Staying Sharp on Exercise KEEN SWORD

December 7, 2020 – Defence Stories
Author: Captain Chelsea Dubeau

While the ship continues its deployment, the same measures that have been in place over the past few months to minimize the potential exposure to COVID-19 will continue. When the ship goes alongside in a foreign port, there are significant restrictions as to who can come on the ship and they will be screened for COVID-19 beforehand. Despite the limitations of operating in a COVID-19 environment, the CAF has remained agile and able to conduct successful missions around the world, all while adhering to both domestic and host nation COVID-19 safety requirements.  As well, having observed a quarantine period prior to deployment, members of the crew on board the ship do not wear masks in the normal course of their duties unless they are interacting with members of the public during port visits (e.g. loading supplies and food on board).


Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Danielle Barclay, from Colorado Springs, Colo., signals Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Winnipeg’s embarked CH-148 Cyclone Helicopter as it approaches during cross-deck landing training on the flight deck of the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) during Keen Sword 21.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryre Arciaga

Exercise KEEN SWORD arrived at an interesting time in Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Winnipeg’s deployment.

Nestled in between Operation NEON patrols, Exercise KEEN SWORD – the biennial exercise designed to increase combat readiness and interoperability of U.S. forces and the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) – kicked off on October 26th and continued until November 5th, overlapping the U.S. election and rounding out a month that started with HMCS Winnipeg’s transit through the Taiwan Strait. All told, it was quite a busy month for Winnipeg in the Asia-Pacific, one of the most headline-making regions in the world.

Exercise KEEN SWORD is a formidable affair. If you were on the upper decks during the PHOTOEX on 26 October, you could have thrown a stone in any direction and hit a warship. Approximately 10,000 U.S. service members from commands such as U.S. Pacific Fleet, U.S. Forces Japan, 7th Fleet, 5th Air Force, 374th Airlift Wing, 18th Wing, 35th Fighter Wing, and III Marine Expeditionary Force took part, along with approximately 40,000 Japanese personnel.

To put that into perspective, the number of personnel participating in this year’s KEEN SWORD is just under 10 times that of the 5,300 personnel who participated in this year’s Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC).

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) participated in KEEN SWORD for the first time in 2018 as an observer. This year, however, HMCS Winnipeg had an active role.

The exercise included anti-submarine warfare serials (ASW), cross-deck landings between Winnipeg’s embarked CH-148 Cyclone helicopter and helicopters on board U.S. and Japanese ships, a Replenishment-at-Sea with the USNS Tippecanoe, and a final War at Sea Exercise.

From a warfighting perspective, and being that KEEN SWORD is primarily ASW-focused, KEEN SWORD is an opportunity to sharpen those capabilities as well as hone the ship’s ability to integrate with other forces and strike groups in the execution of a mission. 


Japanese Ships (JS) KAGA (DDH184) and MAKINAMI (DD112) sail in formation in the Asia-Pacific during the Exercise KEEN SWORD PHOTOEX on 26 October 2020.

Imagery credit: S1 Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

One of the serials saw an “enemy” submarine attempting to reach a particular target vessel, otherwise known as a “high value unit,” or HVU in exercise-speak. It was HMCS Winnipeg’s job to help find the submarine before it could reach the HVU, and when it comes to ASW, HMCS Winnipeg is a uniquely capable platform for this type of warfare.

“In addition to a very capable passive towed array sonar system, we also carry the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter with its own state-of-the-art, low-frequency active dipping sonar,” says Lieutenant (Navy) Iain Richardson, an Operations Room Officer on board HMCS Winnipeg and KEEN SWORD planner. “No other surface ship involved in the exercise serving in a role similar to ours is as capable in ASW as (HMCS Winnipeg) is.”

The ASW serials took place over several days and several iterations, putting members of the operations room, like SONAR Operators, through their paces.

One such member is Master Sailor James McPeak.

“It can be very challenging being the “eyes under the water” looking for that needle in the haystack,” says MS McPeak, referring to submarines. “As a team we had to stay alert at all times and keep a clear picture of everything around us so we could find what was under us. As a part of the ships company I think we’ve proven our professionalism and as a team we learned how to overcome a lot of the small barriers that came up.”

In fact, HMCS Winnipeg was so good at the ASW that the ship was given the moniker of “Submarine Samurai” in correspondence with KEEN SWORD staffers on both the U.S. and Japanese sides.

“There was a number of air, surface, and sub-surface assets participating (in the serials),” says Lieutenant (Navy) Noelani Shore, an Operations Room Officer on board HMCS Winnipeg. “This is exciting because it’s a unique opportunity to work with our allies, practice and develop our tactics, and continue to train the team in a realistic environment.”


As part of Exercise KEEN SWORD, a Japanese Superhawk 58 helicopter conducts a deck landing on board HMCS Winnipeg on 2 November 2020.

Imagery credit: S1 Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

The value of exercising with other like-minded and partner nations cannot be underestimated. Not only does it offer a glimpse into new warfighting tactics, it helps ensure that the Royal Canadian Navy remains adaptive while enhancing partnerships which are critical to security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Working with other nations always presents a fun but challenging experience,” says Lieutenant (Navy) Anna Childerhose, Navigating Officer on board HMCS Winnipeg. “Every navy approaches situations a little differently. There can be a lot learned when watching how others do things, and the PHOTOEX was no exception. As a watch keeper, I had never before been in a formation at such close range. It was impressive to see how so many ships and air craft carriers could safely maintain station at such a little distance. Overall, it speaks to the professionalism of all the nations involved and, more importantly, the ship handling, mariner ship, and ability to plan and execute complex evolutions that is so key to a strong naval force.”

It wasn’t just the ship having all the fun, however. When not participating in ASW serials, HMCS Winnipeg’s embarked CH-148 Cyclone helicopter conducted several deck landings on board other ships, including the USS Ronald Reagan and JS Kaga aircraft carriers, and the USS Shiloh. Concurrently, helicopters from the USS Shiloh and JS Kaga conducted cross-deck training on HMCS Winnipeg.


Japanese Ship (JS) Ashigara (DD178) sails in diamond formation while aircraft conduct an overflight during the Exercise KEEN SWORD PHOTOEX in the Asia-Pacific on 26 October 2020.

Imagery credit: S1 Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

Cross-deck training is conducted to increase the interoperability of Maritime Helicopter (MH) crews and allied naval ships. Landing on ships in a unique skill to the MH community and is a skill MH pilots need to master to operate safely and effectively at sea with the Royal Canadian Navy. Familiarization with the procedures of allied navies allows our MH crews to react to tasks requiring intra-navy cooperation, such as medical evacuations.  

KEEN SWORD culminated in a War at Sea exercise, consolidating each participant’s warfighting capability in an effort to improve and practice joint and bi-lateral interoperability and mutual tactical skill for maritime operations.

“For HMCS Winnipeg, it’s also the culmination of six months of hard work,” says Commander Mike Stefanson, Commanding Officer of HMCS Winnipeg. “It also allows us to build upon lessons learned during RIMPAC, see how far we’ve come, and integrate with these forces and test our mettle against some of the most combat-capable forces in the world today.”

HMCS Winnipeg is deployed in the Asia-Pacific region on Operation PROJECTION Asia-Pacific and Operation NEON until December 2020. 

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