Reset Required? Canada’s ­Maritime Strategy

15 September 2015

The 21st century has been called a maritime century, but Canadians don’t see themselves as a maritime nation. The reality is, we have a very acute case of “sea blindness”. This is defined as political and public apathy to the economic importance of the oceans. The fact is, we are an ocean nation with a long and rich maritime history; we have a strong naval tradition, and are world leaders in many forms of ocean technology. Geographically, Canada is the largest coastal nation in the world with 244,000 km of coastline on three oceans, and the Great Lakes provide a carbon-friendly commercial shipping route into the heart of the continental North America – the problem is, neither our politicians or the general public have given this much thought.

Operation Reassurance (Oct 2015) Canadian Armed Forces Imagery Technician

Much of our ocean space is in the Arctic, which is seeing rapid changes brought about by climate change and decreasing sea-ice and allowing international access to the region. The Arctic is becoming a geo-political flashpoint as issues arise concerning access for international commercial shipping, and exploitation and harvesting of natural resources.

Canada has recently sought to increase its claim to continental shelf resources beyond 200 nautical miles under Article 76 of the Law of the Sea Convention. On orders from then-Prime Minister Harper this past summer, scientists conducted research to prepare a claim for the seabed out to the North Pole. The Canadian Coast Guard deployed two icebreakers to the North Pole – CCGS Terry Fox and Louis St. Laurent – in support of Natural Resources Canada further geophysical research and data collection to support Canada’s claim. What this example shows, is that Canada’s capability to make policy choices is limited by our existing maritime capability. This means vessels, maritime air assets, space sensors (our space policy is also part of our ocean policy), unmanned systems, and the training of skilled and specialized personnel. There is a long lead time for building and maintaining this ocean infrastructure.

Many factors impact Canada’s existing and future maritime capability (civilian and military), and can often have unforeseen consequences. Designing, building and maintaining sea, air and space assets is a very costly undertaking that requires a solid partnership between government and the private sector in a clear strategic plan. This is especially important considering the long lead times involved. It requires a clear view of the goals to be achieved and a path to achieve them – which requires a solid policy foundation.

The last issue of Frontline Defence examined Canada’s National Shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy (NSPS). In that issue, the editor called out for informed discussion and thinking in Canada on these important and critical issues.

In a recent article looking at U.S. ­maritime strategy, Admiral James Stavridis, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston and former NATO Supreme Commander, succinctly stated: “What often is forgotten is the critical importance of a maritime strategy to go with all that capability.” In a changing world, Canada needs a maritime strategy to go with its pending modernized marine capability.

Critical thought is just as important as the mechanics and logistics of the design and shipbuilding process, which is a $30+ billion funding of ocean infrastructure, however, it is clear that this component has been forgotten. Given the lack of any policy or strategic foundation and/or criteria, we seem to be working backwards.

A robust policy needs to be coupled to a solid industrial infrastructure as part of a maritime strategy. Ocean thinking is as critical as the number of hulls at sea, but open discussion has been discouraged.

While a great deal of attention has focused on Canada’s National Shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy, there’s been very little discussion about what we are actually building these vessels for. We need to match capability with the long term requirement, but without a defence policy, who knows what that should be? Without a clear policy, we need to keep an open mind about what is needed, and look to our allies for collaborative capability.

At the September change of command ceremony for the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, the outgoing Admiral Greenert commented that it could be said that the United States has a 1000-ship Navy (430 are warships, and 70 more are planned or under construction) “when you include our allies’ fleets.” This presents an opportunity for Canada in the global context.

Adm. John Richardson, right, salutes as he takes over as Chief of Naval Operations from Adm. Jon Greenert during the ceremony. (Mike Morones/Staff)

Arguably, our thinking should be guided by the words of Lord Fisher, who became Winston Churchill’s First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914. He stated that “at the time of shrinking budgets we cannot spend our way out of this we need to think our way out”. What rang true in 1914 and still resonates in 2015. Perhaps it’s time to dust off these words, which have been used often at the highest levels of the U.S. Navy when it comes to challenges and shrinking budgets.

Canadians have never shied away from ocean challenges. Project Resolve, for the development of a replacement at sea replenishment capability for the Royal Canadian Navy, is one such example of a cost-effective solution that can be brought together in a timely fashion to give Canada maritime options.

The recent Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) involving most of the world’s economies, rests on a solid foundation of commercial shipping. Canada’s embrace of the secretive TPP requires a robust naval capability to ensure a stable global commons for trade. It is important to remember there are nine chokepoints, most in the Indo-Pacific waterways, which can affect international trade. These issues are interlinked. Under then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s leadership, Canada played a key role in negotiating the Constitution of the oceans, the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs global ocean commons. At the time, many predicted that such an encompassing agreement would never be reached.

In a changing asymmetrical geopolitical world, Canada no longer has the luxury to isolate itself from rapidly changing developments at sea which are linked to trade, safety and security, and defence. For example, we need to look closely at the Indo-Pacific Basin, where bluewater issues are very much a concern, along with freedom of navigation issues arising under the Law of the Sea Convention.

