TORONTO – Commander Alex Barlow’s day starts like many Canadians - with an early morning, 6 a.m. workout. But, while many enjoy the comfort of a treadmill at home or a local gym, Barlow’s is aboard a 5,000-tonne warship – the HMCS Ottawa, a Halifax-class frigate in the Royal Canadian Navy fleet currently travelling to the Philippines Sea.

A Halifax-class frigate is a multi-purpose and multi-role ship that encompasses anti-submarine, anti-surface and anti-air warfare capabilities, and is considered a core vessel of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

Barlow, a career naval warfare officer who has 26 years of experience in both the Atlantic and Pacific RCN fleet, is responsible for the 230 sailors aboard HMCS Ottawa.

HMCS Ottawa has been deployed in south-east Asian waters since its departure from Canada in August, as part of Canada’s contribution to Operation NEON – the enforcement of the UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on North Korea – and Operation PROJECTION, a multinational maritime deployment in international waters. 

The warship is at “high readiness,” Barlow told in a telephone interview from aboard HMCS Ottawa on Friday. “We are ready to respond to all contingencies.”

UN sanctions on North Korea

Since North Korea’s first nuclear missile test in April of 2006, the UN has imposed an increasingly harsh sanctions regime on the country, including a ban on member states assisting the North Koreans in their military endeavours, to luxury goods and fuel, including coal and oil.

“The nuclear test in 2006 was the first time the UN really put a sanctions regime together... and every subsequent nuclear test or cyberattack has caused the Security Council to act and put a progressively greater layer of sanctions on North Korea,” former U.S. Department of State official Mintaro Oba told in a telephone interview from Washington. 

“Now they cover key areas that are critical to North Korea’s economy and bringing hard currency in to supply the military and the North Korean elite,” Oba said, adding that over the years North Korea’s habit of sending workers overseas have been addressed by sanctions as well.

Luxury goods play an integral role in North Korea and mark the stark difference between the North Korean elite who live lives of aristocracy and a general populace that is on the brink of starvation, according to UN assessment. 

“There is a huge difference between the taste of the North Korean elite and their capabilities to consume and the regular… populace, and the sanctions are targeting those luxury goods because maintaining the support of elites is more critical to Kim Jong Un versus maintaining broad public support,” Oba said. 

Maritime surveillance operations and UNSC sanction enforcement “create a tougher environment for North Korea to operate in,” Oba said, but the country continues to evade sanctions in more “sophisticated” ways.

North Korea has been “getting more sophisticated about hacking and fraud, in the past they have gotten foreign currency by conducting insurance fraud, [now] they’ve been accused of hacking major financing institutions and crypto-currency markets and gaining currency that way,” Oba explained. “They have long been involved in counterfeiting various goods and smuggling.”

Oba said sanctions “certainly create pressure and leverage to some extent,” but that if the goal is for North Korea to completely revoke its nuclear capabilities then the sanctions regime the UNSC have now “can’t really get us there.”

“North Korea can always count on being able to evade them to a certain extent and it can always count on China to help it avoid complete destruction of its economy,” he said.

However, Oba explained that if the UNSC sanctions are to “generate enough leverage to get some sort of partial de-nuclearization deal or just get the North Korean’s to the table,” the sanctions matter.

“It matters to North Korea that there are restrictions on its ability to get currency,” Oba said. “But I think that North Korea has been extremely adept in the last two years at putting the burden of action on the United States and making it look like Washington is the major obstacle to progress.”

Operation NEON

HMCS Ottawa left its home port of Esquimalt, B.C. to engage in Operation NEON, a “coalition, multi-national effort to enforce UNSC resolutions to put pressure on the North Korean weapons testing programs by enforcing sanctions,” Barlow said. 

HMCS Ottawa completed their part of the mission earlier this month. 

Operation NEON is primarily a maritime surveillance mission used to find, observe and disrupt North Korea’s methods of evading sanctions, especially ship-to-ship transfer of fuel, including coal and oil. 

“The North Koreans are willing to steal the identifying information of a foreign ship and use that for their ship, they’re willing to fly the flag of Panama or some other country that does not actively track where their country’s fleet is [to] conduct these ship-to-ship transfers,” Oba explained. 

