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Carriers, Sealift And Replenishment

by Martin Shadwick

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HMCS Bonaventure, whose cost-overrun-plagued refit in the late 1960s rendered her an embarrassing case study in public administration courses, is enjoying renewed, and unexpected, visibility as some defence analysts and political parties promote Canada’s return to the carrier business. The Canadian Alliance, for example, recommended the acquisition of “at least one dedicated helicopter/light carrier” in its Spring 2003 policy paper, The New North Strong and Free, and noted that Canada “must consider” a carrier-capable version of the Joint Strike Fighter. It also called for four “support/amphibious ships.”

In a variety of fora, including the National Post, Major-General (retired) Lewis MacKenzie has advocated a minimum of two, and preferably three, through-deck “assault ships” capable of operating VSTOL fighters and helicopters, and of providing sealift for the Army. In addition to the assault ships, which are integral to his vision of “an elite, light, lethal and strategically mobile, balanced combat-capable force,” the MacKenzie doctrine would provide Canada’s Navy with “the necessary replacement resupply ships.” MacKenzie is by far the highest profile carrier proponent – an ironic twist, given his army background – but he is not alone. Defence Policy Review, for example, has proposed two amphibious assault carriers and two new Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) vessels.

This burst of enthusiasm for carriers (admittedly, and at times confusingly, in a wide variety of sizes, configurations and capabilities) reflects a quest for new approaches to Canadian defence policy and force structure (particularly as we enter a new prime ministerial era). But it is also rooted in the littoral and force projection capabilities demanded by post-Cold War peacekeeping, peace support and combat operations. It is, perhaps, a Canadian manifestation of the global renaissance of the carrier, a renaissance by no means confined to traditional operators of large carriers. Current examples include the Spanish Principe de Asturias and the Italian Garibaldi, but even more intriguing, and more multipurpose, are Spain’s forthcoming force projection ship and Italy’s imminent Andrea Doria. Smaller, but still symptomatic of the trend, is Japan’s projected 16 DDH-class helicopter carrier.

The carrier proposals – which, notes Nic Boisvert of the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century, have developed outside the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence – have generated a two-tier debate. One tier is centred on the most desirable type of carrier and the other on the wisdom of even broaching the carrier option. The former, as noted, has been a somewhat muddled affair, and one that would, at the very least, benefit from a more thorough examination of Jane’s Fighting Ships. On the latter, some observers, such as Boisvert, have voiced tentative support. He correctly notes, however, that such a capability “must be pulled from the needs of Canadian foreign policy, not pushed from the wishful thinking of those...who see Canada as capable of so much more militarily than we undertake at present.” David T. Jones, a retired diplomat who served as Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs at the US embassy in Ottawa from 1992 to 1996, acknowledges the “creative thinking” behind the carrier option, but pronounces it “a crazy idea” that would require “a domestic attitudinal transplant reflecting virtually a 180-degree reversal of current [Canadian] political views.”

Seemingly forgotten in this ocean of carriers is the Joint Support Ship (ex-Afloat Logistics and Sealift Capability ship). Long mooted, the JSS project seeks to replace the two 34-year-old Protecteur-class AORs with three (ideally four) hybrid vessels suitable for underway support to naval forces, sealift, in-theatre support to joint forces ashore (including, but not confined to, a Joint Force Headquarters) and other functions (e.g., disaster relief). As currently envisaged, the JSS would include a roll-on/ roll-off capability, a floodable well dock for landing craft, and a significant helicopter capacity.

The JSS has been buffeted by the fiscal realities of Canadian defence and by the technical complexities of a hybrid, and unique-to-Canada, design. It has also had to cope with criticism that the compromises inherent in a hybrid – and comparitively large – vessel would jeopardize its efficacy as a replenishment ship. A superior approach, suggest critics, would be a replenishment-optimized vessel with more sealift capability than the notoriously sealift-challenged Protecteur and Preserver (i.e., an AOR+ rather than a true hybrid), with most sealift needs met by commercial charter and/or the acquisition of dedicated naval sealift. The Royal Canadian Military Institute has advocated two AORs and four vessels similar to the United Kingdom’s Bay-class Large Auxiliary Landing Ships, but finding gainful day-to-day (i.e., non-surge) employment for the latter could prove problematic. Logic also suggests that a procurement programme containing both AORs and multipurpose, sealift-capable carriers would leave the JSS utterly bereft of a raison d’être, but it is instructive to note that the Canadian Alliance left the door ajar for at least one carrier and – “if judged feasible” – four JSS-like ships.

Clearly no option less capable than the AOR+ should be pursued. The notion of a multipurpose, fighter-capable carrier is fascinating but, in a country more likely to put Sea Griffons on a flight deck than Joint Strike Fighters, it is effectively a non-starter. A more modest multipurpose helicopter carrier might be saleable if the Martin government seeks fresh initiatives, but a one-ship-class agenda would raise availability issues and would not, in any event, obviate the requirement for new AORs. The JSS remains a most intriguing concept and could be well worth pursuing if the technical and financial issues associated with a hybrid design can be overcome.

Irrespective of the ultimate solution – or solutions – to our replenishment, sealift, and other requirements, some simple truths must be grasped. First, the existing AORs have given stellar service, but have recognized deficiencies and will not last forever. Second, some form of replenishment ship is pivotal to the survival of the naval task group structure and would, given the size of the maritime approaches to Canada, be required even if the Canadian Navy was recast in essentially coastal terms. Finally, our shipyard options for building even a relatively straightforward AOR+ in Canada have almost disappeared. Time, as usual, is of the essence.


Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly.

Communications and Electronics Branch Crest100th Anniversary

Canadian Military Journal extends best wishes to members of the Communications and Electronics Branch on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Signalling Corps on 24 October 1903