Pacific Pivot

The editorial piece by Eric Lerhe in the Canadian Naval Review [“Time for a Canadian Pacific Pivot?”] raises a real dichotomy between what is no doubt desirable and what is possible, or, in today’s financial climate, remotely likely. True, our Canadian export and marketing strategy is becoming very much altered toward the Pacific and oriental customers. If, in peacetime, the navy has a relevance, then it must to quite an extent be tailored to supporting or at least supplementing such strategy. But the Pacific, as Lerhe notes, is vastly different from the Atlantic, the RCN’s traditional and familiar operating locale. And the RCN is assuredly not presently prepared to operate in such a huge new realm. Not now, not in the next 10 years.

Canada’s armed forces have too often been sucked into struggles again and again largely unprepared. Into the Battle of the Atlantic in the early 1940’s by our RN allies, where we were forced to use large motor yachts for anti-submarine patrols; into Korea, at the cost a hundreds of lives, when the end was a stalemate; into Afghanistan, where we are leaving with little changed for all our efforts and, again, casualties. The danger with a revised naval concentration on the Pacific is that we, or at least the RCN, can again be sucked into an operating area for which we have little preparation or ability. Sure, we can send an unsupported frigate to the other side of the world, as we are doing. However this depends entirely on our allies to provide even the basics of fuel and food, ports, and tactical command. With only two ancient AOR sustaiment vessels, one on each coast, sending such support 4,000 miles away to back up a frigate leaves nothing on that coast for any local fleet support. And the Berlin-class JSS replacement is not even funded, or ordered (to be probably built in Canada), with no shipyard prepared to yet start with them.

Even if such a ‘task group’ of two, or even adding a second frigate, were to be our commitment is that, firstly, sufficient to put Canada into the game of Pacific concentration? Do we as a nation want that as a goal? Secondly, in such a huge theatre of possibly changing emphasis - from, say Japan down to Indonesia, from New Zealand to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf - are we even remotely capable of significant contribution? While one frigate indicates we are indeed prepared to help internationally, and can do it well, with skill, is that a guarantee we get to play our cards at the decision-making table? Do potential allies accept such a contribution as significant, as different from a supportive gesture.

Until we can be self sufficient to at least a reasonable extent, and not even wholly, it is very questionable whether we should re-orient our navy in a significant way to a playing field well beyond our capacities. The RCN came of age in two World Wars, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the European Cold War, all in the Atlantic theatre, where we are still largely self sufficient - or at least within reach of self sufficiency, a couple of days steaming. We are significant players in that international game. Until we are prepared for a very different theater, we should stick to a game we can play.