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DND Photo

A Canadian task group at sea.

Canadian Security and Defence: The Maritime Dimension

by Lieutenant-Commander George Kearney and Lieutenant-Commander John Millar

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The Changing Security Environment

The events of 11 September 2001 marked a major change in the public perception of the international security climate, with the concepts of security, defence and economic prosperity having come together. It appears that Canadians now see two major security concerns affecting them directly. First, they are concerned with potential terrorist threats. There is greatly increased interest in ensuring that Canada is made more physically secure than before, and thus greater awareness of the need to provide improved measures to check people and material entering the country to ensure they do not pose a threat to our security. Second, there is concern that if we are not seen to be doing ‘enough’ to deny terrorists entry to Canada, then, in its own self-interest, the United States might take unilateral action do whatever it thinks is needed.1 A real or perceived inability on our part to observe, protect, and, if necessary, defend our own territory effectively could thus result in the loss of sovereignty over much of our country. Therefore, cooperation in all spheres of continental security is likely the most practical way to ensure our physical, economic and political security.

It is not just our physical security and sovereignty that may be endangered if we fail to act appropriately, but our economic security as well. Approximately 80 percent of Canada’s international trade is with the US.2 If we do not show that we are serious partners in the security and defence of the North American continent, we risk slowdowns and perhaps even border closures that could have a very negative effect on our economy. Although such actions would also affect the US economy, it is well to remember that while we are the Americans’ largest individual trading partner, only about 20 percent of US trade is with Canada.3 The Americans can weather changes to our economic relations better than we can.

But it is not just threats from potential terrorists about which we must be concerned. Canada’s economy, environment and social fabric are inextricably linked with the oceans and their resources. Bounded by the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Great Lakes, and having direct maritime boundaries with four countries,4 Canada is one of the foremost maritime nations on the planet. Canada’s almost 244,000 km of coastline is the longest in the world, amounting to 25 percent of the world’s coasts.5 By comparison, Canada has a land boundary of only 8,893 kms, of which 2,477 km are with Alaska.6 Our offshore exclusive economic zone (EEZ) covers almost 6 million square km, and, with our recent ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea, we could experience in excess of a 30 percent extension of this vast area. Approximately seven million Canadians live in coastal areas, where many depend upon the ocean for their livelihood. In 1998, there were approximately 11,000 businesses in the ocean sector, including fish processing, aquaculture, offshore oil and gas, transportation, coastal tourism, construction and technologies, ocean services, hydrography and engineering. These ocean industries directly employed almost 145,000 Canadians and generated $19 billion of output. In the future, these valuable resources may be threatened by pollution or exploitation by foreigners who have exhausted their own marine resources.7


DND Photo HSD1998-012-002

HMCS Athabaskan.

We live in an uncertain and dangerous time. We do not, and cannot, know what specific threats we may face in our ocean approaches, but we can be sure that we will face threats and challenges in and emanating from the three oceans that touch our coasts. Not to prepare for a range of threats and challenges – be they conventional military, terrorist, economic, criminal, or sovereignty related – would simply be irresponsible. We must be able to protect, and, if necessary, independently defend our ocean estate to ensure its continued availability for the use and enjoyment of Canadians.

To meet the concerns of Canadian maritime security, and to ensure our ongoing cooperation with the US, Canada must be capable of effectively monitoring and controlling activity within our territory and the areas of the ocean over which we claim authority. This requires an ability to provide indications and warning functions, to monitor, track, and analyze events occurring on, under, and over Canada’s three dimensional maritime approaches, and to share this maritime picture with the appropriate agencies of the government responsible for enforcing of Canadian law. It also requires the assets necessary to act on the information generated.

