Canada’s Naval Policy

15 July 2012

In the great lottery of life – the one that determines where each of the 7 billion people on earth live out their lives – we 35 million Canadians have, for the most part, won the grand prize. We have in our hands a jewel of a country. Canada is a rich country of good people, where ongoing, positive development occurs, not only in wealth and infrastructure but also in the realm of ideas. Our Canada is thus a successful country, and clearly the nation’s sovereignty and world-wide interests demand our safekeeping.

September 2011 – Mr. Fathi Ghanai (left), Maritime Libyan Association, presents a plaque of appreciation to LCdr Matthew Coates, Executive Officer (XO) of HMCS Charlottetown, in appreciation of contributions of the ship’s crew during their deployment on Operation Mobile.

After the Second World War, most Canadians settled back into the comfort of knowing that, short of an improbable nuclear holocaust, their country was in an envious position – surrounded on three sides by ocean buffers and to the south by our friendly neighbours, the United States. Not even the Cold War, the Korean War, the Balkan conflict, or the two Middle Eastern Gulf wars ever seemed to disturb this outlook.

But we are now well into the 21st century and the world has moved on. In order to continually cope with emerging and unpredictable threats, the safekeeping of Canada’s interests now takes many forms. Far from being part of the solution to Canada’s security, the oceans are emerging as a source of concern, not only for our security, but also for our prosperity within a global economy.

In this regard, as Prime Minister Harper recently pointed out, “Canada is a maritime nation, a maritime nation with trade, commerce and interests around the world. Surrounded as we are by three oceans, it can truly be said that Canada and its economy float on salt water.”

With 90% of world trade borne on the sea, Canada’s prosperity is now wholly dependent on the safety and freedom of the oceans and seaways. As has been said many times before, ocean shipping is the life-blood of the Canadian economy. And although regulated by international law, the seas that cover 75% of the earth’s surface are generally available for all nations to use without infringing on the sovereignty of others. Given the latitude this allows various actors, the world of the future will increasingly be shaped by ocean politics. This will include access to trade routes and sea-based resources, and crucially, the absolute need for a sea-bordered nation like Canada to secure its maritime approaches. In this regard, we Canadians would prefer to keep the troublemakers as far from our shores as possible. So, besides looking to our sovereignty in local waters, we would wish to positively influence events far from home, so as to enhance our longer-term prospects for prosperity and other interests. This includes supporting military allies where necessary, and the provision of aid and comfort to distressed nations and peoples.

But do the old intervention models still work? As reported in Aviation Week and Space Technology last April, we are seeing today a momentous shift in the maritime strategy being pursued by the United States, particularly in the Pacific arena. The strategy is a return from taking on insurgents on their home turf, back to what is called “power projection”, using the sea as a base to positively influence events ashore. This shift has been “triggered by the realization that the U.S. cannot afford nation-building as demonstrated by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The bravery, skill, sacrifices and success of our troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere have been nothing short of remarkable, but the recent Libyan operation has been held up as harbinger of things to come. Libya was a successful operation where sea and air power held sway, invasion was not required, the cost, in both blood and treasure, was markedly reduced, and the duration was much abbreviated. “Boots on the ground” have always been an integral part of previous operations, but they are not now seen as an automatic necessity. Of course a key to such a momentous shift in strategy is sea power. And if we Canadians wish to have influence in these highly significant developments, it is essential that our nation play its part.

So what does this mean for the Royal Canadian Navy? As demonstrated off the coasts of Libya, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Haiti and elsewhere, the presence of one or more very capable Canadian warships and their well-trained and highly motivated crews is a great indicator of Canada’s willingness and determination to go in harm’s way and to stand up to oppression. Additionally, it demonstrates a willingness and determination to go to the aid of people in humanitarian distress – distress caused either by the actions of a dictator or by natural disaster. Our freedom to act on the seas without infringement on foreign sovereignty allows our Navy to be moved to the right place globally but without any earlier commitment to actual operations. The ships can be there on short notice, and be largely self-sufficient. They will then be in place and ready and able to do the government’s bidding, whatever form it takes. In this regard, “Navies have always been, and will doubtless remain, political instruments – to a far greater extent than either armies or air forces.”

The Libyan operation in particular shows the magnificent flexibility of Canada’s Navy. The original mission was to safeguard and evacuate Canadian nationals. But with the advent of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 the mission continued to grow until the ship was actively engaged in blockade enforcement and interdiction of belligerent Libyan government forces, to the point where HMCS Charlottetown exchanged fire with those forces. This mission expansion occurred thousands of miles from any Canadian base and without any significant change to the ship or its crew. On this basis, our ships are tremendously useful and influential instruments of not only sovereignty enforcement at home, but also of distant foreign policies.

Jan 2010 (Haiti) – Sgt Viviane Jean-Baptiste, a Reservist working as a linguist with DART (the Disaster Assistance Response Team), helps the medical team by translating the symptoms of the patients who require treatment due to the earthquake.

In close cooperation with the U.S. Navy, the Pacific appears to be the next arena where Canadian warships and crews will need to once again demonstrate their mettle. A surging China, after having secured its land approaches, is now very busily expanding and strengthening its maritime forces. Among other flash points, potential marine territorial disputes are lurking in the wings. The stability of the region is crucial to the lasting prosperity of the world’s economies, and we Canadians can contribute to such stability through the dispatch of our warships with those of like-minded nations. So for the foreseeable future, if Canada wishes to pull its weight in international affairs, the nation will continue to need an ongoing capability to influence diplomatic, political, humanitarian and economic interests both in its local waters and in the far corners of the world. A “modern and robust fleet”, a highly trained and internationally mobile Navy in sufficient numbers is the answer.

