Navy passes on shifting more ships to the Pacific

David Pugliese’s comment about the navy not wanting to move more ships to the west coast in response to a shifting strategic balance in that direction focuses, as most commentators do, on the ships. This is a classic example of ‘land thinking’ that equates the ‘direction’ of a perceived threat to the orientation of the defence forces.

In ‘naval thinking’, the direction of the threat is almost irrelevant. Rather, the key factors are the distance and the time it takes to move inherently mobile naval assets to the area of operations. There are no flanks in naval warfare, no rear areas, and no equivalent to the land concept of encirclement. Speed in a naval context is all about decision making and getting force to the point of contact quickly so that the desired effects can be achieved. These effects are almost always determined by the number of ships that can be brought to the key location in the shortest time. That number has everything to do with material support and operational logistics.

The ‘tyranny of distance’ is not about where the naval forces originate from, but how far it is from their area of operation to a sustaining base. Admiral Drew Robertson’s response shows that he has got it right: the important thing is not to move the ships to the west coast, but to make sure that the navy’s western base is capable of supporting as many ships as are needed on the west coast. With only a little strategic warning, practically the entire fleet can be concentrated in the Pacific in very short order, just as it was in the Atlantic during the Second World War.

The real ‘lesson’ from Canada’s experience in that war was that we had a woefully limited capacity to build, repair, modernize, and support even the small peacetime fleet in Halifax. It was completely inadequate once the fleet began to expand. Likewise, our ability to sustain our operating forces at a distance from the support base (another one of which was opened belatedly in St. John’s) was meagre. Ships lay idle waiting for a myriad of things, ranging from important to trivial, while the operating forces at sea were insufficient to beat the threat and were being forced to retire for want of fuel and other supplies.

In a strategic sense, any main operating base (Halifax or Esquimalt) must have sufficient capacity to support the fleet; if not the whole fleet at once, then a major part of it. In an operational sense, logistics support ships are the most important force multiplier in naval warfare. Just ‘getting by’ with the absolute minimum number of replenishment ships is a recipe for disaster that a smart enemy will certainly exploit.