These capabilities exist today. The Canadian Navy provides surveillance of Canada’s coastal regions through air and seaborne patrols and presence, as do other government departments. Any time naval ships or aircraft are at sea or in the air, they provide proof of our sovereignty and our ability to enforce it. With their sophisticated modern sensor and data evaluation suites, Canadian warships and aircraft are constantly developing and relaying a comprehensive maritime picture to the Navy’s coastal Operations Centres and other units. They are also fully capable of, and practised in, sharing this recognized maritime picture with our US partners in near real time. These sensor and communication capabilities, developed to conduct combat operations on the high seas alongside our allies, have proven invaluable in ensuring a good understanding of what is going on in our home waters. The Naval Operations Centres on both coasts receive information and intelligence from a variety of sources and relay it to appropriate government agencies for information or action. Unbeknownst to many, a ‘Ready Duty’ ship is available every day of the year at 8 hours or less notice on each coast to meet challenges to our sovereignty or to act in our national interest. The Navy also assists other government departments in the enforcement of Canadian law whenever requested. While this arrangement might seem complex, it facilitates a collaborative approach to a very difficult and multi-faceted problem. Is it perfect? As indicated in the recent Senate Report on Maritime Security, there is considerable room for improvement in the maritime security realm.8

Because it possesses the skills and capabilities required for independent and allied combat operations far from home, the Navy already provides a valuable part of the necessary maritime security for Canada and North America. However, there is much more that must be done to adjust our thinking and posture to the changed security environment.

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There are four main areas where the Canadian Forces (CF) in general, and the Navy in particular, have leadership roles to play in the enhancement of Canada’s Maritime Security:

  • First, in the surveillance of Canada’s contiguous zones;

  • Second, in the development of an awareness of the activities occurring in our waters (domain awareness);

  • Third, in the coordination of activities by all Government fleets in responding to maritime security challenges and crises; and,

  • Fourth, in the intercepting and boarding of suspect vessels in all areas under Canadian jurisdiction.

To accomplish these roles, additional resources will be required to enhance the CF’s maritime surveillance and data fusion capability, and improve the ability to share this information with our international partners. The existing coastal Naval Operations Centres will need to be expanded into Maritime Fusion Centres, and an additional facility will need to be established for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. These centres should be staffed utilizing a Joint Combined Interagency Approach to increase interagency cooperation and coordination. This enhancement of maritime surveillance and information fusion must be our leading short-term priority. Further, in order to ensure that threats to our maritime security can be dealt with quickly, mechanisms and protocols need to be established to permit the CF, through the Navy, to assume operational control of all government fleets to coordinate and control a national crisis response. Jurisdictional changes will also be required to provide the CF with the authority to conduct anti-terrorism interdiction, the boarding and search of vessels within our Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ) and territorial waters. These actions will dramatically increase our domestic maritime security.

Accepting that the security environment has indeed changed, some will argue that the provision and enhancement of domestic and continental security is perhaps the most important aspect of our security in the future, and that all our efforts should be concentrated in the development of a ‘continental security force’. Many would encourage the development of a coastal maritime security force for operations solely off our coasts, rather than a continuation of today’s globally deployable Task Group-based naval force capable of operations across the spectrum of conflict.

However, one must be careful not to concentrate solely on ‘homeland’ or defensive measures. The challenges arising from the threat against Western values and beliefs that became clear as a result of 11 September 2001come on top of the considerable changes arising from the end of the Cold War, which has made the world a much less certain and much less stable place. Yet any attempt to make a ‘fortress’ Canada, or North America, is to concede the initiative to those who would act against us. Indeed, Prime Minister Paul Martin has stated “. . . that no country’s walls are high enough to keep out all the dangers. There’s no handy drawbridge to pull up and hide behind; no sidelines on which to sit aloof and disinterested.”9 In short, the security of Canada and Canadians is best served by our involvement in the international security environment.

The threat of North Korean nuclear weapons, potential conflicts between India and Pakistan, and the on-going conflict in the Middle East, to name just a few, are crises that have the potential to affect Canada, because of our concern for human rights and democracy, because of the concerns of Canadians who originated from these regions, and not least because of the potential impact on the global economic system.