At this critical juncture, we must scan the horizon 30 or 40 years into the future. A multidisciplinary and fluid approach will open the door to innovative ways of achieving common goals, both in the national interests and with our international alliances. We need to bring the best minds in the country together to best achieve defined maritime goals. This will require asking some very hard questions.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States became the sole superpower ensuring freedom of navigation for the world’s commercial shipping fleet – the global ‘conveyor belt’ of world trade. It has proved costly, but necessary, to maintain and grow the world’s largest Navy.

The world has seen how unsophisticated pirates with low technology can disrupt that flow of trade in the Horn of Africa. This has hugely increased international shipping costs through increased marine insurance costs, which are largely invisible (though increased costs are passed along to customers).

Canada no longer has the luxury of a simple continental outlook, trading solely with the United States. Shipping is critically important to Canada’s future economic well-being. Maritime issues have taken on much greater importance and significant to Canada’s future, and Task Force 150, which is currently under Canadian command, takes that mission very seriously. In a recent Economist article entitled Strong, Proud and Free-Riding, Canada was criticized for taking a free ride on the global stage.

A reset is a time to change and create strategic thinking around these issues. The lack of maritime thinking and subsequent capability further restrict Canada’s future options. The lack of a naval at-sea refuelling capability for our Halifax class frigates proves my point.

A 2014 Maclean’s article on the Royal Canadian Navy, and interview with the former Chief of the Maritime Staff Vice Admiral (Retired) Paul Maddison (now the ambassador to Australia) stated:

Operation Reassurance (Sept 2014). (Photo: Sgt Matthew McGregor, CF Combat Camera)

“Maddison says the Canada First Defence Strategy, a Conservative vision conceived in 2008, is outdated, and insists that Canada’s national interests are ‘increasingly challenged in the maritime domain. This is 2014, and the world has changed.’ ”

As we look to the 21st century we need to think carefully about how we use scarce financial resources in the development of an ocean, defence, security and foreign policy which are all intertwined and interconnected. We no longer can separate these issues – it is important to think holistically about this.

Project Resolve is one example of a creative solution to provide options. Essentially, the Chantier Davie shipyards has brought a commercial solution to a pressing naval requirement and can deliver that in a timely fashion by incorporating numerous other Canadian businesses such as L-3 MAPPS, OSI Maritime Systems, and Hepburn Engineering. It recently built three state-of-the-art dynamic positioning offshore service vessels – arguably the most complex vessels built in Canada to date – on time and under budget. While there is some criticism of the project, this is the kind of creative and critical is needed – especially when inflation eats away at the potential purchasing power of dollars for new construction.

In this decade, we have seen the rise of both Russia and China military power. It is no longer a unipolar world with the United States as the world’s police force. Russia has been especially active in the Arctic, with submarines, research vessels, and aircraft nosing around the borders of North American defences as well as those of Europe. As for China, its Navy is rapidly increasing in size and capability, the regime’s lack of transparency leaves much room for conjecture.

Shipping is critically important to Canada’s future economic well-being we cannot isolate ourselves from conflict or challenges. The maritime domain is becoming increasingly dynamic within the last year – a situation best summed up by the new CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) Admiral John Richardson at this change of command when he said things were “getting sporty.” That is an understatement. It is also a fitting description of China’s actions in the North Pacific. Just last month, China’s Navy transited through U.S. territorial waters in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. A five-warship naval task group, including a replenishment and amphibious vessel, came within 12 nautical miles of U.S. territory. This highlighted the growing projection of power that China is undertaking in the maritime domain. This was a first, and was done in accordance with the right of innocent transit under the provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention, which the United States has not ratified. The Bering Strait is an international waterway and entrance to the western Arctic Ocean. Coincidentally, this transit coincided with President Obama’s trip to Alaska (another first) to underscore the importance of climate change and a rapidly changing Arctic. The President highlighted the U.S. icebreaker gap: America has 2 icebreakers to Russia’s 40. While the Chinese intrusion made global headlines, it also raises important issues of maritime strategy and the need for thinking around how we deal with a changing and complex global commons upon which world trade is dependent.

Undersea research and surveillance is another example of the need for maritime capability. Russia recently launched a highly sophisticated oceanographic research vessel R/V Yamtar. It took three years to construct this naval vessel, and it made a beeline across the Atlantic for sea trials off the East coast of Canada, then made its way down the eastern seaboard of the United States late this summer. This vessel carries a variety of underwater systems including two manned submersibles and a robust suite of scientific equipment. There is no doubt that the vessel has the dynamic positioning and capability to access undersea fiber-optic cable, of which 300,000 miles of cables link the Internet together globally.

What is Canada’s capability to protect this critical infrastructure, which is critical to military command and control as well as the global economy?

This is just one example of some of the requirements as we move into the next decades of a maritime century. Maritime strategy and seamanship go hand-in-hand along with the latest in technology. Canada needs a reset and national discussion on these important issues that have foreign trade military and industrial significance to security and prosperity. Nothing should be sacrosanct – including the NSPS – and establishing policy to guide defence and security requirements should be the first step, not the last. The stakes are simply too high for Canada’s future.

K. Joseph Spears is a maritime barrister and ocean policy consultant with the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group. He has been involved in the development of various corporate entities including Cougar Helicopters, and the provision of marine education over the last 30 years. He has been invited to the U.S. Naval War College by the office of the Chief of Naval Operations on Arctic issues. He can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com.
© FrontLine Defence 2015