A response to Airedale

The assertion that "The navy Canadians have is NOT the navy that the country has decided it necessarily needs" demand a response, especially from a former submariner accused of being a "task group man."

The implied idea that Canadians actually know what sort of navy they want is interesting on many counts. First, it assumes that Canadians actually know that they have a navy and are aware of what it does, which is a complete myth. This was made absolutely clear during the 1994 public hearings on defence policy when the few members of the public who had never been associated with the navy spoke and made it quite clear that they didn't even know the difference between the navy and the coast guard let alone understand the meaning of responsible stewardship of an ocean domain. The notion of the navy having a diplomatic function was completely beyond them.

Second, we live within a system of government that usually only consults the people at the time of an election; the rest of the time we trust (or are expected to trust) the government to act in our best interests. Holding a public referendum on any policy issue is a rarity. The thought of holding a public referendum on naval policy is really frightening as it would require a prior public education process that would be costly and very time consuming because the level of public knowledge would have to be raised from near zero to a level that allowed people to make an informed decision. Such an education process is often needed in DND in order to get naval programs through the bureaucratic acquisition process.

Third, as the complex naval history of this country explains, we have been down the path of determining the ideal fleet mix countless times before. Innovative ideas for meeting maritime security needs emerge regularly and sometimes those ideas have legs and sometimes they don't. For instance, during the 1970s and early 1980s a public debate was held over the advantages of investing in "small and cost-effective" warships rather than continue with the more traditional destroyer solution (the modern day frigate is essentially a destroyer-type ship). In the end, the decision was made by the politicians that the basic security requirements for flexibility, mobility, and endurance (in terms of survivability as well as operating range) could only be met by a 3,000 to 5,000 ton warship using a standard displacement hull. The options of 1,000 ton corvettes, hydrofoils, and new hull forms such as SWATH, were certainly interesting, but all lacked the guarantee that they could function effectively for prolonged periods in dirty weather.

Fourth, Airedale completely misses the point that warships are extensions of the "sovereign state" and thus symbols of the home state's interest in a place or situation. As I have argued in my various pieces about the utility of task groups, warships can be deployed quickly and easily with a far smaller political footprint than either armies or air forces mainly because they do not require the enormous logistic support system to sustain them and make them useful. Pulling warships out of a situation is also much easier. Although a deployed warship is a political signal or commitment, it is one that seldom makes the headlines and so is often a missed signal at home. This is a fact of life but a source of annoyance to many who believe that deployed warships should have a larger political footprint.

Fifth, the concept of a naval task group is as old as naval history. It is merely an organizational concept for making best use of naval and other forces operating together with a common aim. When one looks closely at Canadian naval history one finds that generations of Canadian admirals have built their basic policies on a concept that a nucleus of destroyers is essential to meet the maximum number of contingencies. Destroyers (or frigates today) are the workhorses of the fleet and without them there is little flexibility; however, they have their limitations. The history of Canadian naval policy can be looked at as a series of attempts to address the inherent limitations of destroyers by adding other types of warship and aircraft to the task group. The term 'force multiplier' is often used to refer to this process and it is an accurate term. An aircraft carrier, for instance, provides air cover and extends the operating range of the task group, an air-defence ship provides area (rather than just local) protection, and so on. The point is that it is the multi-purpose destroyer that is the nucleus of the task group and not the single-function ship.

Last, traditionally boots on the ground are the final phase of a war or intervention operation. But the soldiers have to get there first. The strategic value of joint operations is also as old as naval history - even General Wolfe knew this in 1759 when he stormed the Plains of Abraham. But the amphibious assault cannot be made without either control of sea or control of the airspace above it. For this, naval forces are needed and those naval forces are invariably organized into groups to carry out specific tasks, and they are mutually supporting. Although the final glory for the victory may go to the army which conquers the enemy, that army doesn't get or stay there without naval and air forces. As Colin Gray has argued, navies are enabling forces.

These six points along with other interesting issues raised by Airedale lead me to some more general thoughts about the nature of navies today and why getting political support for naval modernization programs seems so difficult. As the 1994 Defence Policy Review made clear, Canadians do not understand the Navy or the need to have one; many believe that a para-military coast guard is all that is needed for national maritime security. This narrow view ignores the fact that the major economic powers of the world, Canada included, have become dependant on a stable international situation. Disruptions to stability often have economic implications and thus need to be minimized quickly. Most advanced countries also have humanitarian concerns that they choose to address, sometimes by military intervention, but unlike like the economic imperatives, such humanitarian responses are choices. This has come to mean that intervention requires more than just a coast guard and a militia; it needs the ability to deploy forces quickly and sustain them away from the homeland. The nature of international crisis management has evolved to include what some call "muscular" diplomacy in both deterring and containing the spread of violence. This requires flexible, mobile, and sustainable forces.

To me these are naval forces supported by aircraft and quick response army units. Maybe this is what Airedale sees as the future, but if he does he has overlooked the prior requirement to have the strategic and operational flexibility of a naval task force. Simply, experience shows that you cannot "do joint" without first having naval, air and land forces as the building blocks.

Here I have to raise the question, "Does anyone really know what sort on Canadian navy is needed?" In this, a note of caution is needed, "Be careful for what you wish for, as it may happen?" Flavour of the month naval forces are interesting, but one needs to ask whether they have the long-term flexibility, mobility and sustainability to respond to any and all future challenges at sea Canada may face. In this, I think the generations of Canadian admirals have largely got it right in planning for the long-term by maintaining a nucleus of destroyers and frigates around which flexible and responsive task groups can be formed. The problem, which I see underlying Airedale's concerns, is that the rationale for the right Canadian navy has not been explained publicly. But, how can people agree or disagree with a naval policy if they do not know or understand the basic issues?

As a closing thought for those who want to continue this useful discussion, maybe we should start by answering some simple questions:

  1. What does the Canadian navy need to do?
  2. Where?
  3. How often?
  4. Under what circumstances?
  5. What would happen if there was no navy to do those things?

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