The importance of this system and the world’s distant oceans to our economic prosperity is perhaps not fully understood by many Canadians, despite the essential contribution of the sea to the economic well-being and security of Canada. Canada is a major trading nation with approximately three-quarters of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) derived from international trade. The 80 percent of US trade with the rest of the world depends to a large extent on ‘freedom of the seas’ and secure passage of shipborne trade, as does 83 percent of Canadian trade by volume, and 48.3 percent by value with countries other than the US.10 Much of this non-US trade is handled through 113 major and 443 minor Canadian ports, which provide access to all major global markets. This 20 percent of our trade is still very important, as any decline in Canada’s GDP would have a substantial ‘ripple effect’ through the entire economy.

Boarding party

DND Photo IS 2003-2255a

HMCS Regina’s boarding party approaching a freighter in the Persian Gulf.

The greater interdependence of economies resulting from globalization means that great harm can be inflicted upon the economy and people of Canada by even low-level warfare or asymmetric threats virtually anywhere in the world. Disruption of the international economic system in general, and to US trade with the world in particular, cannot but have a direct and substantial impact on the Canadian economy and the well-being of Canadians. It is therefore in the best interests of Canada to assist in ensuring the free flow of goods (of which 66 percent by volume travels by sea)11 and the creation and maintenance of an environment free of disruptions and threats not only to us but also to our trading partners.

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Therefore, in addition to improving our domestic security, we must retain the ability to act in a manner to prevent actions against our shores and interests by acting elsewhere, before potential enemies can come to us or disrupt the global system to our detriment. We must retain the ability for, to use a military term, offensive action. Indeed, among the first actions taken by the government of Canada in response to 11 September was to make expeditionary military forces available for operations in South West Asia, where they are still engaged, in an attempt to contain the threat in that region of the world.

An Aurora

DND Photo

An Aurora aircraft on a domestic patrol.

This reinforces the reality that Canada is not an inward-looking nation. Our history since the end of the Second World War demonstrates that our interests are best served by engagement in the world and with multinational partners. The new security climate has brought new urgency to what might be described as a Canadian national strategy of forward security. Although never formally codified, the concept holds that Canada is made more secure by seeing to the resolution of global problems at their source, before they can expand to threaten the Canadian heartland. This speaks to the reason why this country has assumed a responsible role in the global community. This concept arguably is a driving impulse of human security initiatives and is the logical alternative to continental integration and isolationism. This view would also seem to be supported by Canadians in general. As a result of a recent consultation with Canadians, the Honourable Bill Graham, then Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade stated:

In the new security environment in which we live, Canadians strongly endorse a broad notion of security – one that sees our own security at home as dependent on the stability, order and prosperity of the global community, and with the human rights and democratic development of people around the world. They want to see Canada active abroad in ways that reflect the realities of global interdependence, the complex nature of the threats facing us in the 21st century, and the need for an integrated approach in which diplomacy, defence capability and development assistance work together in advancing Canadian goals.12

In the post 9/11 world, there is renewed understanding by the general public that the use of military forces is a vital part of an effective foreign policy. Clearly the recent deployments of the Canadian Forces and the government’s support for the international war against terrorism provide renewed emphasis on meeting trouble before it gets to our shores.

Naval Attributes

It can be argued that among the most effective tools Canada has for playing a prominent role on the international stage and contributing to global security is the strong, globally deployable Navy we possess today. This is simply because naval forces provide a number of enduring attributes which make them useful in helping to prevent or reduce the effects of disruptions to peace and security around the globe. They have mobility, endurance, and flexibility; they do not rely on permission to get into position, they can loiter for long periods outside territorial waters, and they have the ability to apply graduated levels of force proportionate to the situation, making resolve apparent to both potential adversaries and friends alike. Aircraft and land forces cannot do this unless they are seaborne or receive permission for overflight and basing rights near a potential trouble spot. These are not always forthcoming, as was shown by Turkey’s refusal to allow US forces to stage through that country prior to and during the recent campaign in Iraq.

