What is Canada’s naval policy?*

*Moderator’s Note: reprinted with permission of the author from the 22 May edition of the Moncton Times and Transcript, Opinion Section.

Nearly 70 years ago, at the beginning of the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Navy had a fleet of 10 warships. By April 1945, near the end of the war, there were 404 navy vessels in service to the Royal Canadian Navy.

Today's fleet consists of 33 warships, four submarines and a few support vessels. Twelve of the surface fleet are known as Halifax-class frigates. Half of them were built in the Saint John Shipyard by J.D. Irving Limited during the 1980s. According to a national News Service, the Harper government will soon release its long-term shipbuilding strategy, creating two centres of excellence in the country to handle billions of dollars worth of new shipbuilding contracts.  J.D. Irving Limited will be asked to submit one of the proposals. This is most interesting given the government's two-step waltz with the navy over the last few weeks.

In July 2007, Prime Minister Harper announced major upgrades to Canada's fleet of Halifax-class frigates, a planned refit of 'the entire fleet' to be known as the Halifax-class Modernization Project. In November of 2008, the $3.1 billion contract was awarded to a consortium headed by Lockheed Martin Canada that included: Saab, IBM Canada, CAE Professional Services, L-3 Electronic Systems and xwave (a division of Bell Aliant). The work was to be performed by Canadian shipyards. It's not clear whether that project ever got off the ground.

Late last month, Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, the head of Canada's navy, ordered half of Canada's Maritime Coastal Defence vessels to be tied up indefinitely and cancelled upgrades and maintenance on other ships, including the Halifax-class frigates. McFadden's order, first reported by the Ottawa Citizen early last week, said he was forced to take such drastic action because he simply didn't have enough funding.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay was embarrassed by McFadden's order. Last Friday, after two days of tough questions for the minister, Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk reversed Vice-Admiral McFadden's decision, saying the Canadian Forces will re-allocate financial resources so that McFadden and the navy won't have to tie up a
substantial portion of its fleet.

Aside from the fact that it is obvious that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, these shenanigans raise some serious questions about Canada's financial state and the state of its military defence forces.

Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs) are crewed mainly by Naval Reservists, not permanent naval forces. These are civilians, living civilian lives while pursuing a military career. They can be students, teachers, lawyers, secretaries, or other members of society.

The MCDVs' primary mission is coastal surveillance and patrol, search and rescue, law enforcement, resource protection and fisheries patrol. MCDVs offer an economical alternative to major surface units for routine but nevertheless important patrolling duties, vital in maintaining sovereignty and protecting our shores. The 12 Halifax-class vessels are based on both the east and west coasts.

Assuming Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden's first instincts concerning the non- availability of funds were correct, where will the refit money come from now and where will the billions for the new shipbuilding contracts come from? What programs will be sacrificed to meet the navy's needs? On the flip side of that question, how can we expect the navy to define our northern borders, defend against terrorists, drug-runners and illegal immigrants, police the fishery and protect our resources without a well-trained naval force supported by state-of- class vessels and the latest in technology?

As much as we pride ourselves in being a peaceful nation -- we love to own the toys of war and peace -- think of the monster Boeing C-17 military transport aircraft purchased by the federal government in recent years. The excuse for purchase is found in our readiness to assist in response to natural disasters and global skirmishes. To be a first-responder requires us to be independent, well equipped and prepared.

On the dollar side of the equation, defence spending brings prosperity to businesses, industries and communities across Canada. With more than 100,000 people on the payroll, the defence industry is Canada's third-largest employer, making a significant contribution to local, provincial and territorial economies.

I suspect Minister MacKay's announcement that Canada's frigate program will not be mothballed is more about local economics, jobs and votes than it is about the protection of our borders or the balancing of our national budget. That's OK, but money spent on navy vessels won't pay for needed health care programs or lower corporate taxes, nor will it help us stave off the financial difficulties faced by our American and European friends.

Canada needs a stable policy framework to help guide us forward in this world of surprises. We cannot afford the ad hoc policy-making of the last few weeks.

W.E. (Bill) Belliveau is a Shediac resident and Moncton business consultant. His column appears in Times and Transcript every Saturday.