Interview article

VAdm Mark Norman

Royal Canadian Navy Excellence at Sea
CHRIS MacLEAN  |  Jul 15, 2013

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, now the 34th officer to lead the Navy, recently took the wheel from VAdm Paul Maddison during a time of renewed fiscal restraint. How will these economic and political realities shape the Navy in the near term? A mere three weeks after assuming his new responsibilities, and as he was preparing for the Change of Command ceremony in Halifax for Rear-Admiral John Newton to assume command of ­Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic from Rear-Admiral Gardam, FrontLine spoke with the new Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy about some of these pressing issues.

Change of Command Ceremony in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Seated from left are VAdm Norman, RAdm Gardam, RAdm Newton, and LGen Beare.

What the military knows best, is leadership – how to develop it and how to foster it. And as such, transitioning from one commander to the next seldom creates upheaval. “Given the nature of navies and how complicated they are in terms of ship building in particular, and the fact that our decisions today affect capabilities for future generations, it’s really important that we have a consistent approach over the transition from one leader to the next to the next,” clarifies Vice-Admiral Norman. As VAdm Maddison’s deputy for two years, Norman became very cognizant of what will be expected of him, and is now confident that the transition to his new responsibilities will be “as smooth as it possibly could be.” At his own Change of Command ceremony, the new Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy reminded those present that the focus of Navy Commanders before him “has remained almost unaltered: the building of ships and the assembling and training of officers and sailors to put them to sea.” Simply put, he believes his responsibility is to ensure that, as a national institution, the Navy remains on the right track to deliver appropriate maritime forces and, more importantly, “to protect Canada’s interests at sea over the next several decades.”

Framework of Priorities
When asked about his personal priorities for this new position, Vice-Admiral Norman humbly asserts that the job “isn’t about me, it’s about the ongoing custody and navigation of the institution.” In a tribute to those who have gone before him, he is confident that the Navy is already “on the right path.”

The framework he uses to organize and measure success over the next couple years includes “excellence at sea, transition to the future fleet, evolving our business, and energizing the institution.”

In terms of excellence at sea, the Navy provides Canadians with “what I think is an absolutely first class capability to intervene both at home and abroad, and we continue to do that on a daily basis.”

Excellence at Sea includes the requirement to be flexible and HMCS Toronto is proving some of those capabilities right now. Currently forward deployed to the middle east, she and was about to start a very complex Relief in Place (an army term the Navy has adopted) which can be described as an “in theatre crew swap”. At the time of this interview, Toronto was alongside and about to begin executing the Relief in Place over the subsequent couple of weeks. Even though the Navy has not swapped crews on the go since the first Gulf war, VAdm Norman admits “it doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary, but it’s something we’ve really sunk our teeth into – and it demonstrates a degree of agility and flexibility that we think is really important. It’s also necessary because, as we take that very positive step forward in modernizing the Halifax class ships, we don’t have as many available as we typically would, so this is an innovative approach to deal with those temporary challenges.”

Navy taskings include a wide array of missions, and more and more are getting involved in continental operations such as Op Caribbe, which is a “growing area of activity. We’re always looking for ways that we can support that important objective of countering the flow of narcotics into North America,” says VAdm Norman. In fact, HMCS Ottawa is currently deployed on that mission out of Esquimalt. “On a 24/7 daily basis we’re doing all sorts of operations at sea and on shore in terms of maritime awareness, SAR and all of the other things that Canadians would expect of us, so from my perspective, excellence at sea is a measure.” The new commander of the Navy is confident the Navy will continue to deliver that excellence “but at the same time, it’s not something we can take for granted and it requires a fair degree of effort on our part in terms of the transition to the future fleet.”

With so many ships being replaced, modernized or added, this transition is an “enormous challenge” but Norman is in the enviable position of overseeing this “incredible opportunity that generations of senior naval leadership have been striving for.” On that note, the Halifax class modernization program, which is taking a dependable operational platform and giving it another 15 plus years of relevant operational life, is seen by the Navy as a huge “success story” in terms of cooperation with industry. Four of the ships are back from the respective yards and, although they aren’t yet ready to be reintroduced into operational service, “we’re seeing great progress in terms of their technical trials and we’re looking to see the first two available for operational employment – we hope for early next year. If everything goes according to plan, we’ll start to see a fairly accelerated pace of those ships returning to the fleet, and an amazing new capability for the fleet and also for Canada,” says Norman.

