USN tests BMD

The Canadian Surface Combatant: A Backdoor to Ballistic Missile Defence?

Procrustes, 17 May 2020.

In reading through various discussions of the likely capabilities to issue forth from the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) bid competition, one might be struck by an odd thought. Are defence planners in league with industry officials in trying to sneak in a potential ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability for these ships by stealth?

According to most open source accounts, a strict BMD capability was never a mandatory requirement under the initial Request for Proposal (RFP). Nice-to-have, but not obligatory.

However, in selecting the Lockheed Martin/BAE Type 26 design, it now appears that the ship will be fitted with a cutting-edge AN/Spy 7 radar system.[1] This system has yet to be developed let alone tested for shipborne use. This developmental process will certainly add considerable risk and perhaps additional costs to an already extremely expensive ship, and would put Canada on a par with the United States in operating the first units with this very advanced radar system.

LRDR
LRDR

Adopting such a system would appear to fly in the face of the warnings by Irving's Kevin McCoy when he testified that planning officials had been working diligently to suppress the technology appetite of the navy, and that combat systems like the high-end radar would be the primary cost driver in the CSC program.[2]

The two land-based variants of the AN/Spy 7 radar are long-range discrimination radars (LRDR) that are clearly designed for ballistic missile defence. The radar can be scaled to fit aboard AEGIS-class warships such as the latest Flight-3 Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers. Whether or not this scaled-down variant will retain full BMD capabilities remains to be seen. However, some senior RCN officers clearly hope that it will. Vice-Admiral Art Macdonald has confirmed that this radar will be installed on the new CSC frigates, saying, “It’s a great piece, and that is what we were looking for in terms of specification.”[3]

USN Arleigh Burke class
Arleigh Burke class DDG 110

So, this radar system would provide a useful Canadian contribution to US BMD efforts worldwide. Moreover, it just such advanced technology as this that Canadian industry had in mind when several firms were reported to have lobbied the federal cabinet for more lucrative 'Canadian Content', in the CSC selection process.[4]

But are Canada's political elites fully aware of what is going on here? Despite many behind-the-scenes discussions, Ottawa has not yet formally signed any agreement to enter into a BMD system with the United States. More importantly for Canada's federal Liberal Party, the very idea of BMD is fraught with potentially explosive political baggage.[5] Indeed, sitting in its current minority position, it is a near certainty that the Liberals do not want to broach BMD in any form, especially to its more pacifistic, and anti-American Quebec caucus.

When questioned about the cost increases that would be incurred for the original Type 26 design by changes such as the radar system, Deputy Minister DND, Jody Thomas, artfully dodged the question by replying that no such matters "had crossed my desk." This careful bureaucratic response did not rule out being briefed by her officials on such a crucial cost component, nor did it lead to follow-up questions about the political significance of adding a high-end radar with potential BMD capabilities to the ship design.

REG fires missile
HMCS Regina

Again, all this begs the question: are our political leaders being kept fully informed about the full implications of what appears on the surface to be but yet another technical matter in the design of our future warships? Or, might the conspiracy theorists among us be right in thinking that the navy and industry companies involved in the CSC program are attempting an end-run around our elected officials? At a minimum, this quiet, technical approach does not correspond very well with the federal government’s oft-stated aspirations for a more ‘open and transparent’ defence procurement process. Stay tuned for the political fall-out.

References

  1. On its website, Lockheed Martin has been touting Canada as one of its customers for its new radar, and Gibbs and Cox, on behalf of ISI, recently advertised a position for a Senior Cooperative Engagement Capability Engineer to integrate the AN/Spy 7 system into the Type 26 CSC design.
  2. Kevin McCoy, President of ISI, testimony to Parliament, House of Commons, Standing Committee on National Defence, No. 35 (2 February 2017), 6-9.
  3. Murray Brewster, “Canada’s new frigates could take part in ballistic missile defence – if Ottawa says yes,” CBC News, 24 December 2019. See also, Adam P. MacDonald, “The Case for Canadian Naval Ballistic Missile Defence”, Canadian Naval Review, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2019), 4-9.
  4. Murray Brewster, “Liberals launch warship competition with call for foreign designs,” CBC News, 26 October 2016.
  5. See, Stephen Azzi and Norman Hillmer, “Intolerant Allies: Canada and the George W. Bush Administration,” Diplomacy & Statecraft, Vol. 27, No. 4 (2016), 738.

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