The Demise of the Canadian Surface Fleet

By Jeff G. Gilmour, 27 April 2024

In 2010, with great fanfare, the federal government in Canada announced the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) that was intended to strengthen this country’s marine industry. To date, things have not gone well. The initial program promised that a number of types of ships would be built for both the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the Canadian Coast Guard at two shipyards; Seaspan in Vancouver and the Irving Shipyard in Halifax – a third shipyard, Davie in Levis, Quebec, was later added.

            Many of the projects have been seriously delayed, as noted by the Auditor General, or could be cancelled based on budget projections. For example, several years ago the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) estimated the fifteen Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) ships would cost over 88 billion dollars. There is no possible way such costs can be absorbed by the DND budget, which has already been substantially reduced. The eventual outcome might be two or three CSCs coming out of Irving. The other negative fact from this particular program is that the first of these ships is not expected until the 2030s and the final one some time around 2048-49.

            The premise of this article is to sound the death knell of the surface fleet of the RCN in the future. The war in Ukraine has already shown how effective drones have been against Russian ships in the Black Sea/Crimea. Add to that list cruise, ballistic and hypersonic missiles and the surface fleets around the world are now exposed targets, including the US Navy carrier groups. For the latter fleet, this requires it to operate further and further offshore, which affects the range their aircraft have to hit potential land targets.

            It is interesting to note that data was recently obtained from a Russian 3M22 Zircon hypersonic missile which was intercepted over Kyiv on 25 March 2024. It was determined that the launch involved an initial ‘mortar’ launch followed by the activation of a booster stage propelling that missile to a very high altitude and then obtaining a constant speed of 5.5 Mach.[1]

It has a range of 1,000 kilometres and up. Ukraine has reported that Russia has fired five hypersonic Zircon missiles at Kyiv this year alone.[2] The Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, has a range of around 1,500 km. The PLA Navy’s long-range hypersonic missiles, which arrived last year, have a range of nearly 3,000 km.

            I firmly believe Australia has taken the right course in teaming up with the UK and USA in a trilateral AUKUS defence agreement to operate nuclear-powered submarines, which can sail further and faster than Canada’s Victoria-class conventional submarines. Australia is also purchasing three Virginia-class attack submarines from the US and building five new SSN AUKUS-class in alignment with the British Astute-class replacement.

            In my opinion, it is disappointing Canada did not pursue the same deal with the US/UK as did the Australian government for the purchase of eight attack SSNs. For example, such boats would be instrumental in protecting our interests in the Arctic from potential threats from Russian and China. On the possibility our government examines nuclear attack submarines as  the way to deter foreign marine threats, a number of fundamental questions would have to be addressed.

            1. There would have to be a strong business and political case since the NSS has shown the strong connection between ship construction in this country and domestic economic benefits.

            2. How many nuclear submarines would be required to fulfill the maritime tasking in our three oceans?

            3. What would be the cost to build relative to the total cost for the CSC?

            4. Recognizing the existing problems of building ships in our own shipyards, what is the business case for purchasing them directly from the US or UK. It would also encounter possible problems with the transfer of nuclear technology from either of the two countries?

            5. What would be the infrastructure and timing costs to reorient the focus from the surface to a submarine fleet?

The surface fleet remaining would consist of the AOPS and fast coastal patrol ships protecting our Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

            I believe, based on the current threats against surface fleets, the nuclear attack submarine deterrent is the appropriate response, particularly in our Arctic Ocean. Why is it not possible to enter into something similar to the Australian AUKUS agreement with our allies in developing a nuclear attack submarine force instead of a surface fleet which could be exposed to potential waves of drones and missiles on the open ocean.

[1] D. Malyasov, “Ukraine uncovers secrets of Russia’s new hypersonic missile”, Defence Blog, March 27, 2024.

[2] Reuters, April 1, 2024.


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