Maritime Security Conference Explores Navy-Coast Guard Interoperability*

[* Moderator’s Note:  This article was originally published in the Summer 2008 (Vol. 4, No. 2) issue of Canadian Naval Review.]

The 19th annual Maritime Security Conference took place at Dalhousie University 12-14 June, drawing 135 distinguished speakers and delegates. Participants from Canada, Norway, Britain and the United States examined the many rapidly changing strategic factors that are influencing the choices being made today to shape the future of Canada’s fleets.

The conference, “Breaking the Box: Making Strategic Choices for Maritime Security Needs in the Twenty-first Century,” was centred on three key questions:

  • What is the strategic outlook for Canada;
  • What are the factors that are prompting change elsewhere and suggesting change here; and
  • What balance of functions, characteristics and interoperability should be struck between the navy and the coast guard to fulfil their roles?

“Breaking the Box” referred to a passage from Peter Haydon’s discussion paper “Why Does Canada Still Need a Navy,” which was issued in 2007 as a means of focusing attention on national maritime capability to assert sovereignty and defend vital interests.

Panels provided strategic assessment through expert opinion and international examples of changing navy-coast guard organizations. The discussions indicated that the rate of change in the security environment is greater than the capacity to implement institutional restructuring. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Arctic, although the rate of change is also prodigious in the Far East. The pace at which the world’s climate is changing is nothing short of breathtaking; a factor that was central to more than one presentation. Recognizing that the north is becoming an area of increasing strategic importance and economic potential, the lack of a navy-coast guard concept of operation for cooperation in the Arctic took on special meaning.

While the representatives of both organizations expressed willingness to cooperate, there is no clear consensus as to how areas of responsibility should be established and whether or not overlapping capabilities is a beneficial concept. Senator Colin Kenny was clear in his recommendations to the conference: the Canadian Coast Guard needs to acquire a constabulary role, including new legal powers and operational capabilities; the navy and the coast guard both need to be expanded significantly and re-balanced between the coasts, with the ice-breaking capability focused on the coast guard; and a national strategy aimed at developing a continuous shipbuilding program on both coasts is essential to our maritime security.

While several other speakers argued for similar changes to those suggested by Senator Kenny, or showed how the new security environment has provoked similar adjustments in their countries, the resource challenges and capability limitations of both fleets indicate that fundamental strategic change will entail major upheavals and will only come as the result of government direction. Until this happens, Canada’s sea services will continue to struggle to meet their current obligations. Cooperation seems to be the best avenue for achieving interim enhancement of existing capacity, with full interoperability a mid-term goal. There are many impediments to the attainment of this goal, but the need for such change is based on real requirements that are recognized by both organizations.

The proceedings closed with the announcement of the theme for the 2009 conference that will continue this exploration of maritime interoperability from American, Canadian and Mexican perspectives. The discussion paper for this conference is by Dr. Frank Harvey entitled “Canada’s Addiction to American Security: The Illusion of Choice in the War on Terrorism” (published in The American Review of Canadian Studies (Summer 2005), pp. 265-294), which explores the Canadian search for the right balance between interoperability and institutional autonomy in bilateral and international security arrangements.