SSE 2017

Canada’s Navy in Deep Crisis – 2021

David Dunlop, 02 December 2020.

According to Leadmark 2050, “To meet defence and security challenges in the coming decades, Canada’s maritime forces will need to become better equipped for Maritime operations to maintain our sovereignty and conduct peace-support operations, including rendering humanitarian assistance and relieving distress from the sea.”

Successive Canadian governments have not delivered predictable, sustainable and long-term funding for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) ships are examples of the unfortunate link between inadequate investment and capability gaps. The RCN, and Canadians, deserve clear, realistic and fully-funded commitments from our governments. We are now in the troubling position where status quo spending on defence will not even maintain a status quo of capabilities. As a percentage of GDP, we are spending less on defence today than we were in 2005. Our navy has performed superbly despite the resource constraints it faces. But it cannot perform well forever without proper support. Governments have a responsibility to care for the military, and fund it in ways that meet the needs for decades to come.

A maritime state without a navy is like a king not wearing any clothes: sovereignty undressed. The RCN is in a state of deep crisis and decline. It is shrinking and we must act with resolve, and act soon. Because of failures to replace supply ships and destroyers, Canada no longer has the ability independently to sustain deployed task group operations, and must rely on others for at-sea refuelling and logistics support, even in home waters. If we are serious about Canada’s role in the world, then we have to be serious about funding our military. To meet defence and security challenges in the coming decades, the RCN will need to become better equipped for maritime and Arctic operations. It is imperative that we send a strong signal to both our allies and others that we are prepared to stand up for what we believe in as a nation.

It seems however, that modern submarines will not be part of the future mix for the RCN in the foreseeable future. The government rejected a Senate committee recommendation to at least take the first steps in replacing the aging Victoria-class submarines with a fleet of new boats. (“Reinvesting in the Canadian Armed Forces: A Plan For The Future,” April 2017, p. 24, Recommendation 1). In 2017, the Senate defence committee recommended that the federal government respond to NATO calls for member states to improve the quality of their naval fleets and underwater surveillance capabilities by starting the process of replacing the Victoria-class submarines with new boats that have a more enhanced under-ice capability. It also recommended increasing the size of that fleet to 12 submarines to reinforce Canada’s Arctic, North Atlantic and Pacific Ocean defence preparedness.

RCN VIC class

However the government rejected that recommendation. It was the only one of 27 recommendations made by the committee that was rejected outright. The government pointed out in its response in October 2018 that it is in the midst of the most comprehensive fleet renewal in the peacetime history of the RCN, and is recapitalizing and increasing the size of its surface fleet through investments in 15 Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC), two Joint Support Ships (JSS), and six Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). The government also committed to modernizing the four Victoria-class submarines to include weapons and sensor upgrades that will enhance the ability of the submarines to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and deliver necessary improvements of platform and combat systems to extend operational capability to the mid-2030s. Canada is also rebuilding the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of the fleet through the introduction of technologies, sensors and weapons while preparing to transition to the future fleet.

So where is the preparation to transition to the submarine ‘fleet of the future’? The Defence Minister has said that upgrading the Victoria-class subs is more ‘prudent’ than buying new subs. The first of the submarines will reach the end of its life in 2022, and the last of the boats would have been retired in 2027. This decision is a political response from the government. Some forces in the government would rather see our submarine service die a thousand deaths than have a National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) which incorporates a more robust navy with the purchase of ice-capable modern Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines. This strategy of not preparing the RCN for the future will lead to it to not having a critical capability.

Broadsides Discussion Forum

As you may recall, Canada at one time had 4 AAW Iroquois-class destroyers along with 12 Halifax-class frigates, and is replacing them with 15 ASW/AAW capable CSC frigates, which is actually less of a capability than what we had. And we are just now replacing the replenishment ships with 2 Protecteur-class Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) ships, which should have happened much sooner. The AOPS will only give a limited presence in the Arctic Ocean.

A credible, strategic sealift fleet of Landing Helicopter Dock/Assault (LHD/LHA) vessels for rapid deployment domestically or globally with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) capabilities would be an excellent resource. Beyond Canada’s shores, the capability to undertake peace operations, including rendering HA/DR, is a critical requirement for the RCN. The RCN would then be well positioned to contribute meaningfully to domestic action ashore and support the sustainment of joint operations from sea, while preserving the ability to defend Canada through naval operations. An amphibious sealift capability would make Canada a more reliable contributor to national and international operations. The capacity to move and deliver bulk supplies, heavy equipment and medical personnel into areas of HA/DR operations is an extremely costly and limited option when conducted by air, and impossible without functioning airports.

HMAS Canberra L02

The reality of the current COVID-19 pandemic however, may mean that efforts to increase the effectiveness of the CF will give way to much of the same old myopic, parochial and service-centric approaches to defence that have so often failed Canada in the past. With all the advantages that an amphibious sealift capability provides, it is puzzling why Canada has not adopted this capability like so many of its allies.

During the hearing of the Standing Committee on National Defence in 2017, most witnesses proposed that Canada acquire a large helicopter carrying amphibious peace support capability that the RCN could use for HA/DR, peace support and personnel transport at home and abroad. The planned two Protecteur-class AORs (based on the German Berlin-class) and interim AOR ship MV Asterix, have a small measure of this capability but are designed primarily for replacement of the old AOR fleet supply ships in direct support of long-range operations for the future frigates. They are not designed to carry troop formations or medical field hospitals. Subject to availability, they will not eliminate the reliance on chartered sealift when speed of delivery is a key requirement.

Amphibious ship

Amphibious ships would provide the RCN with the ability to perform a peacetime helping role which the Canadian public has an expressed appetite for. Canada’s allies agree that an amphibious sealift HA/DR capability brings with it enhanced flexibility to conduct military, peacekeeping and HA/DR operations. The Canadian government has said that Canada will be participating in UN peacekeeping and peace support missions in a more meaningful way. Acquiring a strategic Canadian amphibious sealift HA/DR capability would be essential to this policy. Canada must step up to the plate and give the RCN the tools to accomplish the government’s peace support/peacekeeping and HA/DR missions. The ability to quickly deploy military and/or medical forces over great distances has considerable appeal to a country that wishes to renew its international presence.

It is time for our government to clearly state its intentions and start the process to field a Canadian amphibious sealift HA/DR capability or Canada will never live up to its full potential as an influential middle power. If Canada were to allocate, as a minimum, 2% of its GDP to National Defence annually, this future fleet would not only be possible, but could be built in Canada. To try to accomplish this under current fiscal constraints would be difficult at best unless an increase in defence spending is realized soon. So there you have it. Canada is a state with the longest coastline in the world, which claims a large share of the Arctic Ocean, including what lies on its seabed; Canada, which longs to be a great trading state, simultaneously needs a credible navy to secure the sea lines of communication. That Canada is lacking the bold decisions required to secure its future security and sovereignty. Canada’s navy is in deep crisis, and may not survive if the course and speed are not altered, and soon. It is time to get on with this new fleet and see it through!


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