Even a moderate size ship can carry hundreds or even thousands of times the payload of an aircraft, although there is an obvious speed disadvantage. Nonetheless, ships will remain the primary method of transferring the bulk of equipment and personnel for military or humanitarian assistance operations well into the future.

Naval forces have both reach and endurance. By carrying most of their logistic requirements with them, and deploying with dedicated replenishment and support vessels, a task group can operate for long periods of time at great distances from shore support. The rotation of forces in and out of the theatre can lead to an almost continuous presence, as has been demonstrated by the Navy’s deployment to the Arabian Sea since October 2001. The carrying capacity of ships also means that they can provide significant logistic support to land forces, minimizing the footprint ashore, as was the case when Canadian supply vessels provided such support to our land forces in East Timor in 1999 and Somalia in 1992 and 1993. These attributes are critical to the concepts of joint operations endorsed by the CF view of future operations.

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Readiness is also a key attribute. Naval forces can be ready to deploy in response to a developing crisis at very short notice. HMCS Halifax was redirected from operations and dispatched to the Arabian Sea within hours of the political decision being made. Similarly, the Canadian Naval Task Group sailed for the Arabian Sea less than 10 days later.13 This was a clear, immediate and effective indication of Canada’s determination and international intent. Contrast this to the lead-time and deployment timelines of the despatch of an Army battle group to Afghanistan. This too was a clear and effective statement of Canada’s commitment, but one that was not immediate. It involved initial reconnaissance followed by the despatch of advance parties and the movement of the main force over a considerable period of time. The deployment of the battle group to Afghanistan also required the behind-the-scenes work of NDHQ staffs to contract strategic lift for the troops and their equipment, and the establishment of a Canadian camp, with all the many support requirements, including Host Nation Support.

The inherent flexibility of naval forces means that they can undertake a variety of roles, often simultaneously, during the same deployment. This means that they can change their employment from the most benign of activities to offensive action with virtually no warning. Given that 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered by the seas, that 80 percent of states have coastlines and that 50 percent (predicted to rise to 75 percent by 2030) of the world’s population lives within 80 km of the shore,14 the ability to interact with and influence a large portion of the world’s population will be greatly enhanced by an ability to make use of the oceans as a global highway.

Canada’s naval task groups possess the mobility, endurance and flexibility which allow the Canadian government to engage virtually anywhere in the world that can be reached by sea, at the time and place of its choosing, and to the level of commitment it desires.

Role of Canadian Navy 15

The Canadian Navy provides the government with a wide range of crisis management options off its own or foreign shores that span the entire spectrum of conflict, from presence and humanitarian assistance through peace support operations to active war-fighting. The inherent flexibility of naval forces designed for combat roles means that they can rapidly change from one to another of these roles almost seamlessly.

The Navy’s current capabilities allow it to perform three fundamental maritime roles: Military, Diplomatic, and Constabulary. In addition to fulfilling the government’s commitments to our Allies – in particular Canada-US (CANUS) agreements – the Navy, through globally deployable expeditionary task groups, forms the homeland’s outer layer of deterrence and defence against any aggressor far from Canada and North America. Intentionally influencing and resolving crises at a distance prevents such instability ever reaching Canadian waters. The Diplomatic role includes support to Canadian Foreign Policy, through such functions as Humanitarian Assistance, Maritime Interception Operations, Peace Support Operations, and Confidence Building Measures, and does not normally require the actual application of violent force. The Constabulary role is primarily concerned with security at home through the support of other government departments (such as Department of Fisheries and Oceans fisheries patrols, and RCMP law enforcement including migrant and drug interdiction), Search and Rescue, and sovereignty patrols.16

The history of the Canadian Navy clearly demonstrates its contribution to all three of these roles. In the challenging security environment since the end of the Cold War, in over 40 operations the Navy has performed all the tasks required of naval forces both at home and abroad, in support of Canadian authorities and in conjunction with UN and other coalition partners.17 Working with other elements of the CF, the Navy has often been in the vanguard of Canadian participation in these activities. Only a well-balanced, general-purpose force with a wide range of capabilities is able to provide this flexibility.

