The strange silence on neglect of strategic seaborne mobility

Dear Senator Kenny,

Bravo Zulu on a plainspoken wake up call to Canadians. Jack Granatstein's classics - "Who Killed Canadian History?" and "Who Killed the Canadian Military?" have fallen on essentially deaf ears, particularly where it counts in government. Let us hope yours and the work of the Senate on defence will be more successful.

Only 2,500 or about 3% of our total regular and reserve manpower is committed to the landlocked mission in Afghanistan. Yet it is the immediate, dominant focus of operations and spending on needed equipment for the army and associated heavy and medium transport aircraft and helicopters for the air force. At the same time, a multi-billion dollars in budget surplus has been allocated to social "enhancement" programs in the past five months alone. All of this has largely escaped Canadians with little or no understanding of the state and needs of defence.

As you have emphasized, neglect extends to a more fundamental and enduring "Canada First" need as a maritime nation on three ocean frontiers. And that is the maintenance of a strong and versatile navy for protection of our vital seaborne trade and territorial interests. Equally vital is its need as a unique and unequalled instrument in collective security alliances and worldwide service of our values in disaster relief and humanitarian operations. Immediate, timely, consistent and firmly committed funding for the planning, rebuilding and long term maintenance of the navy's core capabilities must and can be the highest priority. Further delay in the launch of efficient programs for mid-life refits of aging ships and the long process of rebuilding the fleet is indeed a "Naval Disaster" in the making.

There is, however, an equally grim outlook for Canada's ability to respond to security and humanitarian demands at the speed and scale needed. This is a critical point of your article that is very much in need of understanding and support by parliament and the public at large. Since the scrapping of our last carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, thirty-seven years ago, we have had no independent and adequate means of deploying our forces outside of "Fortress Canada" by air and especially by sea unlike our more enlightened allies, Britain, Australia, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and the United States, a leader in both fields for almost 70 years. Yet we are challenged to serve our interests and values in overseas wars of liberation, suppression of conflict and other missions as we have done for over a century. In a now radically changed world, these place an absolutely vital demand on rapid reaction, worldwide mobility by sea and air. Without both strategic and tactical means, our Expeditionary Force Command especially is a hollow and sadly ironic pretence, reliant upon the charity of allies and the limitations of commercial air and marine charters.

Despite a declared commitment to rebuilding and transformation of forces for the post-9/11 era, Ottawa has been virtually mesmerized by the special needs and priorities of the war and reconstruction in Afghanistan, a land locked country accessible only by air. Direct air service to and from Canada is costly, limited to troop and equipment payloads of 80 tons on the C-17 "Globemaster" work horses, due for delivery to our air force. Ironically, it is faster as well as cheaper to ship by sea to Gulf ports for short haul by air given congestion and turn around times for heavy transporters at Kandahar airfield.

The preoccupation with airlift capability is understandable. But it can meet only part of the capability needed. The great majority of potential theatres of conflict, disaster relief and humanitarian missions are in the world's littorals. Here the overwhelming demand will be for delivery and support at locations under conditions impractical for airlift. Many of these areas will have no usable airfields or port facilities. Others may be devastated by conflicts, a variety of natural and man made disasters and civil disorder, like those that recently struck Thailand and Indonesia. Many will require the landing of troops, stores, equipment, and helicopters as an integral force from an amphibious carrier with supporting tactical aviation, naval escort and supply ships. The need may range from several hundred to a full battalion and headquarters group of up to 1,000 strong. This is serious business that involves a great deal more than transport service or the relative economies of sea and airlift.

The failure to champion and obtain ships to deliver and sustain overseas deployments at effective levels of combined land, sea and air forces in the world's littorals will also be disastrous. It will essentially hamstring the army upon which the major tasks of security, disaster relief and humanitarian aid will fall in domestic and overseas operations. It is far better to face and address this unpleasant reality now, than the even uglier costs of neglect in political, human and financial terms. With the primary and secondary consequences of climate change and violent disruptions of weather patterns in the littorals and vast archipelagos, particularly in the "Third World", the demand for naval mobility with large scale lift of security forces and humanitarian aid will increase dramatically.

The vessels required are relatively modest in price, about the same as one of our twelve fully booted and spurred frigates, despite their highly misleading but hilarious perception as "Big Honking Ships". The reality is that they are shorter than our last light fleet carrier and smaller in displacement than the new JSS supply ships. And they are highly efficient, operating with crews less than that of a destroyer or frigate. Yet they appear to be disowned by naval and army leaderships in fears that they will be charged to their budgets at the expense of other priorities. This makes them a neglected orphan in support and priority for such vessels. There is clearly a need for systematic identification of the requirements and priorities of operational commands or "force users" and from this, a determination of the manpower and materiel needs and funding for each of the three services or "force generators".

Bluntly put, despite the best efforts of the Chief of Defence Staff and the Minister, cabinet has failed to approve or provide the relatively modest sum needed even to loan or rent an interim ship to progress training and readiness of our expeditionary forces. In a sad irony, amphibious capability as well as heavy airlift has been recognized and called for in Tory defence policy since the election campaign of 2004 over three years ago.

Presumably, this omission will be covered in the long awaited Defence Plan or now "Canada First Strategy". No doubt some would prefer the existing silence to reign until their own differing needs are assured. Those who have served in similar positions at NDHQ can understand and even sympathize with the conflict of individual service priorities and overall defence needs. It is for others at the top to determine and enforce priorities regardless of service loyalties. One can only hope they are being objectively and wisely advised in the national interest.

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