DND photo HS2002-10260-03 by Master Corporal Michel Durand

From left to right – HMCS Algonquin, HMCS Protecteur and HMCS St-Johns sail the Gulf of Oman in earlier times.

Maritime Futures Revisited

by Martin Shadwick

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

It is no less true for being obvious that the past two years have been exceedingly difficult for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Since the carefully nuanced announcement of 19 September 2014 that the infirmities of age, and such factors as the February 2014 fire that caused serious damage to the replenishment ship HMCS Protecteur would necessitate a reduction in the size of the fleet, the RCN has paid off both Protecteur and her sister ship, HMCS Preserver—together representing the entirety of Canada’s naval replenishment capability—and two of the three surviving Iroquois-class area air defence/command and control destroyers, HMCS Iroquois and HMCS Algonguin. HMCS Athabaskan—the last of the original quartet of Iroquois-class destroyers—was added to the disposal list in 2016, with paying off to follow in early-2017. Also announced in 2016 was the decision, noticeably lower-profile but worrisome and capability-eroding in its own right, to divest the civilian-crewed CFAV Quest, the country’s last naval oceanographic and acoustic research vessel. Internal documents released through Access to Information indicated that the Victoria-class submarines could begin paying off early in the next decade if not life extended and modernized, thereby raising new, if cyclical, questions about the future prospects of Canada’s sub-surface capability. Add in seemingly-glacial progress on the new surface ship construction package put in hand by the previous Harper government, and one is presented with naval capability—and naval credibility—challenges of the first order.

DND photo ET2015-5118-003 by Leading Seaman Ogle Henry

HMCS Winnipeg has already had its Halifax-class Modernization Frigate Life Extension (FELEX) Project completed.

That said, there has been demonstrable progress on a number of fronts. The pivotal Halifax-class Modernization (HCM)/Frigate Life Extension (FELEX) project, with an industrial team anchored by Lockheed Martin Canada, Irving Shipbuilding and Seaspan, has proved most successful. Chantier Davie is moving forward on an aggressive timetable to convert a civilian container ship into an interim Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) ship, while construction of the first Harry DeWolf-class Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV) is well underway at Irving Shipbuilding. The cutting of steel for the second of the class, the future HMCS Margaret Brooke, commenced in late August of 2016. Confirmation that at least some of the Kingston-class Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels will be retained—presumably in a satisfactorily updated form—after the arrival of the five (perhaps six) Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessels is also most welcome.

Perhaps most importantly for the medium-to-long term future of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Trudeau government has moved to streamline and expedite the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC)—the intended successor to the Iroquois-class destroyers and Halifax-class frigates, and by far the most fundamental and expensive capability component inherited from its predecessor, the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) —and to implement a series of broader governance-related enhancements to what is now labelled the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS).

The revised procurement strategy for the Canadian Surface Combatant, formally unveiled on 13 June 2016, seeks to simplify the “procurement process so construction can start sooner and can deliver ships up to two years faster.” The new approach “stems from a review of the Royal Canadian Navy’s requirements that identified an opportunity to simplify procurement and design efforts, while maintaining all project objectives. The review, conducted over [the Summer and Fall of 2015], identified requirements that correspond more closely to existing warships. Rather than continuing with the previous approach, which consisted of selecting a Warship Designer and a Combat Systems Integrator to work together to custom design the [Canadian Surface Combatant], the newly endorsed approach allows Canada to select and modify an existing warship design through a single competitive process.” Under the modified approach, as noted in the associated Technical Briefing, “we will use a single competition to select an existing warship design and, to a large extent, its original systems and equipment to be incorporated into the ship. This will reduce integration and schedule risks and bring greater cost certainty.” By holding an open, competitive procurement process, “the government will ensure that the [RCN] gets the vessels it requires and obtains best value for Canadians, while maximizing innovation and efficiency.” The “net effect is that the procurement can move forward to select an existing design as a point of departure. There will still be a requirement for some design changes in all of the existing warships; for example, to accommodate the [Cyclone] helicopter. Once selected, the design will then be subject to a controlled design change process to modify it to meet the final reconciled requirements of the Royal Canadian Navy.” Actual construction of the Canadian Surface Combatants would remain the responsibility of Irving Shipbuilding.

DND photo HS28-2016-0001-011 by Ordinary Seaman Raymond Kwan

A CH-148 Cyclone practices landing on HMCS Halifax, 27 January 2016.

