VICTORIA -- When the Canadian military departs for the world's largest international maritime war-gaming exercise next week, it will be with a dramatically smaller force than initially planned.

Gone are the submarine, the coastal defence vessels and resupply ships that were slated to attend the U.S. Navy's biennial Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) in Hawaii. Gone too are the Aurora patrol planes, special operations forces and mission support personnel; all reassigned or held back from deploying due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, the Canadian contingent will consist of two Cyclone helicopters and two frigates, HMCS Regina and HMCS Winnipeg, which will depart separately from Vancouver Island starting on July 31.

The deployment of the Cyclones to the exercise just three months after six service members were killed when their Cyclone crashed at sea near Greece is a concern for one Canadian defence expert.

The April 29 crash, which is still under investigation by the military, involved a similarly ship-deployed Cyclone that was attempting to land aboard the HMCS Fredericton when a conflict arose between the aircraft's autopilot software and the flight crew's maneuvers.

In the aftermath of the crash, the military announced new restrictions on flight maneuvers for the Cyclones, but University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers says the helicopters should be grounded until a long-term fix is found. 

"This is at least the second time that the RCAF [Royal Canadian Air Force] has discovered dangerous problems with the flight software and imposed flight restrictions," Byers says, adding he worries there may be "further, as-yet-undiscovered problems" with the helicopters.

The crash off Greece was the third publicly known incident involving a Cyclone helicopter since the military accepted delivery of the aircraft in 2015.

A software problem in the flight control system of one Cyclone in March 2017 caused the helicopter to suddenly drop during a test flight. Another had a “hard landing” on board a navy support ship while deployed in the Pacific in February 2019.

While acknowledging the need for continued training on the Cyclones, Byers says the restricted maneuvers are "not a solution, especially for the long-term, since pilots in combat situations need to be able to fly to the limits of their aircraft's capabilities."

'China takes a great interest in the exercise'

Fewer than 500 Canadian Armed Forces personnel will attend the multinational exercise off Hawaii next month, a far cry from the 1,000 who attended in 2018 and the 1,500 who went in 2016. 

The exercise itself has been scaled back in light of the global coronavirus pandemic. RIMPAC 2020 will be condensed to two weeks instead of the usual six, and will be held exclusively at sea after the U.S. Navy decided to cancel the onshore exercises and social activities that have been a part of RIMPAC since its inception in 1971.

Despite the curtailments, this year's RIMPAC is essential to demonstrating Canada's security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region at a time of heightened tensions with China, according to a former vice-chief of the defence staff.

"In 2020, the Asia-Pacific (region) is even more important geo-strategically than it was in the 1970s," says retired vice-admiral Mark Norman. "China takes a great interest in the exercise and they have increased their monitoring of the exercise significantly over the past few cycles."

The Royal Canadian Navy had hoped RIMPAC 2020 would mark a triumphant return to sea for Canada's submarine fleet after a two-year deployment gap. 

The navy planned to send HMCS Victoria to the multinational exercise. However, maintenance work and upgrades to the sub were paused in the spring and the Pacific fleet's maintenance facility was shut down shortly after the sub completed dive tests at CFB Esquimalt following years in dry dock. 

The ongoing pandemic will be top-of-mind for RIMPAC's planners and the attending nations. While more than two dozen countries regularly attend the biennial exercise, a full roster of the nations sending hardware and personnel to this year's exercise has not been released.

"In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that our maritime forces work together to protect vital shipping lanes and ensure freedom of navigation through international waters," said U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral John Aquilino, announcing the resumption of RIMPAC in 2020. 

The exercise will include anti-submarine warfare training, maritime interdiction operations, live-fire testing and large-scale integrated warfighting scenarios to bolster readiness among allied navies in the increasingly contentious Pacific region.

"As we look at the geo-strategic military situation as it relates to the rapid and impressive expansion of China and its interests in the region, we look at the relationship between China and the United States and how that's playing out in 2020," Norman says. "These are all important indicators of a significant increase in both the importance and interest in the region that I'm not sure the organizers foresaw in the 1970s."

Following its participation in RIMPAC, HMCS Winnipeg will continue on to the Asia-Pacific region as part of the ongoing Operations Neon and Projection, supporting maritime security and contributing to the enforcement of United Nations sanctions against North Korea.