May 2013 – HMCS Toronto provides cover during the naval boarding of a dhow in the Indian Ocean during Op Artemis.

Looking ahead to the exciting new construction programs, all three of the Navy’s major ship building programs are now in formal definition phase. Although the Joint Support Ship and the Polar Icebreaker projects are competing for first place in the build sequencing at the Seaspan Shipyard on the West coast, and on the East coast, the surface combatant will follow in the years ahead, “we’re making good progress,” says Norman. General academic and bureaucratic discussions have now evolved to talk about design for specific ships and technical details around those particular classes of ships. Steel has yet to be cut, and that will be a major milestone. It’s still too early to predict when that could or should happen.

“In many respects,” says Norman, “I am one of many participants in a very complicated and occasionally convoluted process to get from concept to actual ship, but the good news is, assuming that I’m allowed to stay in this job for a couple of years at any rate, I am optimistic that we are going to see actual production starting on my watch. That to me is very exciting. Lots of hurdles and challenges ahead obviously, such as the sequencing discussion (we’re hoping to have some solid recommendations in September), and getting the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships into the final phases of the actual build/design detail. If all things go according to plan we should be seeing actual ships being constructed in the next two years, and I think that’s good news, it’s always hard to watch things take longer than we would ideally like them to, but at the same time we have to keep in mind that this a very long-term process and we want to get it right at the front end.”

Now that Canada has chosen a modification of the Berlin class as the preferred design for the joint support ship, the next issue to be resolved is which ship should be built at Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards first, the joint support ship or the polar ice breaker. That analysis is being led by a multi-departmental team in Ottawa and will be resolved in the next couple months. “It’s not a contentious issue,” says Norman, recognizing how important the sequencing decision is for the shipyard’s schedulers.

Capability Gaps
Asked about capability gaps, VAdm Norman replies: “There are a number of things we are pursuing, but most of them fall into the category of what I would call ‘continuous improvement’. The biggest gap at this point would be the fact that the government has directed us to be able to operate in the Arctic, and we don’t have that capability.”   
The rest of the capabilities the Navy would be pursuing are actually upgrades of existing capability. “We continue to improve and modernize our communications capabilities, self defence capabilities, underwater warfare capabilities, there’s a whole suite of different capabilities in our inventory at the moment and where we’re making some investments. In other areas, we’re waiting until some of the new classes of ship are delivered. So I don’t see huge gaps in capability.”

Recruiting & Training
The Navy has been dealing with significant crew shortages for years now, but the admiral says those recruit numbers starting to fill in. “We continue to have challenges in the technical trades, but that’s not exclusive to the navy, nor to the armed forces for that matter. We’ve had great success over the past two to three years in terms of bringing folks into the navy, in the basic training list (those who have been brought in as recruits and are awaiting specific navy training), and that’s really encouraging. It’s also a bit of a challenge because we’ve been so successful that we now have a significantly larger number than we typically would and with the state of the fleet right now (in terms of the modernization of the Halifax class ships) it’s given us a bit of a challenge in terms of how we ensure that those people are getting the basic naval training that they require and also getting valuable opportunities at sea. To do this, we’ve re-engineered our processes, which are part of the whole next priority of evolving our business. It is a bit bureaucratic, but it’s really about engineering how we run the navy.”

Leading Seaman Paul Johnson indicates proximity of the Zodiac boat to the shore as he helps Royal 22e Régiment soldiers land to conduct a beach landing during Exercise Trident Fury 13.

Similar to the Air Force, the Navy is also in the process of overhauling its training systems, to “change the way we provide that essential experience at sea.” The Navy is now looking at training and experience “more at an individual level than we have in the past, actually tracking individuals – how they’re progressing and how they’re maintaining their competency.

“The good news is, we’re slowly filling our ranks. What that challenge did was give us a chance to rejig the way we do our business. It’s not just training in the traditional sense, but the whole generation aspect of people and skills, and it also relates to the broader government agenda to implement important business renewal. This is certainly an important issue for us in that regard. When the navy thinks of defence renewal, we think of the internal reengineering of our training in support of that broader initiative.”