Given an extraordinarily tight fiscal environment, and the rapid and disconcerting decline in the size of the Canadian fleet, there was, arguably, a certain inevitability to the decision to eschew the originally planned, custom-designed CSC in favour of a military-off-the-shelf (MOTS) solution. The decision, which breaks with the strategy that produced multiple custom-designed frigate and destroyer classes for Canada during the Cold War, may well serve to reduce integration and schedule risks, reduce costs, enhance cost certainty and expedite delivery of the Canadian Surface Combatant fleet. That said, MOTS—which comes in a variety of iterations—can be a ‘two-edged sword.’ Too little customization—or, perhaps, ‘judicious Canadianization’—of an off-the-shelf design may produce a less than stellar match for current and projected Canadian operational requirements and generate less than desired opportunities for Canadian industry. Conversely, too much customization may unduly increase costs, generate technical and program risk, and delay deliveries. Balancing this two-edged sword will demand Herculean efforts from all stakeholders.

Although two variants utilizing a common hull—one optimized for air defence and command and control, and one configured as a general-purpose CSC—are envisaged by the RCN, the CSC budget and the number of ships to be procured remain uncertain. As the ADM (Materiel), Rear-Admiral (Ret’d) Patrick Finn, noted in June 2016, “there is no need to decide on the exact number of ships today.” The “ultimate number of ships will be a factor of the design selected, equipment capability, roles, etc. We certainly want to bring it as close to 15 as we can, but we also don’t need to make that decision right now.” The Harper government’s Canada First Defence Strategy of 2008 envisaged 15 major surface combatants, but that number eroded in subsequent years. In 2015, for example, Jason Kenney, the final defence minister of the Harper era, spoke publicly about the possibility of only eleven such ships.

On the non-CSC front, one of the most painful and contentious elements of the naval rejuvenation process has been the extraordinarily long-running quest for replenishment vessels to replace Protecteur and Preserver. Originally pursued in the 1990s under the banner of the Afloat Logistics and Sealift Capability (ALSC) project, the Joint Support Ship (JSS) was initially envisaged as a hybrid suitable for underway support to naval forces at sea, in-theatre support of joint forces ashore, sealift, humanitarian operations, and sovereignty enforcement and surveillance. In short, much more than a standard Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) vessel or even an enhanced AOR+. Three-or-four such Joint Support Ships were envisaged, but the effort fell victim to rising costs and continuing doubts, at least in some circles, over the design trade-offs inherent in such a vessel (although it is interesting that the Dutch persevered with the somewhat similar Karel Doorman). A second replacement competition—still, rather illogically, utilizing the Joint Support Ship designator—focused much more specifically on the replenishment role while including a reduced multi-purpose capability, eventually leading to the selection of a Canadianized, Seaspan-built variant of ThyssenKrupp Marine System’s Berlin-class. Two Canadian-built ships—the Queenston-class—were envisaged (plus a notional third ship, if funding permitted), with deliveries initially slated for 2019 and 2020. This undertaking has generated no little angst and debate over cost, and, in the words of Michael Den Tandt, “the current amorphous delivery timeline for the two ships.” Others have noted that the United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand have opted—for financial, speed of delivery or other reasons—to build their next-generation replenishment/support ships offshore.

To plug the gap left by the expedited disposal of Protecteur and Preserver, the Trudeau government opted in late-2015 to proceed with the conversion and leasing of a commercial container ship, the MV Asterix, as an interim Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment ship. Leased from Federal Fleet Services for five years (with an option for another five years) and converted by Federal’s sister-company, Chantier Davie, the ex-Asterix will be operated by a civilian crew, but will include RCN personnel for communications and replenishment-at-sea functions. Delivery of the vessel—arguably an AOR+, with Federal drawing particular attention to its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) capabilities—is slated, impressively, for the autumn of 2017.

© Federal Fleet Services Inc.

Artist rendering of Resolve-class AOR, a strategic enabler for Canadian Humanitarian and Disaster Relief capabilities.

The Asterix exercise and the perceived defence priorities of the Trudeau government have effectively opened the floodgates to other conversion proposals. Irving Shipbuilding, for example, has proposed converting one-or-more commercial roll-on/roll-off vessels for the RCN, primarily for HA/DR, but with “secondary” replenishment and other duties (i.e., essentially the reverse of the Asterix model). Stephen Daly, writing for the Canadian American Strategic Review, has proposed a second Asterix conversion as an RCN Hospital Ship/Disaster Relief vessel. Serge Bertrand, a former advisor to several Commanders of the RCN, promotes “a purpose-converted peace support ship” in an intriguing essay prepared for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI). “Recent operations by the RCN as well as allied navies,” he contends, “have underscored a pressing need for the CAF to acquire a dedicated peace support ship, specifically to meet the unique demands of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations. Such operations typically unfold in chaotic conditions, often in the absence of, or hampered by, extensively damaged…transportation networks and infrastructure. The characteristics that would permit such a ship to act as a seabase include: a substantial sealift capacity to embark personnel, vehicles, force logistics, and humanitarian materiel for transport into theatre; equipment to embark/disembark cargo, as well as transfer cargo at sea; deck space to accommodate or operate medium or heavy lift aircraft and landing craft to act as the ship/shore connectors to project, sustain, and support a force ashore, as well as to recover that force; and the internal space that can be dedicated to a joint headquarters, civil-military coordination centre, and medical and dental facilities, and accommodations for evacuees.