Attributes and Capabilities

The Navy today represents the most capable fleet in Canadian history. It may not be the largest ever, nor does it include the widest array of warship types and equipment, but, nevertheless, it is the most balanced fleet in terms of capabilities over the whole spectrum of naval warfare, and its level of training matches those capabilities. The inherent flexibility of naval forces has allowed the Canadian Navy, designed for open ocean combat operations, to be employed effectively in a variety of littoral operations at home and abroad. The changing security environment promises a growing number of such operations in the future.


Author’s collection

Commercial shipping on which the world’s commerce depends.

However, any attempt to identify military crisis responses in the 21st century must recognize that past analyses sometimes got it wrong: threats often did not materialize as envisioned, many evolved in ways not considered, and others arose unexpectedly. Effective Canadian strategic planning depends upon the identification and generation of the capabilities required to engage in appropriate levels of war-fighting, and not simply the most likely or the most economical scenarios. While we cannot afford to keep up with the US – and, as other medium power navies have also recognized, no one can – we must retain some cutting edge capabilities to be able to operate by ourselves with an acceptable chance of success, as well as to be able to contribute in a real and practical way to coalition operations.

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The current fleet meets these requirements. It provides Canada with leverage and influence internationally when committed as a substantial force – the task group. It has the ability to deploy world-wide and the endurance to remain on station for long periods as a result of its at-sea replenishment capability. It can operate autonomously or as part of a larger coalition, or it can take charge of multinational forces because of its advanced command and control capabilities. In addition, it has the ability to operate in all but the most intense battlespace as a result of its combat power and training. The Navy’s current structure was developed with an understanding of the need for versatile and flexible maritime forces. The professionalism, skill, and overall capability of the current fleet is clearly recognized by our major allies, as was shown by the specific request that Canada assume command of the multi-national Task Force 151, established in the Central and Southern Arabian Gulf just prior to the US campaign in Iraq in March 2003. It is further demonstrated by the full integration of Canadian frigates into US carrier battle groups, replacing US ships rather than augmenting the group, since the mid-1990s.

The loss of existing capabilities within the fleet would mean a substantial decrease in its versatility and its utility to the Canadian government. Particularly important, the loss of the substantial command and control capabilities now available in the Iroquois-class destroyers would result in the inability to effectively command the task group and multinational forces, and adversely affecting task group effectiveness. Over time such a loss would degrade the ability of senior Canadian officers to develop the necessary experience to exercise command of formations greater than just a few ships and aircraft and reduce our Navy’s international relevance.

The loss of our area air defence capability would mean that Canadian ships would not be able to offer protection to others in a high-threat environment, and indeed would likely be dependent on other nations to provide protection for our ships in many areas where the threat of air attack may exist. Likewise, the loss of an at-sea replenishment capability would result either in a reduction in operational range and endurance, or in a reliance on others to provide support for our forces. Further, other countries may not give the desired priority to Canadian needs, or provide the level of services considered acceptable to Canadians.

Should insufficient resources be made available to maintain the current naval capabilities, the Navy faces possible reduction to a lightly equipped coastal defence force with limited capabilities. For Canada, this would mean becoming a minor player on the world stage, and, for the government, the loss of flexibility in its options for military action and one of its prime foreign policy and crises response tools over the last decade.

The challenge for Canada will be to balance the need for a multi-purpose combat capable Navy against the resources available. For the Canadian Navy, the challenge will be to balance the future force structure, ensuring the right mix of capabilities to be able to provide a meaningful contribution to meet both the domestic and overseas challenges that will arise. This force must be structured so as to satisfy the sovereignty and security imperatives roles, while maintaining the capability to succeed in a mid-level conflict anywhere in the world.


