When Russian ships hove into sight on the horizon during NATO exercises at the height of the Cold War, Canadian sailors would sometimes race to their lockers for hockey equipment, or that’s how the story goes.
They knew what was about to happen, said Gerry Laporte, and they didn’t want to miss an opportunity.
“They would play chicken, screaming right in at us to see if they could get us to turn,” the former head of the local naval base, CFMETR, said. “I never saw it myself, but I heard one guy say they would get the hockey team out and fire hockey pucks at them as they would go by.”
That’s a big difference from Canada’s last major naval experience, the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War, but by no means the only one. Naval warfare has evolved tremendously since the days of Azdic sonar and depth charges.
“Back then, they would drop those depth charges maybe 100 yards from the ship,” he said. “They had to pretty much get right on top of them. These days, if you’re anywhere near that close, you’re probably losing. You don’t want to get anywhere near that close to an atomic submarine. Hopefully, you picked them up an awful lot sooner than that.”
Rather than a battle space measured in a few hundred metres or maybe a few miles, Laporte said the battle space in modern naval warfare is measured in thousands of square miles.
“There will be hundreds of ships in a convoy, but you can’t see them because they’re not in a tight pack,” he said.
The capabilities contained in one ship have also increased dramatically since the days of the big battleships of the Second World War.
“One of the big innovations since the war has been the use of seagoing helicopters on frigates,” Laporte said. “Canada was a world leader in that. As well, there were innovations such as long range sonar, shore-based underwater sensors, all very important during the Cold War. Surface ships with long range sensors can cue an aircraft in on target. Meanwhile, the ships, being bigger, can have more capability and concentrate on the battle space, making the aircraft that much more efficient.”
The changes are dramatic, but he stressed that those changes built on the rapid evolution in navy capacity that started with the U-boat threat in the North Atlantic.
“When war breaks out, people are usually equipped wrong and there is a huge evolution very quickly,” he said.
By the end of the war, anti-submarine warfare had progressed to the point where the German U-boats were pretty much swept from the Atlantic. That evolution, he said, continued right into the Cold War.
“During the Second World War, if a sailor wrote a letter he would put it in the mailbox at the next port of call and when they went to sea they would be lucky if they could get a bag of mail to an aircraft carrier and fly it to shore to get a letter home,” he said. “Today, they get so many minutes on a satellite phone every day and call mom and dad to see what’s happening. There’s far more connectivity.”
That connectivity isn’t confined to sailors asking about their children’s school play.
It also serves a more tactical purpose.
“Ships can plug into Lloyd’s Registry and download all sorts of information about a ship to see if it is a threat or if it’s bringing in refugees or has been identified as a carrier of terrorists. You have to figure out who is out there and who you have to deal with.”
The navy’s role, he added, has evolved as well, and continues to do so today.
“During the Cold War, with the Cuban missile crisis and a few things in Europe, it was more theoretical. We never fired at the Soviets but it seemed to come very close and the drama of what would happen if it did happen was mind-boggling, but we never thought it would happen,” he said. “You can’t go through life if you think there is going to be nuclear Armageddon. Now, with countering piracy off the Horn of Africa and doing interdiction of terrorists, those guys are doing it for real, going out in small boats. That’s as real as it can get.”