An ‘Alternative Canadian Navy’ of 2030

Many pundits were surprised by the extent of the overdue 2013 National Defence Review’s re-positioning of Canada’s traditional defence assumptions and, in particular, its revitalisation of the navy.  Afghanistan and Somali had both provided belated impetuses for a doctrinal shift away from conventional Cold War thinking towards that required for today’s irregular security challenges.  The review also placed a renewed focus on expeditionary operations.  All of this followed the delayed, inconclusive withdrawal of Canadian Forces from Afghan combat operations and HMCS Ville de Quebec’s mauling off Somalia.

For a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Canada, like most of NATO, had enjoyed a peace dividend, the ability to divert fiscal funding away from defence into schools and hospitals.  It created a vibrant and healthy social economy.  Fiscal storm clouds remained on the horizon until 2008, when the global economy didn’t just falter; it collapsed into a five-year slump.  Those dark days heralded the irreversible rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China and the gradual decline of both the American and European economic power-bases.  The continued rise of non-state terrorism and it’s nexus with organised crime ensured that the world became a less secure place as it struggled to deal with global warming and mass famine.

Afghanistan was lost politically somewhere in the corridors of power during 2011.  The mired battle-field of Kandahar saw the ignominious withdrawal of Canada’s last combat troops a year later.  The real impact of earlier decisions by Canada not to back the MacCrystal plan to wage a fully fledged counter insurgency campaign against the Taliban were realised when it became apparent that an unpopular political settlement with the Taliban was required if peace was to ever be restored, now that victory in the conventional sense was impossible.

The crippling of Ville de Quebec, off Mogadishu in 2012, heralded a wave of Al Qaeda terrorist attacks against western maritime interests. The realisation that a conventional naval response could no longer contain international maritime terrorism and organised crime forced the issue upon politicians and senior military officers alike. By 2013 the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ was sufficiently discredited to allow the Canadian disciples of American Generals Mattis and Patraeus to come to the fore.  It was under these circumstances that a radical defence review was announced.

The review embraced the findings of earlier works from the United States and Australia.  Within its pages were the seeds of today’s leaner, capability-based Canadian military and its focus on delivering significantly improved joint expeditionary military effects.  At the time, the decision to increase the navy’s share of the defence budget to 2o percent was met with surprise by our sea-blind populous.  Today’s robust navy and the healthy national ship-building programme are testimony to a far-sighted decision to acknowledge Canada’s maritime dependence and deliver a comprehensive approach to maritime security.

The purchase of four Landing Ships Dock (LSDs), that were built to a Canadian commercial design, created the strategic lift it needed to support the army’s amphibious, expeditionary focus, and complemented the air forces’ equally brave decision to concentrate its assets in air transport and support helicopters.  Within ten years, an army battle-group with full combat support and helicopter lift could be deployed from the sea; a move that catapulted Canada into the premier division of amphibious operations and, at a stroke, saved the Canadian ship-building industry for a generation.

These LSD ships are also able to accept containerised stores or munitions as well as a specially constructed deployable command and control suite for the embarked military force.  The flight deck and hangar facilities are capable of landing and supporting Chinook (CH-47) helicopters and Osprey (V-22) tilt-wing aircraft.  The Canadian LSDs are the envy of many other navies, who regret their own lack of foresight to build-in space for capability developments.  During recent years the occasional presence of one of these ships as a national contribution to Medecins Sans Frontieres has shown the Canadian people the versatility of large naval ships in deployed humanitarian operations.

The once contested Joint Support Ships (JSS) have proved to be an exceptional investment.  They have served Canadian defence interests for nearly two decades, recently emerging from a mid-life upgrade that saw the fitting of landing craft davits and emergency transit accommodations.  When employed at the heart of an Amphibious Ready Group, the embarked staffs enjoy the latest in communications and domain awareness equipment for directing littoral operations.  They have vindicated the decision to build three hulls as one of them has been forward based East of Suez in rotation for the last five years, as the cornerstone of the African Union’s stabilisation operation in Somalia.  They also support the deployed Small Water Plane Area Twin Hull (SWATH) craft.  Canada has led the world in providing deployed naval engineering capabilities with these ships; across the full spectrum of military operations, they provide high readiness engineering support from deployable naval teams from the dockyards and the naval engineering battalion.

