Whither the navy?

On February 22, 2008, the Ottawa Citizen published an anonymous letter, entitled "Navy Capabilities Slide While Government Sits Idle", attributed to a serving Canadian Naval Officer in David Pugliese's Defence Watch column. Mr. Pugliese thought it would be controversial and judging from the number of comments posted to the web site it has prompted some comment.

The letter is disturbing from several perspectives. First, it is clear that once again a government has proven itself unable to articulate a rational statement of defence policy that is understood by professional leaders in the Canadian Forces and the broader Canadian public. Only a few weeks ago, the Manley Panel made a similar point concerning the Afghanistan mission. While that panel has probably provided the best articulation of why this country is involved in that country, I don't see or hear government leaders criss-crossing the country with the message. General Hillier re-iterated the need for the government to provide the men and women of the Canadian Forces clearly worded reasons for their continued efforts and sacrifices at a speech to the Canadian Defence Associations on Friday, February 22, 2008.

Second, the well-worn phrase "Canada First" continues to be spoken every time an investment is made in the Canadian Forces. It is not clear to me what this phrase means. Are we putting our nation's sovereignty first? Are we making the protection of national sovereignty our first defence priority? Or, are we putting Canada's other national interests (usually not well defined or understood by Canadians) first? Does this mean that expeditionary warfare, as part of a long-standing alliance or some ad hoc coalition, is our real first defence priority? The government has an obligation and duty to make it clear to all Canadians what our defence policy and priorities are and how they relate to our foreign policy and clearly stated national interests.

Third, in this fog, what is the real intent of this government with respect to the role of the Canadian navy, and for that matter the Canadian army and air force? With huge new investments in strategic and tactical fixed-wing airlift, expeditionary land warfare seems to have a higher priority than a naval task group operating in maritime interdiction missions in the Indian Ocean to search for terrorists or contraband arms or to deter piracy. Domestic programs such as coastal patrol and search and rescue seem to be of lesser importance. Despite the announced modernization of the Halifax-class frigates, the acquisition of the Cyclone helicopters, the continued overhaul and modernization of some Aurora aircraft, the acquisition of Joint Support Ships and the Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels, there is still no clear policy direction for the maritime forces. The proposed modest amphibious capability has been deferred despite its obvious expeditionary role. One cannot blame naval officers for being confused about the future.

It seems to me, however, that there is a signal coming through all the fog. It is not carrying a message that many naval and maritime oriented Canadians may want to receive. The concept of a high capability independent naval task force is probably dead. In its place, the modernised frigates will continue to function singularly or in pairs with the United States Navy, and allied navies, to remain interoperable in the alliance setting. New capabilities will be gained to assist the maritime and other government forces in the surveillance and patrolling of our three ocean areas. The joint support ships will provide the logistics capability to support the frigates and patrol vessels at sea and a modest amphibious capability, when in company with one or more frigates, for civilian evacuations from foreign shores or humanitarian assistance. The army will lead the expeditionary missions and the navy and air force will support them logistically and with special capabilities.

And, in the can do spirit of the Canadian Forces, the navy will continue to be 'Ready Aye Ready'.