Enhanced air policing in a COVID world

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News Article / February 3, 2021

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By Master Corporal Bryan Christie 

I’m Master Corporal Bryan Christie, and by the time you read this, I will be getting ready to head back to Cold Lake from Eastern Europe. After five long months, several regional lockdowns and during one of the strangest times in recent memory, I’m finally coming home with stories of the most unique and challenging experience of my life. 

Romania is a country rich with history and legends. As I learned about their history, it seemed to be a relentless cycle of trading conquerors for tyrants, back to another conqueror – Rinse, Lather, Repeat. The story of this repeating pattern was seldom broken, with small exceptions given only to stories of revolutions and yes – vampires who, as the legends go, still wander these mysterious lands to this day. The Romanian people are strong but also incredibly nice despite the historical pain they have endured. They remind me much of Canadians – always willing to help, always eager to smile at a stranger, and not afraid to spark up a conversation in the interest of finding common ground. Where this country differs the most from Canada seems to boil down to one defining factor; the stability of their region. That’s where the Canadian connection starts. 

I am here as part of an Enhanced Air Policing (eAP) mission with NATO where we assist Romania in policing their skies to reinforce NATO’s collective security. This includes patrolling Romanian airspace and, if necessary, intercepting any aircraft that enter it without authorization. Not far from here is the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Steering clear of the politics surrounding the situation, Romania was a country that needed some reassurance, and in typical Canadian fashion we answered the call. As a result of this, I am one of many Canadians who have had the privilege of visiting this beautiful country in an effort to maintain regional stability as part of Operation Reassurance. 

By trade I am an Aerospace Control Operator and back in Canada I work as an Air Traffic Controller but during this deployment, I had the opportunity to try one of the 80+ different jobs our trade has to offer. Two duty officers along with two operators work shifts in the Wing Operations Centre, where a senior duty officer and I work as supervisors. Our team is responsible for overseeing everything "operations", including coordinating with other NATO partners, and actively monitoring the Black Sea region for aircraft approaching Romanian airspace without approval. If the call comes in to scramble our jets for an intercept, it is our centre which receives the order, sounds the alarm, briefs the pilots, and monitors the mission. Like most jobs, it consists of hours of boredom followed by moments of intensity, with only seconds to adjust your mind to the chaos, and I love every minute of it. This deployment, however, has also experienced some unique challenges. Ones involving an invisible enemy which arguably threatened our mission success far more than any airspace intruder could: COVID-19. 

“Gucci”. This is a slang military term synonymous with anything overly nice. An Aviator CANEX-planned gaming laptop? Gucci. A corporal bought himself a fancy duvet to replace the wool fire blanket? That’s Gucci. “Captains get their own rooms?!”… you get the idea. Since Romania is a beautiful country with plenty to see and do, to say you deployed here would always garner the same response; “Must have been Gucci!” Unfortunately for us, we spent it defending against an invisible enemy. One which has affected the globe and every person on it. One which has forced us to re-evaluate how we care for our old and our young alike. One which has changed the definition of ‘normal’ and affected everything from how we celebrate holidays, to how we operate as an armed force, and one which removed any semblance of “Gucci” from our deployment. Although none of us knew it at the time, we had unknowingly signed up for a unique deployment which, by virtue of timing, would have us deal with a situation unseen by any previous rotation. Yet one that we would come to master. 

When we first arrived in August, after two weeks of quarantine in Trenton, the first wave of COVID had subsided and normalcy began to take hold. This was due in part to the many precautions we had in place from the start; sanitizing workplaces, wearing masks, social distancing and contingency plans galore– these were things we all understood to be important, and they paid off in the long run. Within weeks of arriving, our command team, leaning on the wisdom of our medical staff, allowed us to travel off the base to enjoy some of the local restaurants. It was during this time when I could experience a bit of Romanian culture and where I gained the respect for their people I have today. Unfortunately, our time off base was not long-lived. As cases rose, so did the risk. Before we knew it, emergency alerts were sounding on our phones written in a language we couldn’t read but still using that familiar, jarring alarm. State of emergency. Regional quarantine. Lockdown. 

After this, we were confined to base to prevent any Canadian Armed Forces members from contracting the virus. Every soldier knows the mission must come first, so we pressed on knowing we were serving a greater purpose. It’s important to remember that military members are not the only ones who serve on bases. As any military man or woman knows, bases simply cannot operate without contractors and civilian employees, the unsung heroes of National Defence. Unfortunately, this created a previously unseen vulnerability as some of those essential people began feeling unwell. 

It started with the gym and the coffee shop. One of the employees reported symptoms, and unfortunately tested positive for COVID-19, which resulted in both those facilities closing for deep cleaning. Quickly after that, an employee at the store – referred to as “The PX” on U.S. military bases, also tested positive. Then some members of the kitchen staff. A few weeks prior to this, I was eating a pork shawarma in a quaint Romanian restaurant, now we’re eating individual meal packs in our rooms. Despite having all odds stacked against us, we dug in and kept the mission going. Thanks to strict prevention measures and our commander’s knowledge that “No plan survives first contact”, we were able to adapt quickly, increase precautions, and not a single Canadian tested positive. We continued eAP throughout all these uncertainties and without any disruption to operations. Eventually, the contractors fully recovered and returned the base amenities back to service. Finally, no more individual meal packs. 

So, what’s the moral of this story? What’s the silver lining? Well, so long as there has been war, soldiers have bonded through their shared hardship. Experiences so unique they could not be fathomed by anyone who hasn’t lived them, which creates a bond unbreakable by outsiders. Despite all odds, we accomplished the mission. We’re coming home. We helped reassure Romania that Canadians will stand with them in their moment of need no matter the adversity, because that’s what the CAF does, and that’s who Canadians are. Whether you’re an airman on a deployment 2,000 kilometres from your family, or a woman just laid off and simply trying to get by. Whether you’re a single father trying to decide the best course of action for your child’s schooling, or whether you’re a son or daughter unable to visit your aging parent in a care home for fear of getting them sick. We are all sharing in our own unique, but equally unfathomable reality during these difficult times. It is this shared hardship that will only serve to strengthen us all if we choose to overcome it.


Join the RCAF - Dare to be extraordinary

Communication Electronics Engineering Officers provide telecommunications and information management services that support Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) operations in Canada and abroad.
         - Provide telecommunications and information management services
         - Operate and maintain tactical Air Force and strategic communications systems
         - Manage air traffic control and electronics systems
         - Advise on the planning and acquisition of ground based surveillance, communications and information technology systems
         - Oversee surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence communications systems
         - Administer data, information, and knowledge management systems
         - Be involved with the full spectrum of terrestrial radio and satellite communications from HF to EHF radar and navigation systems, electronic warfare, cryptography, electronic intelligence, or communications and network security


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