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'Robbing Peter to pay Paul': Canadian navy warship sails home on borrowed transponder

HMCS Ottawa, one of two frigates that were deployed to the Indo-Pacific region before returning home on Dec. 18, 2023, is pictured. (Sailor 1st Class Victoria Ioganov/Maritime Forces Pacific) HMCS Ottawa, one of two frigates that were deployed to the Indo-Pacific region before returning home on Dec. 18, 2023, is pictured. (Sailor 1st Class Victoria Ioganov/Maritime Forces Pacific)
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When HMCS Ottawa, a workhorse frigate of the Canadian navy, sailed back to British Columbia this week after four months at sea, it made the journey home on a borrowed transponder that had been cannibalized from another vessel and airlifted out to sea.

The warship had been deployed to the Indo-Pacific region, along with fellow frigate HMCS Vancouver and a naval resupply vessel, since August.

The mission marked the first fulfillment of the federal government's new commitment to increase the number of warships deployed to the region annually from two to three, following HMCS Montreal's deployment to the region in the spring.

But ahead of HMCS Ottawa's scheduled port visit to Hawaii earlier this month, a problem arose with the ship's AIS (automatic identification system) transponder, which relays the ship's real-time location to other vessels in the area.

Without a backup transponder on board, the decision was made to salvage a transponder from HMCS Winnipeg – which has been undergoing an extensive overhaul at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt – and fly the equipment out to Hawaii so the ship could safely begin its voyage home on Dec. 11.

The replacement caused the ship to be misidentified as HMCS Winnipeg on the AIS network for the bulk of its 4,400-kilometre journey home.

"When they departed Hawaii and entered their information into the AIS system upon turning it on, they missed updating one component," Maritime Forces Pacific spokesperson Lt. Michelle Scott said in an email to CTV News.

"Ship transponders can be set to different names by inputting the information into the system," Scott added. "In this case, an input was missed in error which is why the AIS was showing as HMCS Winnipeg and not HMCS Ottawa."

'A VERY CONSIDERABLE CHALLENGE'

While the stopgap repair may seem insignificant on its own, it's indicative of the current challenges facing the Royal Canadian Navy.

Late last month, the commander of the navy released a video warning the force has reached a "critical state" and may fall short of its readiness commitments in the coming year and beyond.

The navy's Pacific fleet is of highest concern, Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee said in the video. A shortage of qualified personnel to operate other vessels has forced the navy to demand more from its aging frigates, which entered service in the early to mid-1990s and have since undergone a significant life-extension program.

"The Halifax-class frigates are, and will remain, our only surface combatants for at least the next 15 years," Topshee said.

"We must therefore find a way to keep the Halifax class going until at least 2040," he added. "Given that they've reached their design life of 30 years, and that all 12 (ships) are absolutely required to meet Canada's commitments to NATO and the Indo-Pacific strategy, this is a very considerable challenge."

Steffan Watkins, an Ottawa-based research consultant who tracks military ships and aircraft worldwide, says the transponder swap provides a window into how the resource-strapped navy will keep the frigates afloat.

"On the heels of Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee's surprisingly candid and worrying assessment regarding the state of Royal Canadian Navy, this incident seems to provide an inadvertently public view into how they keep the 1990s-vintage Halifax class at sea – by robbing Peter to pay Paul," Watkins said.

HMCS Ottawa and HMCS Vancouver returned home to CFB Esquimalt on Monday. Marie-France Lalonde, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of national defence, attended the homecoming ceremony for approximately 500 sailors and aircrew ahead of the holidays.

While at sea, the frigates participated in a series of multinational exercises, with HMCS Ottawa operating mainly in Southeast Asia while HMCS Vancouver focused on Northeast Asia, including involvement in the longstanding Operation Neon, Canada's contribution to United Nations sanctions enforcement and monitoring activities against North Korea.

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