If Canada is not seen as being serious in providing for its own security, both at home and abroad, then we may face not only a direct terrorist threat to our shores, but we may see our access to US markets hindered, our claims to maritime areas and resources challenged by others, or perhaps even the loss of our sovereignty as the US moves to enforce maritime security measures in our waters in the absence of Canadian capabilities.

To provide the government with a wide range of relevant policy options across a spectrum of domestic and international contingencies up to mid-level military operations, the Canadian Navy will need to continue its development as a highly adaptable and flexible force. It will need the capacity to generate combat-capable forces that are responsive, rapidly deployable, sustainable, versatile, lethal and survivable. Canada’s naval forces, from individual units to complete task groups, will need to be tactically self-sufficient and be able to integrate into a joint, US or multinational force, anywhere in the world. The Navy will require the capability to deploy lead elements for crisis response and to support the rapid deployment of the Land and Air Forces. In short, what Canada will require is a multipurpose, combat-capable, interoperable naval task group capability, able to conduct combined and joint operations world-wide.

CMJ Logo

Lieutenant-Commander George Kearney and Lieutenant-Commander John Millar are staff officers in the Directorate of Maritime Strategy in NDHQ.


  1. See the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Interim Report, Defence of North America: A Canadian Responsibility, September 2002.
  2. Fourth Annual Report on Canada’s State of Trade – Trade Update, May 2003. Available at http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/eet/trade/sot_2003/SOT_2003-en.asp?#4
  3. US Department of Commerce News, June 13, 2003 “US International Trade in Goods and Services”. Available at www.bea.doc.gov/bea/newsreel/trad1303.pdf
  4. The USA, Russia in the Arctic, Denmark through its sovereignty over Greenland, and France through its possession of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
  5. Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada’s Oceans Strategy. Available at http://www.cos-soc.gc.ca/dir/facts_e.asp
  6. CIA World Fact Book.
  7. Canada, National Research Council, Marine and Oceans Technology Roadmap. Available at http://route.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/ocean/trm/summary_e.cfm and Glen J. Herbert, Canada’s Ocean Dimension: A Factbook (Halifax: Maritime Affairs, 1999), p. 26.
  8. Canada, Standing Senate Committee On National Security and Defence, Canada’s Coastlines: The Longest Under-Defended Borders in the World (Volume 1), October 2003.
  9. Rt Hon. Paul Martin, “Canada’s Role in a Complex World”. Speech delivered to the Canadian Press Dinner, April 30, 2003.
  10. Government of Canada, Transportation in Canada 2002, Addendum to Chapters 2, Table A2-2 and Chapter 8, Table 8-27. Available at http://www.tc.gc.ca/pol/en/Report/anre2002/toc_e.htm
  11. US Office of Naval Intelligence Assessment.
  12. Hon. Bill Graham, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Final Report – A Dialogue on Foreign Policy: Report to Canadians. Ottawa, June 2003.
  13. Richard Gimblett, The Golden Age of the Canadian Navy in the War Against Terrorism (Ottawa: Magic Light Publishing, 2004), pp.18-19.
  14. “The Strategic Importance of the Oceans”, Maritime Affairs, Spring 2002, p. 5.
  15. For a detailed discussion of the roles of navies in general, and the Canadian Navy in particular, see Leadmark: the Navy’s Strategy for 2020 (DND, 2001). Available at http://www.navy.dnd.ca/leadmark/doc/parts1to8_e.asp.
  16. Leadmark, pp. 95-100.
  17. Leadmark, Appendix C.

DND Photo IS2004-0698a by Corporal Robert Bottrill

Major-General Ivan Fenton (right), Assistant Director of Operations of NATO’s International Military Staff in Brussels talks to Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Lamarre (centre) and Colonel Jim Ellis (left), Commander of Task Force Kabul, while looking down on Camp Julien from the Queen’s Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2004.