The Canadian Naval Task Group

As its operational focal point, the modern Canadian navy uses a "multi-purpose, combat-capable task group." This policy is consistent with the 1994 Defence White Paper which calls for the navy to maintain such a task group on each coast. The exact size and capability of those groups is not specified other than to say that in a given situation a naval task group would be "comprised of up to four combatants (destroyers, frigates or submarines) and a support ship, with appropriate maritime air support."

Today, the navy continues to organize around, train, and deploy task groups (and when needed, individual ships) to meet a wide range of operational requirements. But is it still realistic to make these tasks groups the heart and soul of Canadian naval policy? Let's look at the various issues.

Why maintain a navy?

A navy, simply, is the extension of a state's sovereignty over the sea. In this, the main purpose of a navy is to preserve national security, but security now has several dimensions many of which have nothing to do with direct military threats to the homeland. The broader definition of security used today covers both military and non-military threats.

But if a state wants be sovereign in the waters under its jurisdiction it still must maintain some instrument to exercise that authority in upholding national and international laws. Some states do this with a coast guard and others do it with naval forces. The size, capability, and location of those forces are functions of geography, economics, and a host of domestic political considerations.

States with international interests, such as a heavy trade dependence, commitments to global security, and so on, also maintain navies as instruments of foreign and security policy. Concepts of global security have evolved to a point where collective responses to threats to stability and security are now routine at sea, on land, and in the skies above. States who want to participate in those operations must maintain forces with the right mix of capabilities that let them be effective members of a multinational team. The reality of the situation is that naval forces designed to work solely in local waters seldom have the capability needed to function in multinational organizations far from home. So, states who want to be part of the maritime global security equation must maintain appropriate naval capabilities.

In such cases it is seldom cost-effective to keep two navies, one for home waters and one for international operations, and so most maritime states today choose to have navies able to work in both capacities.

What sort of navy is needed?

One ship in a location is somewhat restricted in what it can do. It is restricted by the capabilities of its own systems and by its endurance. However, sometimes all that is needed is for a single ship to be present for a relatively short time. On other occasions a larger presence or capability may be needed. Two ships, or a ship and aircraft or submarine have a slightly better capability than a single ship or aircraft, and under some circumstances a group of several units can provide an extended capability.

The point is that naval forces can be organized into operational groupings for specific missions or tasks. This is a time-honoured naval concept in which a task group is often described as: a temporary grouping of units under one commander subordinate to a task force commander, formed for the purpose of carrying out a specific function or functions.

To be able to respond to the full range of likely situations the state needs a fairly wide range of capabilities. Rather than have a fleet in which ships are all specialized for a single function, it is far more efficient and more cost-effective to adopt a "multi-purpose" concept where the majority of ships have the capability to handle most tasks ranging from surveillance to the use of force. Yet, a limited degree of specialization is still needed to keep costs under control. For instance, where one specialty can be shared by all ships in the task group it may be cheaper and more efficient to integrate a specialized vessel or aircraft into the group. Logistic support is one such example. It is far better to centralize fuel and other support rather than increase the size of frigates and destroyers to give them a 30-day endurance.

Employment can work two ways: nationally or internationally. The Canadian navy routinely operates under both situations, and has done for many years. Why? Because it is the most efficient way of operating. Maintaining national task groups gives one the capability to respond to a wide range of situations at home or elsewhere. Also, by training within a task group concept, single ships can be sent to multinational formations with confidence that they will perform effectively in the partnership.

The sum of all these considerations results in a "multi-purpose, combat-capable task group" structure because it is that structure which allows a state to have a flexibility in responding to situations at sea. Lesser structures do not provide that flexibility.

What can a task group do?

Critics of the task group concept invariably say that it is nothing more than a continuation of Cold War policies and that without a direct threat to national security Canada could meet its maritime obligations with a coast guard. Other than the fact that the linkage to Cold War policies is seriously in error, that view is not unreasonable. But what it doesn't take into account are the costs and longer-term implications of such a shift in policy.

First, designing and building a new coast guard structure takes time and money. The driving issue, however, will be the number of vessels, aircraft, and remote systems needed to conduct surveillance, maintain an adequate government presence at sea, and have the capacity to respond to threatening situations in Canada's six million square kilometre ocean domain. The Trudeau government went through this process in the 1970s and found that the numbers were much larger than they either expected or wanted. Ocean usage has in fact increased in the last 25 years while the geography remains the same. Essentially, the question becomes one of whether a lesser government presence or response capability in Canadian waters is acceptable.

Second, does Canada want to withdraw from the world stage and stop being part of the global security process? Not many Canadians today honestly advocate a return to isolationism. More importantly, though, with a very high percentage of Canadian GDP (some estimates now put it at over 40%) being a function of trade, we have to accept that global security and our standard of living are irrevocably linked. Some will argue that just because over 80 percent of that trade is with the United States such an argument is fallacious. What they do not acknowledge in saying this is that Canada-US trade is part of a much greater economic structure that is an integral part of the global economy. Canada's economic well-being is tied to the global economy regardless of the extent of cross-border trade. Shipping remains one of the engines of the global economy: tankers and bulk carriers represent the input, container ships the output. The free movement of all those ships is thus essential to a healthy economy. Yet that trade flow can be disrupted in many ways - from natural disaster to government intervention to war - and these disruptions can easily become threats to economic security.