Currently, the Navy has 12 Halifax class frigates and 3 Tribal class destroyers in its major combat ship inventory. The frigates are just entering a significant mid-life update where their proven strengths will be developed into greater capabilities that are even more useful and effective in support of sovereignty and foreign and defence policies. For the remaining life of the frigates, the updates will continue to provide a strong Navy with a global reach, in a wide spectrum of capabilities, ranging from showing the flag in foreign ports and waters, to all-out combat. The service life of a warship, however, is finite, and in due course our present ships will need to be replaced.

A major national project involving frigate and destroyer replacements takes a long time. From the project’s inception, through the approval, design and construction phases, through the 30-odd years of service, until the decommissioning of the last of the class of ships could be as much as 50 years. Approval, design and construction alone will take a decade or more, and new ship delivery needs to be in place when the present-day ships reach the end of their respective lifetimes. We must therefore plan now for the replacement of the current 15 ships. This warship project, the Canadian Surface Combatant, promises to be one-of the most complex, far-reaching and beneficial high technology efforts ever seen in Canada. It will also be long-term. The government’s National Shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy (NSPS) is seen as a good but preliminary start in this direction.

Today’s frigates and destroyers have benefited from a significant level of high-tech Canadian content, particularly in the areas of battle command, control and communications, and even in such areas as main engineering and propulsion control. The ships are considered world-class in such technologies and, when combined with Canada’s superbly trained sailors, they continue to punch well above their weight in international operations. But can we be just as successful in the availability of Canadian technology in the new class of combat ships? Time will tell, but if we are to exploit Canadian technology and expertise (and the associated high-value jobs across the country) the time to start is now. “For the sailor of 2050, the ships are being designed today”.
Sept 2008 (Haiti) – Sea-king helicopter embarked with HMCS St John’s, takes off with her load of 1000 kilograms of corn soya blend. With collaboration of the Canadian Embassy and representatives of the World Food Program, St John’s was deployed for a few weeks to conduct a humanitarian mission in Haiti, distributing life-saving supplies and a total of 350 tons of rice, corn soya blend and oil in different areas of the country.
But by themselves, combatant surface ships do not make a whole navy. A balanced fleet that includes submarines, coastal patrol vessels, unmanned air vehicles and a strong maritime air arm, all supported by space-based assets, is a maritime force in which each element is needed to allow vigorous surveillance and flexibility of response to threats to Canada’s interests, “above, on or below the sea surface”.

Accordingly, the Navy needs to be supplemented with vessels that can do the job in our backyard, the Arctic. Moreover, a common factor for both the Arctic and the far areas like the Mediterranean and the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, where combat ships, submarines and aircraft are expected to be sent, is that they are all a long way from the two naval bases in Halifax, NS and Esquimalt, BC. Given the vast distances, and in order to make our ships even more independent of foreign supply (such as fuel) new logistic support vessels are a vital necessity.

All of these considerations lead us to an inescapable conclusion. If Canada in the 21st century wishes to have more engagement and more influence in both home waters and the corners of the world such as Asia-Pacific, along with a vibrant, home-grown high-technology industry in the burgeoning maritime field, then it needs to have a pro-maritime and pro-Navy policy, which would have as one of its fundamental tenets the pursuit of, and sustained establishment of a measure of Canadian sea power. This sea power would be of a level suitable for a wealthy middle power like Canada, a nation interested in contributing to international stability and promoting its influence worldwide. It is clear that when it comes to Canada’s international relations, the Royal Canadian Navy is the wave of the future.

But what are the fundamental elements needed to make this policy a reality? Here are some ideas on what should be included…

  • Acknowledgement that Canada is a maritime nation with a proud seagoing heritage and continuing existential interests over both home waters and vast areas of the oceans and seaways.
  • Education of the Canadian people to engender their appreciation of Canada’s maritime character, and of their reliance on the seas for their security, for their prosperity, and for their responsibility to protect and provide humanitarian aid to peoples in distress.
  • Avoidance of the common military pitfall of planning and equipping for the last war. Instead Canada must prepare for a flexible response to the unknown, even as it takes steps to counter those emerging threats that can be seen.
  • Agreement that in order to have the requisite level of sea power, Canada must have in place a robust, global, well-trained and technologically innovative Royal Canadian Navy and associated maritime assets – in sufficient numbers and over the long term, to provide excellence at home and leadership abroad in the control of ocean space.
  • Movement towards greater interoperability and cooperation between the RCN and the Canadian Coast Guard in safeguarding our home waters, in the right mix of both combat and constabulary roles, and within a “whole of government” approach to maritime matters.
  • Recognition that the nation’s shipbuilding and shipboard information technological capabilities are strategic resources, ones that require close attention, a consistent, steady order book, a focus on exploiting Canadian innovation, and trades training support for the associated marine industrial work forces across the country.
  • Pro-active support for the ongoing specialized education of young Canadians in aspects of marine technologies and seamanship, as an entry into service in government fleets.
  • Renewed efforts towards attracting and recruiting young Canadians into naval and marine service, especially a greater input of women, French speakers and visible minorities so that the government fleets are truly reflective of the country they serve.
  • Pro-active support for the development of Canadian innovation and technology in the design of Canadian ships and their systems.
  • Understanding that in order to maintain interoperability with other allied navies, particularly the US Navy, the RCN’s operational vessels must undergo regular capability updates, as a minimum just to keep pace.
  • Acceptance that designing and building the balanced fleet of tomorrow is not just about the Navy; it is also an investment in the nation, in diplomacy and in the prosperity of future generations of Canadians. 

Richard Archer is a member of the Naval Association of Canada – Ottawa and is the Naval Association’s National Chair of Naval Affairs.
© FrontLine Defence 2012