The new air independent propulsion submarines, procured as a joint venture with Australia, have already been employed operationally.  Their third generation cruise missiles were used as part of recent NATO operations to counter illegal Colombian narcotics operations in West Africa. The missiles destroyed forward operating bases (landing strips, port distribution facilities) of the Medellin drug cartels with surgical precision.  The operation was only undertaken when it became apparent that corrupt local enforcement agencies were in the pay of the drug barons, yet something still needed to be done by the international community to stem the clear and present danger of mass narcotic distribution. Four of the class of eight have been optimised for under ice operations and provide a significant surveillance capability for monitoring Russian naval activity in the disputed waters of the Arctic.  But it was the venerable HMCS Corner Brook’s rescue of a stranded USN SEAL team off Yemen some 15 years ago that brought the Canadian submarine service to the world’s attention.  In a faultless Special Operations extraction she undoubtedly saved the lives of those allied service personnel and denied Al Qaeda a media coup of being able to parade them in front of local TV.

The surface ship fleet looks very different to what was envisaged in 2009.  Instead of the 15 surface combatants talked about, the fleet numbers just 10 high-end frigates.  These are fully equipped general purpose warships which represent the very latest in technology and automation.  With the latest in anti-ballistic missile technology they routinely join their USN colleagues as part of North American Aerospace Defence Command’s (NORAD’s) defensive posture for protecting the homeland from rogue nuclear states.  They weigh in at 7,000 tonnes but are crewed by just 120; their modular weaponry means they are optimised for each mission but can role change in approximately 36 hours if berthed alongside a JSS.  These work horses reflect the best of Canadian industry and the export versions are in service with six other nations.  Their cutting edge technology and environmentally conscious design has earned valuable export orders for a wide spectrum of home grown firms that range from gas turbine engine maintenance in Prince Edward Island to surveillance equipment in Newfoundland.

In a direct savings transfer from the then future Canadian Surface Combatant, DND was able to procure 8 gun-armed, helicopter / Unmanned Airborne Vehicle (UAV) capable “Sea-Fighter” Fast Sea Frames (FSF-1) from L-3.  These ships are nearly permanently deployed or forward based, operating on a 42-day cycle. Their joint naval reserve and police crew of 26 swap in and out of the operating theatres.  A mission-simulating Continuous Professional Development training program prepares each new crew before deployment.  Typically five of these Sea Fighter ships are deployed away from Canada on counter piracy or counter narcotics operations. Their employment in law enforcement roles has allowed optimisation of employment and training for the frigate and off-shore patrol ships (AOPS) squadrons.  The Sea Fighters have also eradicated problems of manpower dislocation by being crewed from the Reserve Divisions. The capacity and military effect they have delivered has surpassed expectations and revolutionised the deployment strategy of the Canadian navy.

The AOPS squadrons have continued to operate from all three naval bases and, in concert with their Coast Guard colleagues, provide year round surveillance of the Arctic.  This presence has done much to validate Canadian claims of territorial sovereignty and dissuade other nations from making false claims against this inhospitable but geologically rich region.  Their logistical and medical capacities have been crucial to developing links with the aboriginal peoples of the North and have helped to protect a unique way of life.  The ships have also provided a higher degree of environmental protection to this disputed region. These vessels’ crews are supplemented by aboriginal personnel from two new Naval Reserve divisions established in the Arctic.  Like their British patrol ship counterparts, they have also been used to represent a softer face of the Canadian military through their deployment on capacity building and humanitarian assistance missions outside the Polar Regions.

From the unfortunate events of two decades ago was born a navy that has embraced technology and innovative manning structures to deliver considerable military effect across the full spectrum of conflict.  Its commitment to joint operations has been proven time and time again, demonstrating the inherent flexibility of naval forces in today’s unconventional security environment.  It is far to say the navy has led the way in joint operations but the laudable commitment of the other armed forces and agencies such as the police and border service has meant Canada now leads the world in possessing a comprehensive pan government maritime security strategy.  The Canadian navy is truly 3-D – A formidable Deterrent, a facet of national Diplomacy, and a versatile tool to Develop the abilities of those nations in need.