‘Influence Squadrons’ for Canada?

Pertinent to this discussion and David Mugridge’s op-ed piece is an article by Cdr. Henry J. Hendrix, USN, in the April issue of USNI Proceedings (“More Hendersons, Less Bonds,” full version available here: http://bit.ly/caWisw). The author offers an interesting and insightful articulation of the utility of “influence squadrons” and heightened naval presence in littorals and green-water areas. Hendrix suggests that, although in its current state the USN is comprised of high-value heavy-hitting carriers and destroyers, the need for neglected-yet-critical maritime presence in the inshore regions offers a new avenue for designing American naval force structure.

The demand for influence squadrons is found in the evolving maritime security environment. “Increasingly,” Hendrix argues, “the contest of ideas is being waged in niche arenas, in the littorals, the near-shore green-water areas, and up and down contested riverine estuaries that provide concealment and cover for terrorists, pirates, and warlords.” Hendrix suggests that it is in these areas where the influence squadron will prove its worth, fulfilling functions ranging from counter-drug ops to humanitarian relief and provision of medical assistance.

Recognizing the challenges posed by an “austere fiscal environment,” Hendrix proposes that for less than the price of constructing a single DDG-51 – about $2 billion – instead an entire influence squadron could be assembled. Hendrix’s recommendations and rationale for a squadron structure may be found in the original article, but his suggestion for the ideal influence squadron is essentially as follows:

  • A riverine detachment (valued at $40 million) comprised of:
    • 1x 49’ riverine command boat
    • 3x 48’ riverine patrol boats
    • 2x 33’ assault boats
    • 4x 150’ coastal patrol craft ($80-160 million total);
    • 3x 295’ multi-role vessels (in the vein of Austal’s MRV – link here: http://bit.ly/9mXks5 , $450 million total.);
    • 1x joint high-speed vessel (e.g., HSV-2 Swift, $170 million);
    • 1x ‘mother ship’ with command-and-control capability, based on the Lewis and Clark-class of dry cargo vessels. ($400 million); and
    • Numerous and relatively inexpensive unmanned platforms to provide air, surface, and undersea surveillance as well as communications relay nodes.

The total for 15 vessels and equipment is approximately $1.35 billion.

There are significant lessons here for Canada. The ‘more for less’ logic behind the influence squadron is certainly appealing. More importantly, the capabilities offered by the influence squadron are relevant to Canada’s maritime interests. Securing Canada’s Ocean Frontiers, for instance, calls for enhanced offshore/inshore patrol capability. The influence squadron could also fulfill several roles and capabilities under the constabulary and diplomatic functions currently assigned to the Canadian navy.

Assuming the overall idea of the influence squadron ‘works,’ two problems are immediately apparent in the Canadian context. Firstly, $1.35 billion is a princely sum north of the border, particularly when some additional convincing might be necessary to break out of a like-for-like fleet replacement cycle. Secondly, personnel demands are steep in Hendrix’s suggested squadron.  As proposed above, the squadron would likely require a complement in excess of 500 personnel. Given present recruitment and retention woes in the Canadian navy, such a demand is problematic.

Following the spirit of Hendrix’s bid to remain within the cost of a single DDG-51, we might ‘Canadianize’ the influence squadron by keeping it within the requirements of a Canadian equivalent, such as a hypothetical frigate or destroyer in the vein of the Single Class Surface Combatant. For the sake of argument, the going per-unit rate of a modern frigate such as the Indian Shivalik-class or the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen-class is about $700 million. A reasonable complement to work with is within the range of 250.

A ‘Canadianized’ influence squadron built to these specifications, then, might look something like this:

  • A riverine detachment as above ($40 million);
  • Replacing the T-AKE ‘mother ship’ with something resembling the RFA Bay-class landing ship docks. This sacrifices absolute cargo capacity in favour of lower cost, lower complement, shallower draft, and added options for amphibious/sealift capability. Smaller craft incapable of traversing open ocean could possibly be contained within the well deck, which might also be reconfigured for landing craft as required. One unit costs approximately $230 million;
  • Deletion of the joint high-speed vessel. Though Hendrix argues for the HSV as the “critical logistics link” of the influence squadron, this capacity might be filled by smaller, less-expensive landing craft; and
  • The most room for creativity is in deciding between 150’ patrol craft and 295’ MRVs. My admittedly amateur impression is that existing frigates could possibly stand in when needed in place of an MRV. Alternatively, acquiring 150’ patrol craft edges into the turf of the Kingston-class MCDVs. An in-between option such as the Australian 186’ Armidale-class patrol boat might be ideal, at around $30 million per unit. Acquire, say, four, for $120 million.

The total for 11 vessels and equipment is approximately $390 million.

So, for nearly half the cost of a modern frigate replacement, a slimmer ‘Canadianized’ influence squadron might be built. The squadron’s complement would be around 200. Though obviously very rough estimates, these figures are low enough that they remain competitive when imagining added costs for design, training, lost economics of scale, etc., and are worth further consideration. Such an investment would both enhance Canada’s littoral and coastal capacities as well as introduce new amphibious and sealift capabilities.