Cheap and Nasty: Just What Types of Ship does the Navy Need?*

[*Originally appeared in Canadian Naval Review, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Winter 2011).]

“Cheap for us and nasty for the Germans.” Winston Churchill, 1940.

In this centenary year there is much to be proud of but more to be concerned about. The course envisaged by Leadmark, the future fleet structure as outlined by the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS), the envisaged role within the Canada First Defence Strategy and the distortion of today’s strategic environment by events in Afghanistan all suggest that the Canadian navy is following the wrong path and will increasingly be ill-prepared for its future employment. I’m writing for two reasons: (1) in response to Captain McDonald’s thinly disguised piece of propaganda (CNR, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer 2010)) [“Earthquake in Haiti Triggers Tsunami of Canadian Relief”] about the Canadian response to the earthquake in Haiti and the call for humanitarian assistance; and (2) in response to the announcement of the NSPS.

If something is not done, like many NATO navies, the Canadian navy will follow an expressway to irrelevance, spending billions of dollars to get there. We should accept that the world has changed from the simple days of the Cold War. Today we face a complex future of global warming, anti-terrorism, organized crime, failing states and intervention within failed states. That is the uncertain future Leadmark should address as its goal, not conventional fleet-on-fleet battle, fought in deep blue water.

Sadly, Canadian navy and coast guard planners refuse to acknowledge that current shortfalls in capability warrant an examination of future requirements. Events in Haiti, the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of British Columbia all suggest Canada needs to redefine how it delivers national maritime security and how it contributes to creating a world order that promotes prosperity and maritime security for all.

Does the Canadian navy need to stay in the task group game or should it embrace a new fleet model that would deliver increased global influence and more efficient military effect? The centenary year, not surprisingly, focused on an artificially positive image, not the serious military, political and financial storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Similar storm clouds are already threatening significant areas of the US Navy’s future procurement strategy and have recently decimated the Royal Navy as a fighting force.

Like their Canadian cousins, these two organizations have suffered from the land-based Afghan war (although these navies shaped the conflict until the land and air forces could take up their operational role). In the UK this has manifested itself in the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, in which the RN is the biggest loser. The review recommended reducing £38 billion ($61 billion CAD) from defence procurement in order to help offset some of the national deficit. Tomorrow’s RN is a coast guard in waiting.

Canada’s Chief of the Maritime Staff (CMS) is clear about what the navy should do and has spoken at length about these roles. He lists the roles as:

  • protecting a regulated ocean commons at home and abroad;
  • promoting ‘good’ around the world in the national interest;
  • preventing conflict wherever possible; and
  • prevailing in combat when the use of force becomes inevitable.

All of these are laudable, but how can Canada deliver them in a sustainable manner which is cost-effective, promotes an intelligent use of trained personnel and optimizes equipment use? To do this does not mean re-creating the capabilities of today’s fleet. It demands an intelligent and flexible response that can contribute to the joint military environment.

Captain MacDonald describes Operation Hestia in Haiti as “a tsunami of Canadian relief.” In reality, the lack of amphibious capability and support helicopters meant an intermittent drip rather than a tidal wave until such assets could be poached from the United States. Mentioning this is heresy but without amphibious capability you lack effective maritime force projection, theatre entry, flexible global reach and influence over the littoral region. Without strategic sealift you become reliant on a few C-17s. If the Camp Mirage fiasco teaches us anything it is that air bridges and land bases are dependent upon continued third party goodwill (and landing rights at Pearson International Airport), whereas use of the sea is not.

NATO’s mission to protect aid convoys destined for Somalia and to counter piracy in the region has been a qualified success. No matter how many warships are sent to the Gulf of Aden, piracy will continue because no one is treating its root cause – the failure of governance in Somalia. Furthermore, desperate pirates will not be deterred with toothless rules of engagement and a polite ‘catch and release’ policy. Is Canada getting value for money in deploying a frigate ($125,000 per day) to this operation? Today’s maritime security issues require ships capable of delivering an effective asymmetric response rather than wasted high-end capability.

The task group model for future operations has been used to justify a Joint Support Ship (JSS) project budget of $2.5 billion CAD for just two or three ships. This is a huge sum of money and explains why there are three Canadian shipyards fighting desperately over the NSPS. This contract alone will rescue an industry that has sucked on the hind tit of government contracts since the Halifax-class contract was awarded. In modern times, Canada has never deployed the sort of task group envisaged by today’s planners (1 JSS, 2-3 escorts and 1 submarine) and it would break its logistics support and training organization to do so.

Why does the navy – unlike the Canadian army – refuse to update its strategy to deliver maritime security? The majority of the navy’s future tasks will be lower order and less militarily demanding, and therefore do not sit well with today’s force generation and platform employment model. But like capability should not be replaced by like and tomorrow’s fleet should not look like a smaller version of today’s fleet.

Those military tasks not requiring the highest levels of military capability should be undertaken by a new generation of combat ship. Because these platforms would be custom designed to deliver military effect at a lower order, considerable savings could be made against both unit platform costs and their through-life support. If designed with a relatively short life of 15 years, they could provide the basis of an evolving national warship procurement strategy that would maintain an essential component of the defence industrial complex for the generation to come. The ships would simply be decommissioned and sold at 15 years to be replaced by the latest ship to roll off the production line. Employment flexibility comes through reduced initial unit cost that allows for timely upgrades in capability rather than expensive legacy systems.

These combat ships would be multi-role warships capable of being deployed long term and globally to discharge those missions that occupy the lower categories of today’s spectrum of operations. They would be based upon an evolving hull form so as to realize long-term economies of scale and embrace substantial through-life cost savings such as modular structures, commercial-off-the-shelf equipment, low-level maintenance and commercially derived logistical support. These ships would be able to meet overseas commitments and still make a contribution to joint operations. These platforms would also be able to support law enforcement operations as well as develop the unmanned vehicle, and intelligence surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) concepts in all three environments. With long range and long-term endurance, they would return the navy (and other government departments too) to global influence at a fraction of the price of more traditional models. They would be the equivalent of Nelson’s frigates – dynamic, capable, enduring and adaptable to today’s fluid strategic environment. They would also support maritime security operations within the Canadian Exclusive Economic Zone at a time when Canada is not fully aware of what goes on off its shores.

The remaining high-end military tasks could be undertaken by a much smaller number of high-end warships. These would perform those tasks that require the latest in weaponry and sensors. Under a revised NSPS, the navy could procure sufficient super-escorts to deliver high-end war-fighting capability when required and invest the differential into cheap and nasty combat ships.

If Canada does this, tomorrow’s navy would keep a toehold in the high-end capability game and maximize its efforts in delivering what Ottawa demands without breaking the bank. Thus, the spears of the Praetorian guards are honed and ready for battles of national survival while the day-to-day business is done on the cheap but nasty ships that focus on countering terrorism, rogue or failing states, organized crime as well as delivering capacity-building and humanitarian assistance.

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