There are a number of ongoing initiatives for the modernization and rationalization of C4ISR across the Canadian Forces in general. The interoperability drivers for the RCN are the United States Navy and other allied naval forces, so the Canadian Navy obviously works closely with the Americans when it comes to interoperability in both concept and practice. “The navy runs a wide spectrum, from the mechanisms and networks by which we communicate, up to and including wide area surveillance capabilities, space based surveillance, and how we move that information around.”

According to VAdm Norman there is a renewed focus within the CAF for a much more integrated approach to C4ISR. “Within the broader Canadian Forces capability development business, there has been significant investment in people and leadership to bring a lot of what were disparate initiatives across the Canadian Forces into a more coherent approach, and the Navy is actively participating in that process.” A key component of all this is to ensure that interoperability with Canada’s key partner, the United States Navy, is not compromised. “The good news,” says Norman, “is the US Navy is going through these same discussions in their own way and so we’re optimistic that it’s not a case of conflict developing, there are points of friction obviously, different organizations see C4ISR slightly differently. The RCN at the moment is completely supportive of a pan-CF way ahead, and we’re investing, particularly in the area of people and expertise in some of the key positions to help come up with a road map that is both achievable and sensible for Canada – and that allows us to continue to do what we do, which is to seamlessly integrate with the USN and other partners at sea.”

The business of missiles is constantly evolving. The RCN’s current air-defence inventory is a combination of the Standard missile and the SeaSparrow missile, and they have the Harpoon missile for anti-surface warfare.  “As far as missiles go,” explains the Commander of the Navy, “right at the moment, we have a fairly limited but effective set of capabilities both in the anti-air and anti-surface domain. We will continue to make improvements and investments in those capabilities, we see them as viable paths for certainly the next decade or so.” As an example of these ongoing investments, Norman points to the Halifax class modernization which included a number of improvements to the supporting sensors and software that have, for instance, opened up some capabilities of the evolved SeaSparrow missile that the legacy systems were unable to access. “We’re happy with what we have [in the Iroquois class] at the moment, I think the bridge to the future in that particular system is tied to discussions around the Statement of Requirements for the surface combatant and where we would see ourselves in the next decade or so as we start to design the replacement for those ships.”

As for standoff attack capability, such as the Tomahawk or other weapons systems, Norman believes such higher end attack capability is “not something we see being a high requirement in the Canadian inventory.” He explains that “the latest version of the Harpoon weapon system that we’re now going to be able to tap into with the modernized Halifax class, does have some enhanced capability and we don’t see a requirement for anything beyond that type of capability. I don’t see us being in the market for a standoff attack capability, I don’t think it’s consistent with how we would see ourselves operating in that future battle space, I don’t see it consistent with the priorities for investment looking ahead over the next decade or so.”

“International alliances benefit all our forces,” confirms VAdm Norman, “but the Navy in particular, because they allow us to create a collective capability which is greater than the sum of the parts. The key to being able to do that is the important issue of interoperability – which has a technical dimension (as we’ve touched on already), and a procedural dimension, which is why international exercises like RIMPAC and others are so important to us, so we can build and maintain that capability to work together,” he says.

For decades there has been an underlying desire among NATO allies to consider a potential ideal mix of capabilities across the alliance. With the renewed world-wide focus on budget constraints, this notion of ‘smart defence’ in force structure has again been gaining traction. Strategic discussions often hinge on expectations that individual nations will contribute certain capabilities for NATO operations.

“Even though we’re not in the cold war,” suggests Norman, “the essence of those concerns and those [NATO] discussions is still with us. Individual nations design and build their armed forces based on their own needs – I know that sounds like a statement of the obvious, but in order to graduate to the next level of integrated multinational forces, there really has to be an increased level of cooperation, almost at the conceptual design stage.”
NATO transformation has focused not just on how the alliance organizes itself, but on how NATO members design their own forces. According to Norman, there has ­traditionally been “more high end kinetic capability and a shortage of the important joint enabling capabilities” among the alliance. NATO, he says, has identified shortages of specific capabilities – such as logistics, lift, sustainment and support – and would like to see nations making greater investments in those areas.

Operation Artemis – The crew of HMCS Toronto seized a massive haul (nearly 6 tonnes) of hashish from the dhow, making it her fifth major interdiction in two months.

