2007 Maritime Security Conference Report*

[* Moderator’s Note:  This article was originally published in the Summer 2007 (Vol. 3, No. 2) issue of Canadian Naval Review.]

The 2007 Maritime Security Conference took place 14-16 June at Dalhousie University, drawing 120 delegates from around the world. Participants from Chile, India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States examined four illustrative case studies. Keynote speakers from the US Coast Guard (Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III), the Canadian Navy (Vice-Admiral Drew Robertson) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Superintendent Blair McKnight) provided a contextual framework for each day’s discussions. Conference participation from India’s National Maritime Foundation and delegates from Pakistan’s National Centre for Maritime Policy Research added a valuable Asian perspective to the proceedings. This year, the conference was organized in partnership between the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University and the International Centre for Emergency Management Studies at Cape Breton University.

The conference, “The Maritime Role in National Response to Emergencies: Concepts of Operation, Case Studies and Capabilities,” focused on three key questions:

  • What have maritime professionals and emergency response agencies learned from the experience of maritime organizations in recent emergencies?
  • What concepts are being (or should be) developed to enable maritime capabilities to be employed effectively in responding to future emergencies?
  • What maritime capabilities are essential to Canada if it is to respond effectively to emergencies at home or abroad?

Naval and civilian experts with first-hand knowledge of the roles played by maritime organizations in recent emergencies highlighted the maritime perspective, while experts in emergency management addressed the perspective of those who receive such support. Discussions focused on the unique character of maritime capabilities and their utility in emergency response.

The four case studies – Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the evacuation operations from Lebanon, and the Integrated Tactical Effects Experiment – brought several important common lessons to the attention of the delegates. Response to disasters, whether caused by natural or human forces, requires flexibility. Maritime forces have the inherent capacity and mobility to bring resources that can achieve strategically significant effects. Most importantly, their ability to self-sustain and use the sea as the base of their operations reduces the need for a ‘footprint’ ashore, avoiding diplomatic complications.

However, while warships can be useful in disaster response, their capacity is limited and their on-station endurance is finite. Worse, the logistical capacity of the Canadian navy is also limited. While other government fleets, such as the coast guard, can be employed they are also not an inexhaustible resource. The Canadian merchant fleet does have a few appropriate ships that could be made available, but they are also limited in many important ways. Chartering of international shipping is possible but short notice in an emergency situation will result in a very high premium being paid. In legal terms, the government’s authority to requisition ships in response to an emergency is unclear. These issues showed that, while citizens have a clear expectation that assistance will be rendered at home and abroad, the national capacity to do so is very limited. A lively debate about whether Canadian national maritime capabilities need to be restructured to satisfy this requirement ended without resolution. Clearly, the issue of strategic choices and force structures is motivated by deeply held values. These questions of choice will be explored in future conferences.