The navy’s future fleet plans are not what Canada needs

The navy Canadians have today is NOT the navy that the country has decided it necessarily needs.  The naval leadership is singularly focused on a blue water force centred on the destroyer/frigate task group.  Such a force is capable of global deployments and providing "leadership" at sea.  Proponents of this force structure argue that leadership at sea is crucial, as is the ability to operate in the multi-threat (air, surface, and sub-surface) environment.  The current admiral’s vision for the future is expansive:


To improve our capacity for joint and combined expeditionary operations in an integrated battle space … other procurements beyond the ships announced over the last year will be needed. In the near term, the most pressing priority will be replacing the command and air defence capabilities of our current destroyers. Over the next 20 to 25 years, I [Vice Admiral Robertson] would like to see maritime forces evolving toward a mix of two littoral manoeuvre ships [amphibious landing ships]; three joint support ships; four to six submarines; four task group command/force air defence destroyers; 12 to 14 future frigates; 28 Cyclone maritime helicopters; 16 multi-mission aircraft for long-range maritime surveillance; eight offshore patrol corvettes; four to six coastal defence vessels; eight to 16 internal waters/inshore patrol vessels; and a small constellation of tactical unmanned vehicles remotely piloted or deployed autonomously from our ships and submarines.

This multi-dimensional and highly capable destroyer/frigate vision the Canadian navy has had for its future has only varied slightly for over sixty years.

The reality -- quite apart from what the navy would like to believe -- is that the ability to deploy on joint and expeditionary operations, or even purely naval ones, has brought the government relatively little credit, at home or internationally.  In point of fact, had journalists deployed to sea in appreciable numbers for an extended period in our ships they would have found a very expensive task group burning fuel by driving around in circles in an ocean half a world away, escorting American naval forces and protecting them from...what???  The Pakistani Navy?  The Indian Navy???  The Iranian Navy? The Taliban Navy...ooops, sorry, the Taliban doesn't have a navy.  And, rightly divining that there was no interesting news story in the northern Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf, ambitious journalists would have insisted on going where the action was – namely, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first principle in joint operations is to always remember that naval influence on land operations cannot be achieved before sufficient control of the sea is secured. It is axiomatic that in warfare the SEAT OF PURPOSE IS ALMOST ALWAYS ON THE LAND.  This was and still is certainly the case with respect to the “Global War on Terror.”  The West has had undisputed control of the sea, largely through the undisputed superiority of the United States Navy, since the end of the Cold War.  What does this mean for our navy's vision of itself? This logical question has never been answered. Somehow, expeditionary capabilities have always taken precedence over domestic constabulary ones, despite the fact that our joint contribution is militarily minor and diplomatically insignificant. The admiral’s fleet plan is heavily biased towards expeditionary capabilities and only the slightest tokens are offered towards national sovereignty requirements.

The Canadian task group (a force of four warships and a support ship with naval aircraft embarked) is expense to operate and becoming ever more so.  Resource allocations to the navy are not increasing, in fact they are reducing.  This means that the navy must continue to ‘shave the ice cube’ in order to preserve what is perceived as its core (destroyer/frigate) capability.  A consequence is that every capability not seen as essential to the task group (including submarines, coastal defence, mine warfare, diving, etc.) is viewed with a degree of scepticism. Public statements are made by the naval leadership that all such capabilities are integral to the vision but privately the navy engages in endless internal debate about how to ‘square the circle’ of its aspirations and the obvious limits of its resource reality

The navy does little to encourage a public debate, although one is essential.  Indeed, with the admiral’s huge appetite for expanding the fleet, one is long overdue.  The reason for its faint encouragement for discourse is the navy’s expectation that it needs to simultaneously lead and moderate the participants, lest the result not be in accordance with the vision.  Maritime strategy has been reduced to little more than a pawn; a line of argument that justifies naval ambitions.

Enter into this equation for naval expansion the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship.  This ship was forced on the navy by the government.  It is completely outside of the navy’s fleet operating concept and fleet structure plan.  In the words of the current Chief of Maritime Staff on the occasion of his first address to his headquarters staff: “the government clearly got ahead of us (the navy).” The Arctic Patrol Ship has the potential to call into question fundamental aspects of the sacred expeditionary task force vision.  Wow, no kidding...but it shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Since the inception of Canadian Naval Review, I have followed the welcome discussion about the ‘home and away’ roles of the navy, an important and topical debate led by Peter Haydon (who is, incidentally, a “task group” man), Richard Gimblett, Ken Hansen and others.  On a wider level there is continuing speculation about the content of the (not yet promulgated) Canada First Defence Strategy.  I don't know about you, but when I think about ‘Canada First” it is not visions of army battle groups deployed to foreign lands, naval task groups patrolling foreign seas, and air operations over foreign skies that immediately spring to mind.

The perennial dilemma of the DND/CF (including the navy) will only be solved by a resolute display of government leadership; leadership that issues an explicit statement of strategic goals and priorities for the Canadian military.  The navy must not be allowed to dictate strategy and policy to the government, or to interpret direction as they see fit.  Of course, an informed public will be a useful adjunct to forming government decisions.  And with specific reference to the navy, the debate that finalizes those expectations most certainly should not begin, as mainstream naval officers and traditional ‘navalists’ always insist, with an expression of the sanctity and non-negotiability of the task group as the centre of our maritime security concept.