Like all other nations, Canada also makes independent sovereign decisions for designing its military force, and “this is all central to our focus on multi-purpose combat-effective forces, and part of that is the need to recognize that there are interdependencies – and that’s the essence of this whole issue,” says Norman. “There are interdependencies within the Canadian Forces and within alliances and coalitions, and not everybody can bring everything to whatever the circumstance is, so it’s a question of finding the right balance and the right capability. I think the RCN has been quite effective at having a modest but balanced set of capabilities that can contribute in a meaningful way to whatever the coalition or alliance requirement is.

“This is another reason to have multi-purpose platforms – to have a degree of ‘polyvalence’ as the French would say – but you also need ensure that, across the fleet, you have that degree of flexibility. A task group is an example of that, and having the ability to sustain yourself and therefore the importance of a support ship capability, are all things that we bring to the broader coalition. I guess in simple terms, we can’t do everything, but we can do many things very effectively, and the key is for us to ensure that we’re picking the right things to ensure that we have options for Canada, not just this year, but 10, 15, 20 years from now.”

Automation & Crew Sizes
More automated fleets are the way of the future and today’s newer ships are able to navigate with vastly reduced crew sizes. While that seems like an efficient thing to do, the ability to complete mission requirements typically requires many more people. Does a more compact navy reduce readiness or flexibility to complete mission requirements or indeed for surge capacity such as for humanitarian missions? “The issue of crew sizes is a really important issue,” agrees the Commander of the RCN, “and certainly other navies are also wrestling with this. From the perspective of the overall cost of ownership of a navy, there is a compelling attraction to reducing the crew sizes, but at the same time, as you’ve pointed out in the way your question was phrased, there are also some challenges with that. The key is to find the balance between the minimum necessary to operate the ship effectively, and the requirement to employ the ship in different roles.”

Interestingly, those two verbs help to clarify the important distinction between getting a ship from point A to point B, and the varied requirements (both crew and equipment) to complete a tasking.

Crew size is driven by balancing whatever mission(s) the ship is about to undertake, with basic safe passage requirements. Therefore, the key to efficiency is to try to fit equipment that simultaneously helps with both safe passage and mission execution, and to automate as much as possible.
As in every other organization, the single largest through life cost of a ship is its people (salary, benefits, healthcare, training, etc.), however, in the Navy, automation and minimizing equipment and crew size has very practical limits, particularly when the Government needs the flexibility to assign many different types of missions.

As a litmus test for discussion going forward, one can expect this issue of balance to factor into the new designs for the arctic offshore patrol ship and the Canadian surface combatant. “What we’re looking at in trying to find that balance,” notes Norman, “is designing ships that can carry enough people but that wouldn’t necessarily have those people on all the time, and so part of the underlying concept that we’re seeing emerge in other navies, and that we’re investing a lot of our own research into, is the notion of core crews and then mission-specific teams or augmentation that allow you to do different things depending on what you’re expecting the ship to do.”

The leadership of the RCN is very cautious when it comes to arbitrarily reducing crew sizes. “As we look at some of the potential designs of our future combatants, we are taking that key issue into account. Some [new designs] have gone for extremely high degrees of automation and have driven down crew sizes significantly. Others have actually mandated significant reduction in crew sizes, thereby forcing a dependence on technology and reducing the flexibility of what you can and cannot do. Ultimately, missions such as maritime security operations, intercept operations, and boardings, are all manpower intensive.” Admitting that mistakes have been made in the past, it’s important to take those lessons into consideration when looking at crewing. “We need to be very careful that we don’t get this wrong.”

Automation is increasingly becoming a critical factor in ship design, and the Navy is looking very seriously at all possible options. “In an ideal world, we would like to increase our dependence on automation to reduce the requirement for the core crew necessary to operate the ship, but allow the flexibility that would come from that reduction to be applied to ­mission-specific augmentation requirements (and they run the full spectrum from everything to do with helicopters, boarding, special forces, humanitarian operations, UAVs, all sorts of capabilities that would be considered as mission-specific packages), taking the modular approach to how we actually crew the ship.” Enough crew quarters will have to be available to do all these various missions.

Non-traditional missions have been emerging over the past decade. The Navy needs people with a wide variety of skill sets, and who may not necessarily be part of the crew. “The smart way to do this is to reduce your core crew to a reasonable level that still provides a certain degree of resilience and flexibility using automation, while ensuring that you have the ability to embark and support additional people who come on board for what are, in a navy context, non-traditional missions of the 21st century.”

Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief of FrontLine Magazines
© 2013 FrontLine Defence Magazine