The place of Canada and its navy in the west

Airedale presents an argument heard all too often in Canada, not just in academic common rooms or their virtual equivalents such as this forum, where there is a certain expectation to set up false dichotomies for the purpose of debate, but also in places of political and military power where people should know better. The case, as s/he so nicely encapsulates it, is simple, and the logic seductive, but it is a dangerous road that would lead inevitably to the unilateral disarmament of Canada. Well, not total, for s/he accepts there is a case for a home defence navy – which I have argued elsewhere would look a lot like the one we have now, given the size and complexity of our offshore estate. But how big an air force do we really need against those annoying Russian Bears, the blunt end of the manned bomber threat that has never – and will never – exist? And as for the army, a very good case can be made that it is the one service Canada could do quite nicely without, given our general acceptance it won’t be used at home to “keep the natives down” or to invade Quebec in the event of secession – or to posture against the United States.

But those positions are for debate in other common rooms. For our purposes, a point-by-point refutation of Airedale’s case can – and probably should – be made, but it would take more space than available here, and I suspect would be ultimately wasted on those who hold to it. Rather, it is more productive to tackle the basis upon which the case is made, which stems from a fundamental misconception of the very nature of the West and Canada’s place in it. This too will take some space, but it gets to the heart of why Canada has the navy we do.

With the flip acceptance of maxims such as “the seat of purpose is almost always on the land” (an idea with which, incidentally, I do not disagree), we lose sight that what we mean by the “West” is that it is a democratic maritime trading coalition – let’s be honest and call its core the “anglosphere”: our power and success in past centuries derives from Anglo-American command of the sea, which combines as necessary with some continental power to prevail on land. Canada, as a member of the coalition over the past century, has contributed an increasingly large (but still absolutely small) proportion to the overall cause, but never with the intention, let alone the capacity, to carry the load alone. Sea power, through a combination of blockade and striking forces, gives the West the flexibility (at little relative cost to us) to keep enemies fully mobilized across their continental landmass, as a drain upon their essentially limited internal resources, to relieve the load on continental allies waging the land campaign (see Norman Friedman’s brilliant “The Cold War and the Navy” in the November 2007 Naval Institute Proceedings for an overview of how this maritime strategy worked against the Soviet Union). In the past, these temporary continental allies have included variously Germany (Prussia), France, and Russia, inevitably in rotation against each other. Today, Russia is for all intents hostile, while Germany and France after a century of total war have lost their will for sustained combat operations (while I am being blunt, we should allow that, given the predilection of continental powers to totalitarianism, our understanding of the democratic West has expanded only in the relatively recent historical past to include these latter as allies).

So what of Canada and our navy? The Canadian navy exists to contribute to the general democratic maritime trading coalition effort, of which defence of our home waters is only one element. True, our navy has never been properly structured with the striking power to affect the land battle ashore, and the recent failure of our amphibious investigation underscores that Canada and the Canadian Forces still does not appreciate what it takes to shape such a capability. That was a critical failure, because (a “Taliban navy” being unable to contest our freedom of the seas) such a capability will be the key to Western capacity to wage the stability operations that will dominate warfare over the next 2-3 generations. Instead, other members of the coalition will have to make that contribution – which is exactly what we see with the restructuring of the USN carriers and amphibs into Expeditionary Striking Groups, the expansion of the Royal Navy’s amphibious forces, and the development in Australia of a real amphibious capability.

Our Navy’s contribution within this framework, oddly enough, is to fill another developing gap: as the UK and even the United States slash their surface warfare forces to be able to afford amphibious expansion within their own severely limited budgets, the essence of the Canadian navy (as Airedale reminds us) has been as a destroyer-frigate force. The present situation has revealed a coalition shortage of frigates to undertake the variety of ongoing fleetwork tasks such as boarding inspections and close protection of carriers and amphibs (which sailing alone are vulnerable to “Taliban Navy” forces). Recent operational experience has confirmed we should build upon that strength to assume a leadership role coordinating others’ frigates at critical points.

A different but similarly seductive argument in this respect holds that we should go for “cheap and many” forces, forgetting that our capacity to exercise sea control in the world’s chokepoints – by definition in someone else’s waters – requires a high level of self-defence against various threat combinations of anti-ship precision guided munitions, whether airborne cruise missiles or submarine torpedo. That brings us full circle to the urgent needs facing the Canadian navy:

  • Upgrade of the existing Halifax-class frigates to remain individually viable units

  • A destroyer replacement to exercise task group command and area air defence

  • Tankers to sustain deployed operations without dependence upon local bases

  • Submarines to exert strategic effect while complicating the enemy’s sea denial counter-strategy

It is the fundamental nature of the western democratic maritime trading coalition – not unbridled ambition as Airedale would have us believe – that demands a 'Blue Water Navy' quite like the one Canada has wisely if inconsistently invested in over the decades. Careful readers will be able to extrapolate from this discussion the arguments needed to rationalize as well, as supporting elements of our contribution to the overall capacity, 'Blue Sky' air forces and an 'Expeditionary' (Green Pastures?) army. Truly discerning readers will have detected also a concern that, without a cooperative continental ally of convenience, the West is unlikely to prevail in Afghanistan or Iraq. Having declared those places a strategic imperative, we cannot just leave, but our efforts there will be holding actions at best. History suggests that sea power once again will prove to be the lifeblood of our democratic maritime trading coalition. Because it takes decades to build major warships, Canada’s failure to invest now in re-capitalizing our destroyer-frigate-submarine fleet will leave the Western coalition at a significant disadvantage.