No more ‘honk’ in this ship?

The report of the arrival of France's F.N. Tonnerre in Halifax should raise some issues for Canada. Tonnerre is a four-in-one vessel - helicopter carrier, hospital ship, command ship, and amphibious ship - that might have been a potential contender for the "Big Honking Ship" once touted by no less than General Rick Hillier, Canada's Chief of Defence Staff. Last summer, her sister ship, F.N. Mistral, evacuated over 5,000 nationals and foreigners from Lebanon.

As part of his vision for a more an independent, more mobile ship that could take a rapid reaction Standing Contingency Task Force (SCTF) of between 750-1000 troops on missions around the world, Hillier was looking for something that, in extremis, could land amphibious forces in a hostile environment and then could act as an offshore command post for them.

The navy led a 'proof-of-concept' exercise of the re-named Standing Contingency Force (SCF) in amphibious operations off the coast of North Carolina in November 2006. Canadian Naval Review also featured an article on some of the implications of the SCF concept [see: Colonel (Ret'd) B.K. Wentzell, "Reflections on the Canadian Amphibious Task Force", CNR 2:4 (Winter 2007, 14-18)].

However, as reported in March by David Pugliese, apparently because of funding shortages, Hillier has decided to put the whole SCF idea on hold until after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Notwithstanding Hillier's pledge to re-visit this concept "energetically" after the Olympics, the insider buzz is that the idea is now dead, for all practical purposes.

Given this possible change of plans, questions arise about the Canada's ability to transport similar size contingents to deal with international crises. Are we now going to be relying on the four new C-17s to do all the heavy lifting, and are four adequate to the task? What will happen to the related notion of Joint Task Force -Atlantic in Halifax as the key point of embarkation for major troop deployments?

This is perhaps the beginning of a slippery slope for the Canadian navy. Is the current thinking at NDHQ that most of Canada's future strategic lift requirements can be met out of Trenton? This would seem to be a questionable premise at best, given the load limits of the C-17. In any case, will it be but a short step for an increasingly army-centric vision of Canadian defence to call into question the value of the three Joint Support Ships (JSS) now in design competition? The whole JSS notion was predicated on the value of independent Canadian naval task groups for projecting Canadian influence and power abroad. While no one has publicly made this connection yet, there is considerable worry in navy ranks about whether or not the government will be able to swallow the projected $21-$26 billion required to replace the current 3 destroyers and 12 frigates. Canceling the JSS might be a convenient step to eliminate the need for expensive surface combatants altogether.

Understandably, the mounting costs of the Afghanistan mission are the priority of the minute, but with Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor's 'Canada First' Defence Strategy seemingly shelved indefinitely, Canadians need to know what DND's revised set of personnel and equipment priorities are.

"Honk" if you have the answer.