What will become of the naval reserve?

At the Maritime Security Conference this past June, Commodore Mark Norman, then the Atlantic Fleet Commander, gave a very candid dinner address on his views about the future of the navy.  In particular, he made several comments about the naval reserve. Here are a few of them:

  • The concept of the naval reserve has run its course;
  • The naval reserve will be re-examined to see if we can deliver another success story like the Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs);
  • Regular force sailors are averaging 89 days at sea per year while reservist sailors are averaging 150 days at sea per year; and
  • We broke them: they cannot be sustained.

All of this took place shortly after the abortive announcement by the Chief of Maritime Staff that half of the 12 ships in the MCDV fleet would be laid up due to a lack of sailors for crews and a shortage of money to maintain them. What does it all mean?

The current concept of the naval reserve dates back to the 1980s, when they were massively restructured and reorganized in an effort to deliver functional capabilities that principally included: mine hunting and mine clearance; harbour defence; and naval control of shipping.  The establishment was combed out of unqualified officers and seamen as well as members that had qualifications that were no longer related to the primary functions.

The motivation for the change was that the reserve would provide usable capabilities and allow the regular force to concentrate on other matters.  This approach was a holdover from the Second World War, when reservists were assigned functions and tasks that were viewed as ‘distractions’ for the regular force.  Amphibious capability, minesweeping, inspection and port control, manning of minor warships for patrol and escort duties, and a wide variety of logistical duties were all given to the reserves.  The up side was that the regulars could concentrate of gaining the proficiencies for modern warfare that they clearly lacked: the down side was that a lot of wartime experience was never codified into doctrine and was lost when conflict-only reservists returned to their civilian lives.

So, now the reserve provision of a functional capability has failed again.  Or has it?  The end of the Cold War caused some rethinking of the plan and assignment of new duties.  The MCDVs have been employed ‘on the cheap’ by the navy to create a coast patrol capability, for which they were not originally intended.  It has been acknowledged that the Kingston-class ships are far cheaper to operate for constabulary duties than the destroyers, frigates or submarines of the regular navy.  But, that was not their primary purpose and their design origins mean they suffer from some significant limitations.  They are training platforms for the minesweeper and minehunters never built to provide a bona fide wartime capability, and to allow the reservists to use as summer training platforms to gain the necessary practical experience to assimilate into the naval culture and advance in rank.  The creation of a second-tier navy through contracts of a year or more was not the original intent for the MCDVs.

Now a schism has developed between the permanently employed, or nearly so, ‘permashads’ and their reservist cousins at reserve divisions across the country.  Through their diligent efforts, the unintended effect has been that the ships have been worn out through employment for which they were not intended, and budgets have been depleted in the process. This means that some of the ships needed for summer training are not available and the money to operate them is already spent.  Despite the problems, the utility and economy of a coast patrol capability has been demonstrated very clearly.

What could the future hold for the reserves?  Clearly, we are long past the original intent of the naval reserve: providing line-haulers, coal-shovelers, and ammunition-passers for a navy of a bygone era.  Keeping the reserve units spread across the country as a means of keeping the navy in view of our landlocked populace is equally dubious in this era of instant communication and on-line access to information.

Plans to replace the Kingston-class ships with the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships has raised howls of protest (see:  The Canadian Naval Reserve and Canadian Naval Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships) from reservists who see this as too much for them to undertake.  At the Maritime Security Conference for the past two years I have asked senior naval officers about the manning concept for the AOPSs: “Will the reserves be tasked with manning them?” Each year I have been given the same answer: “We are still working on that one.”

In a predictable response that conforms to the historical precedent, the regular force navy has expressed little (more probably no) interest in taking on the AOPSs, which would become a drain on already stretched manpower and fiscal resources.  However, the government has clearly indicated that the strategic future of the country is in the arctic and has directed the navy to cooperate with the coast guard in securing the area for the future benefit of Canada. It looks like the AOPS project will go ahead.

Equally predicable is the idea of keeping the AOPSs as simple and as small as possible as a means of making them manageable for reservist sailors.  In an era that has already seen an upsurge in the importance of constabulary and diplomatic roles for the navy, roles that will demand logistical capabilities and volumetric capacity for effectiveness, reducing the size and capacity of the AOPSs is a very inadvisable step.  One of the principal deficiencies of the Kingston-class has been that they are too small for functional duties.  Their lack of endurance, bad seakeeping characteristics in heavy weather, and lack of capacity to accommodate cargo or additional crew all show that their original limited purpose as training vessels has rendered them inflexible for actual employment.

The navy of the new security era needs intellectual capacity more than it needs ‘arm strength’.  Largely highly educated but underemployed graduates of the best universities in Canada populate the naval reserve.  They fund their studies through the reserve through training during the school year and, especially, in the summer months.  When contracts for summer training were reduced from four to three months this year, the plan became untenable for many students and the reserve lost many sailors, some of them quitting their jobs even while deployed on training.  This is a clear indication of a major problem of confusion about the central purpose of the reserve.  Is it a low-cost naval offshoot, a public affairs outreach structure, a wartime capability held in reserve, or an educational system that allows many to achieve goals unattainable otherwise?  The answer may be “all of the above.”  But, more importantly, what will it become? Commodore Norman’s comments indicate a change is in the works.  It will be interesting to see if a role can be devised that takes advantage of the reserve divisions in all of the major cities across the country and the high proportion of university educated members that fill their ranks.