“Such a vessel,” Bertrand continues, “would likely be among the most heavily utilized assets in the future CAF inventory. Capable of anticipatory pre-positioning or rapid deployment, a peace support ship would be an ideal platform for joint action across a range of relatively permissive scenarios. Such scenarios would include the evacuation of non-combatants from zones of incipient conflict, as well as support to forces ashore during a post-conflict recovery or stabilization period.” Moreover, “such a vessel would likely emerge as the CAF’s principal defence diplomacy asset, deployed routinely to regions of strategic interest to Canada with a range of personnel and joint capabilities embarked to strengthen regional capacities and strategic partnerships, or more broadly to conduct goodwill missions with other federal agencies and non-governmental organizations and assets embarked.”

These are intriguing proposals, but several points should be stressed. For example, even if Canada ultimately acquires three AOR/AOR+ vessels—either the two Queenston-class, plus a purchased, post-lease ex-Asterix with full RCN crewing, or, less likely, three Queenston-class vessels—the troika could still not match the range of capabilities mooted by the ALSC project more than two decades ago. A support fleet confined to AOR/AOR+ vessels would mean reduced operational flexibility and a noticeably less-than-ideal match for the nascent defence policies of the Trudeau government. It would also leave the RCN out of step with trend lines in many allied navies. A supplementary conversion (or conversions) could help to address this gap, but one wonders if the heavy HADR focus of some proffered designs is prudent or cost-effective. Conversions offering some blend of underway replenishment, in-theatre support to forces ashore, sealift, HADR, and sovereignty enforcement and surveillance—be they in a national, United Nations, NATO, or coalition context—would appear to offer a more flexible way forward. Capabilities relevant to a broader range of military, quasi-military, and non-military roles would also enhance the case for full—rather than partial—RCN crewing of such vessels.

Royal Canadian Navy Public Affairs

The most up-to-date rendering of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV)

The Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessel has weathered no little criticism since its inception relatively early in the Harper era. Less than helpful jibes about its claim to “slushbreaker” status appear to have diminished in recent times, although more instructive reservations about its endurance and sensor suite, and assorted capability “walk backs,” continue to be voiced. It may prove possible to address some of these concerns through future upgrades. That said, AOPV offers the RCN an entirely new class of capabilities—as the Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic, Rear-Admiral John Newton, rightly noted in an interview with Canadian Naval Review—and significantly reinforces the most welcome return to the Arctic by Canada’s navy. It will also be interesting to assess the utility of the AOPS in its far less frequently debated Atlantic and Pacific offshore surveillance and other roles. Whether a sixth AOPV—pledged by the Liberals during the 2015 election campaign—actually materializes remains to be seen.

On balance, the Trudeau government’s performance to date on maritime affairs has been encouraging. Its 2015 campaign pledge to “fast track and expand the capital renewal of the Royal Canadian Navy,” and “ensure that the [RCN] is able to operate as a blue water fleet well into the future,” its efforts to strengthen the governance elements of the NSPS/NSS and its efforts to streamline and expedite the Canadian Surface Combatant project hold promise. That said, no one should be under any illusions as to the magnitude of the challenges confronting the Trudeau government and myriad other stakeholders.

Finally, there is a need to stimulate and sustain an informed public, parliamentary, academic, and media discourse on maritime affairs and the future direction of the Royal Canadian Navy. The murky future of Canada’s submarine service provides a particular case in point, but that issue, however vital, should constitute but one element of a broader discourse. Failure to generate such a discourse could mean reliving the sort of ill-informed free-for-all that has too often hampered meaningful discussion of defence procurement in Canada. Such a discourse could also provide the Royal Canadian Navy with an opportunity to explain and defend its current and future raison d’etre to a public that remains, for the most part, disconnected from the sea, maritime affairs and maritime peace and security. That is something to keep in mind for a navy that has sometimes had difficulty selling a life raft to a drowning man.

Martin Shadwick has taught Canadian defence policy at York University in Toronto for many years. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly, and he is the resident Defence Commentator for the Canadian Military Journal.