “From understanding the composition of the ESSM canisters to key observations for the installation on board HMC ships, which are crucial for system operability.”

CFAD staff walked Winnipeg’s CSE team members through several missile embarkations until they were ready to setup, crane aboard and install ESSM canisters themselves.

“CFAD staff wanted to ensure that not only did we install the canisters correctly by following their meticulous procedures, but also that we did it with safety in mind. There are many moving parts and personnel involved in the manipulation of the canisters themselves,” says Lt(N) St-Aubin.

The safety brief was delivered and Lt(N) St-Aubin’s team set to work as the three canisters were craned off of Winnipeg. It was hot, meticulous and intensely focused work, and once Winnipeg’s canisters were off and secured for transport, the team moved over to Regina’s jetty, just a short ride away in a rigid-hulled inflatable boat. It was time to get the Warshot ESSMs.

Helping to oversee the evolution was Chief Petty Officer Second Class (CPO2) Nels Jensen, a member of Sea Training Pacific who had been onboard Winnipeg since the ship departed on August 1. HMCS Winnipeg’s Intermediate Multi-Ship Readiness Training program was overlaid with RIMPAC, but on this day CPO2 Jensen wasn’t there to evaluate a sea training exercise.

“In terms of this specific evolution, we’re representing the Formation Ammunition Inspector to make sure that the ship is operating in accordance with safety and policy,” says CPO2 Jensen. “So it’s less about the sea training piece, and more about the safety piece.”

“Safety is the RCN’s primary concern,” adds Lt(N) St-Aubin. “We take precautions at all levels and for all evolutions. And this new temporary capability is no different. A safety brief is given to all involved in the evolution; all members in the work space are required to wear a safety helmet and gloves when handling the lines; and the Weapons Engineering Technician who is required to be aloft on the missile superstructure to assist in aligning the canisters into their correct placement will wear a five-point harness. Technically speaking, we want to ensure that prior to embarking the ESSM canisters, Winnipeg ship’s staff are happy with their overall condition, as well as with the connectors.”

Even though this was only a temporary capability, its training value cannot be underestimated.

“Our ability to do these things and adapt, like being able to transfer ESSMs without the support of other units, is a good example of how our technicians can quickly learn a skill, put it into place, make it happen safely and then bring that capability to Winnipeg for the deployment,” says CPO2 Jensen.

The Warshot ESSMs were successfully craned off Regina. Back at Winnipeg, they were craned on board. The transfer was complete. Will this evolution be repeated? It will depend on COVID-19 mitigation measures in the future.

“We might have to do this again,” says CPO2 Jensen. “And [Winnipeg’s CSE team] will have the expertise that they can use to lend support to another ship that may have to do it.”

Throughout the evolution, from the planning right up to the execution, there were new hurdles to jump and obstacles to overcome. The success of the ESSM transfer was a testament to the team’s hard work and ability to find solutions to problems that, at times, they didn’t realize they had.

“We are constantly challenged with new problems to solve,” says Lt(N) St-Aubin. “Understanding the task and the desired end state is key, while always ensuring that safety is maintained. We’ve had to be adaptive and flexible.”

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