NATO & Maritime Hybrid Warfare

20 April 2017

Although DND can’t spend it, due to procurement inefficiencies, Canada has budgeted some $20 billion each year for defence expenditures. The United States has been calling on all NATO members to spend 2% of GDP on defense – a funding target that was previously agreed to by the members of NATO. The Senate of Canada recently released a report showing that Canada spends a mere 0.88% of GDP on its military needs, however, Canada’s political leaders have indicated there are different ways to calculate the value received from defence expenditures and to measure contributions to NATO. The Liberal government takes the position that it is a strong NATO partner, and no significant increases in defense funding are expected anytime soon. 

Oct 2016 – An unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), from Commander, Task Force 56.1 surfaces to be recovered in the Arabian Gulf during bilateral mine countermeasures exercise between the U.S. and Royal Navies. The MCM exercise provides opportunities to share knowledge of techniques for responding to mine threats. The combined MCM force enhances ­capabilities in searching, identifying and neutralizing sea mines that threaten the freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce. 
(U.S. Navy photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Corbin J. Shea)

This is an important discussion and highlights many issues in the rapidly changing and complex threat environment faced by the NATO Alliance. Canada’s still-pending Defence Policy Review may provide a starting point for how to link research and development to its vital national interests, within which defence expenditures are interwoven. The DPR was the subject of a FrontLine article a year ago. In her article Defence Portfolio to get a Real Shake-up? (Vol 13, No 1). Chris MacLean singled out “vital national interests” and the importance of defining those interests, which are the foundation on which a set of truly integrated foreign, security and defence policies rest. Arguably, this extends to Canada’s commercial and international trade policy. These interconnected issues interact with the national interest in real time.

One area of defence that requires ongoing research and development is in the area of hybrid warfare. While analysts, scholars and military officers can’t fully agree on the definition of hybrid warfare, leading naval thinker retired Admiral James Stravridis, a former NATO Supreme Commander and now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, recently had this to say on the subject: “Given its need to appear somewhat ambiguous to outside observers, maritime hybrid warfare generally will be conducted in the coastal waters of the littorals. Instead of using force directly from identifiable ‘gray hull’ navy platforms, hybrid warfare will feature the use of both civilian vessels (tramp steamers, large fishing vessels, light coastal tankers, small fast craft, and even ‘low slow’ skiffs with outboard engines). It also will be conducted and likely command-and-controlled from so-called ‘white hulls’ assigned to the coast guards of given nations.” 

It is clear that asymmetrical warfare is not limited to land operations and, given Canada’s powerful scientific and applied research capabilities, this presents an opportunity in the maritime domain for Canada to develop expertise and research and development in this evolving area. 

Arguably, the Royal Canadian Navy has been at the forefront of innovation in years past. Maritime hybrid warfare could well become the core of a NATO Centre of Excellence given Canada’s long-standing background in marine domain awareness, space based sensors, synthetic aperture radar, data fusion from a variety of sensor sources, and long standing expertise in applied ocean science and remote sensing. Interconnected with this is the use of cyber, which is growing in importance in the marine domain.

Canada has a long-standing background in remote sensing, and developing unmanned systems for various applied purposes. This too presents an opportunity for Canada to develop a hybrid warfare focus. Presently, through the National Shipbuilding Strategy, the country is spending in excess of $30 billion on naval vessels. In particular, this industrial domestic output is for consumption by the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard, and there is very little opportunity for potential exports as this is not new techology. However, this increased shipbuilding capability can be levered into new approaches to maritime defence and create new opportunities for Canada in maritime hybrid warfare. 

Military participants in Clear Horizon (CH16) in Chinhae, Korea, review mission data from a MK 18 MOD 1 Underwater Unmanned Vehicle with a member of  U.S. Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 1. Nations participating in this live-action exercise included South Korea, United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand, and United Kingdom. 
(U.S. Navy Combat Camera Photo: PO2 Daniel Rolston)

Although speaking of his own country, the guiding words of Admiral Stravridis are also relevant to Canada: “The United States must start to consider its responses to hybrid warfare at sea, which may require developing new tactics and technologies, working closely with allies and partners, and building U.S. hybrid capability to counter its deployment by other nations and eventually transnational actors.”

The development of technology, and new ways of thinking and doctrine, needs to incorporate the flexibilities needed to face changing threats in maritime warfare. Canada’s investment can thus be leveraged into sales and cooperation between other NATO nations who work to together at sea, as they are all subjected to similarly evolving maritime threats. This presents a unique opportunity for Canada in the creation of research clusters that will bring together the scientific, academic, and commercial communities as a step in that direction. In Halifax, the COVE (Centre for Ocean Ventures & Entrepreneurship) at the former Canadian Coast Guard base in Dartmouth is moving forward to develop a marine sensor research cluster of academic institutions supported by government, but does not at this time have a defence application. 

Changes in naval warfare requires new ideas and innovative thinking, and it is in Canada’s national interest to be ready. In a 2016 article, Protecting Critical Undersea Infrastructure, I addressed the importance of the security of underwater fiber-optic cables underlying the global Internet. This threat presents an opportunity for Canada to develop focused maritime expertise and R&D in specific areas. This would complement NATO’s maritime capability to protect this critical underwater infrastructure. 

A focussed national approach to safety and security of the surface and subsurface maritime domain presents an economic opportunity for Canada – especially as we are a maritime trading nation. 

SEA OF HYUGA (November 2016) A member of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 5 pilots an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) on the JS Uruga in the Sea of Hyuga while participating in the 3JA Mine Countermeasures Exercise. 3JA is an annual bilateral exercise held between the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) to strengthen interoperability and increase proficiencies in mine countermeasure operations. 
(U.S. Navy Combat Camera Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Rolston)

As a nation, Canada is increasingly dependent on maritime transport of our exports. This will lead to increased stability in the global commons on which international trade is based. Canada has stepped up to many otherwise daunting challenges in the past, and can do so again in the face of the evolving maritime threat to our safety and security. 

Joe Spears’ interest in oceanographic research started in Halifax Harbour and continued at the Dalhousie University Department of Oceanography. He is the principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group of West Vancouver. He can be reached at joe.hbmg2@gmail.com