In such places as the East China Sea, however, the mission objectives are easier said than done.

“In these waters where we had been engaged in Operation NEON, in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea, the traffic tends to be – to say the least – incredible,” Barlow said. “I’ve been in the Navy 26 years and I have never seen the number of ships and boats in one area as I have in this deployment.”

Barlow, breaking down the components of the mission, said that the Ottawa would receive intelligence reports from the Enforcement Coordination Cell (ECC) in charge of the operation and a list of targets.

The ECC is a U.S.–led coalition of seven countries, including Canada, whose focus is on the expansion of surveillance on North Korea to enforce the UNSC sanctions. 

“We receive a list of VOI’s or ‘Vessels of Interest’ from intelligence,” Barlow said. “Then we are given a particular patrol area… there may be official information on where they were last spotted – such as from a surveillance flight that took place the day before that also plots their course and speed -- then the Ottawa is tasked to go and locate them.”

Sailors aboard HMCS Ottawa spend 12 hours “on watch” Barlow said, using all of the ships capabilities to locate VOI’s, including radar, sonar, an automatic identification system – which operates like a transponder system - and aircraft support to carry out the mission. 

If a VOI is located, Barlow said HMCS Ottawa will proceed to “hail it,” issuing warnings that there are UN sanctions currently in effect prohibiting the transfer of goods to North Korea.

“At the point that where we do locate a ship-to-ship transfer, [as] it is a surveillance mission we collect the evidence and pass it back up the UN to use against these third-party countries that are allowing for these transfers to happen,” he said. 

As for the risk that North Korea itself poses, Barlow said the chances of contact between HMCS Ottawa and the North Korean navy are “extremely low.”

“The North Korean navy is a littoral or ‘brown water’ navy, and they stay within their coastal boundaries,” Barlow said. “All of the patrols surveillance and enforcement we were doing were in international waters, well away from their shores.”

Although he could not comment on the risks of being in Asian waters while North Korea continues to test their ballistic missile capabilities, Barlow said HMCS Ottawa did not “have any concerns” regarding their presence coinciding with missile tests. 

However, “we’re always ready to act in self defence,” he said.


After completing Canada’s role in Operation NEON, HMCS Ottawa deployed on Operation PROJECTION in conjunction with the United States Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) and the South Korean Navy. 

After completing a joint exercise named KAEDEX with the JMSDF running through warfare serials and training in anti-submarine drills, HMCS Ottawa is currently on their way to exercise ANNUALEX, involving the U.S., Australian and Japanese naval forces.

“This is a larger-scale exercise that involves submarines and aircraft,” Barlow explained. “There are roughly 21-25 ships participating so it is vaguely RIMPAC-esque.”

Barlow said the ship had been working on anti-submarine warfare exercises with the Royal Australian Navy ships versus Japanese submarines, and the next exercise would involve the U.S. conducting replenishments at sea and anti-submarine activities to “enhance our interoperability.”

After ANNUALEX, HMCS Ottawa will take part in PACIFIC VANGUARD alongside the South Korean Navy, the U.S. Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, running exercises and scenarios in anti-submarine, anti-air and anti-surface warfare.

Part of those exercises are carrying out “replenishments at sea,” where a support ship is connected to HMCS Ottawa to refill fuel, drop off provisions or any other materials needed for the myriad repairs and day-to-day necessities a warship needs. 

“It’s really difficult to manoeuvre,” Barlow said. “We’re 50 metres away from the ship we are replenishing from, driving through the wind and sea, and the replenishment ship may be two to four times the size of the Ottawa… it’s high risk to have ships that close to each other.”

Home for Christmas

“It’s hard to tell someone who hasn’t been in the navy or been on a ship what life aboard is like,” Barlow said. “It’s long days, people work hard and they’re very dedicated to the ship and to the mission.”

HMCS Ottawa is due to be back in Canadian waters in time for Christmas, Barlow said.

“I hope people back home are aware that we are here and we are making them proud,” he said. “We’re trying to make a difference.”