The present security process depends on quick action by the forces of a small number of states to restore stability. At sea, only a handful of navies have the ability to work together in such situations and Canada is one of them. Reduce the Canadian navy to a coast guard and the world's maritime rapid response capability goes down by some 8-10 percent. If anything, Canada should be doing more to enhance that collective rapid response capability - we can afford it and to do so would be consistent with traditional Canadian security objectives.

Third, we still live in a violent and unpredictable world, and Canada maintains official representation in many of the more volatile areas. From time to time it is necessary to put a Canadian military presence in one of those areas. The idea being to be ready to extricate Canadians if a situation turns nasty, or to reassure the local government that Canada is concerned over the situation where Canadian interests may be at risk. It may also be necessary to send a military force to assist in disaster relief. Although such operations can be done multilaterally, there are times when they are best done nationally. With only a coast guard, such tasks would have to be either contracted to another navy or just not done.

On balance, it might seem that Canada's best interests are served by retaining a versatile naval capability.

And what of the future?

In the near-term, it seems unlikely that the world situation is going to get significantly better. Thugs and bullies will still have their way in many parts of the world, and there will be times when intervention is deemed necessary. There will be shortages of food, water, and medical care which call for collective action. There will be disputes between peoples over resources and, in many cases, over the right of self-determination that have the potential to expand and threaten regional security. Although some may find it hard to accept, the reality of the future world situation is that those few states able to intervene and halt the spread of violence will have to be prepared to do so for some time to come. As we have seen in such places as the Balkans, diplomacy alone doesn't always work; sometimes a little force is needed.

For Canada, this raises the question of what is the most effective contribution to collective security. The value of the Canadian naval task group and of individual Canadian warships in multinational naval task groups is beyond question. It has proven an effective and respected contribution to global security for many years, and there seems no logical reason to propose any other naval structure. However, some work is needed to retain that capability at full effectiveness.

Modernization and/or replacement of three key components of the task group is a matter of particular concern at the moment. The Sea King helicopters are long-overdue for replacement, and as others have stated very clearly the replacements must at least have comparable capabilities. Reducing those capabilities for economic reasons will soon prove to be false economy. The added operational value provided through the integration of an effective maritime helicopter into a task group far outweighs most other factors. Today, those aircraft are indeed "multi-purpose" and serve to extend the capability of not only single ships but also of whole task groups.

Much has been said of late about the pressing need to modernize the avionics of the Aurora maritime patrol aircraft. The long-range support those aircraft provide to a task group is invaluable. Also, they have the ability to provide distant protection for the task group under some circumstances, as they did in the Adriatic a couple of years ago. In much the same way as a submarine, a long-range patrol aircraft can provide advance warning of ships closing the task group and help build-up a comprehensive picture of what is happening in a particular body of water. Whether in the Strait of Juan de Fuca or in the Adriatic Sea, a task group needs to develop a good picture of what is moving through those waters if it is to keep an effective watch over those waters. In such cases a task group is more than just ships, it is aircraft and submarines as well.

The third concern is for the replacement of the logistic support ships without which a task group has no endurance and is thus either dependent on the support of some other navy or is tied to home waters. One of the problems is that there are almost too many alternatives. For instance, one idea is to integrate the capability to transport and support an army combat unit into the new support ship. This concept has been used to good effect in the past and holds promise of being a useful contribution to the collective rapid response capability. The problem is that it needs a change in army philosophy to be meaningful. It would be a mistake, to say the least, to delay replacing the support ships while the army makes up its mind if it agrees to the new operational concept. Another idea is to merely convert a civilian vessel to a "fleet auxiliary" rather than purpose-build a vessel. This may make sense but inevitably some flexibility would be sacrificed.

So where does this leave us?

Although it may be somewhat of a cliche now, the fact remains that navies are still effective extensions of the state over the ocean. When things go wrong, or when there are warning signs that they might go wrong, it is in everyone's interest that stability be restored as quickly as possible. To reiterate an old but true maxim, "navies are well suited to such a concept of crisis management because:

1. they are able to deploy quickly and remain in an area for extended periods without complex logistic support systems;
2. they have an inherent flexibility which allows them to change role quickly without loss of efficiency or without having to return home to reconfigure;
3. warships have a symbolic value in that they are legal extensions of their parent state; in this, the presence of a warship is a clear signal of the interest or concern of a state (or of a group of states in the case of a multinational force) about a situation; and
4. unlike deployed armies, warships are also able to extricate themselves relatively easy from threatening situations to avoid escalation; alternatively, the modern warship has the capability to function in harm's way and protect itself and those entrusted to its care."

The naval task group, particularly in Canada's unique situation, is the right concept for now and for the future - in so far as it can be projected. However, a requirement remains to continue to develop the operating procedures and to ensure that the navy as a whole remains able to work freely within multinational formations. A more pressing requirement remains to replace obsolete equipment and to upgrade systems before they cease to be effective.