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Maritime Futures

by Martin Shadwick

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In little more than a year, the Harper government has moved forward with no less than three major maritime projects: a troika of multi-role Joint Support Ships (JSS), at a cost of $2.1 billion, to replace the two aged Protecteur Class Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) ships commissioned in 1969 and 1970; a $3.1 billion Halifax Class Modernization (HCM)/Frigate Life Extension (FELEX) project to revitalize the 12 Halifax Class patrol frigates commissioned between 1992 and 1996; and a $3.1 billion project to acquire six to eight Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (A/OPS).

 It is difficult to overstate the significance of this troika. The JSS represents a vital enabler, capable not only of providing underway support to naval forces, but possessing secondary sealift and other capabilities relevant to a broad cross-section of military, quasi-military, and non-military requirements. It is unfortunate, however, that the lengthy gestation period of the JSS and its forebears has allowed The Netherlands to move ahead of Canada in the quest to produce a JSS-like vessel. HCM/FELEX will address the supportability and maintainability issues inherent in an aging command and control, sensors, and weapons suites, but will also help to keep the Halifax Class frigates – quite literally, the backbone of the Canadian fleet – militarily credible at a time of great fluidity in the geo-strategic environment, and at a time when allies, even smaller allies such as Norway, are introducing a new generation of frigates and destroyers. The A/OPS project belatedly will reintroduce the navy to the Arctic, thereby ending the sad spectacle of a three-ocean country with a two-ocean navy, while also providing more credible and cost-effective patrol capabilities on the east and west coasts.

Public, media, and political reaction to these moves has been intriguing. The oldest of the troika, the Joint Support Ship, formed part of the Harper government’s June 2006 mobility and logistical support package – that is, the JSS, strategic airlifters, tactical airlifters, medium transport helicopters, and medium logistics trucks. Although the modalities of the procurement process, particularly as they applied to the airlift and helicopter components, drew criticism, neither the Joint Support Ship, nor the package as a whole, proved particularly controversial. This reflected Canadians’ recognition of the need to recapitalize the armed forces, particularly in the post-9/11 era, as well as the comparatively benign, and decidedly multi-purpose, nature of the equipment. The Liberals, having initiated most of the mobility and logistical support package, including the Joint Support Ship, had comparatively little political traction. The Liberal roots of HCM/FELEX also left the party with comparatively little room in which to manoeuvre. Refurbishment and life extension projects are, in any event, less likely to generate controversy than new procurement, although one would do well to remember the Bonaventure refit fiasco of the late 1960s.

The Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship project, in contrast, has consumed substantial quantities of both ink and airtime. This, in part, reflects Canadians’ seemingly inborn fascination with issues of sovereignty, security, and stewardship in the north, an interest and concern thrown into even sharper relief by global warming. How and why the three “armed naval heavy icebreakers” mooted by the Conservatives in the 2006 election campaign morphed into six to eight comparatively modest Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships has drawn considerable attention. As the Montreal Gazette posited on 11 July 2007, the Harper government “...has now backed away from earlier plans to show the flag up north in a convincing year-round way. [The new] plan to build six, seven or eight new Arctic patrol vessels...is a half-measure that Canadians might one day regret. If he really believes this scaled-back presence is appropriate, Harper should explain, in more detail, why he has abandoned the ambitious plan on which he campaigned in 2006.” Also apparent is a fear that the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship – dubbed a ‘slushbreaker’ by more than one commentator – will siphon money from the urgently required recapitalization of the coast guard’s icebreaker fleet.

Overall, though, editorial reaction to the A/OPS was positive. The Victoria Times Colonist of 10 July 2007, for example, expressed relief that “Ottawa has finally kept its promise to get serious about asserting Canada’s claim to Arctic waters,” while the Toronto Star of the same date characterized the A/OPS as “a prudent investment” and a “modest but sensible repackaging of Harper’s grander election campaign promise...” While acknowledging “...the new Polar Class 5 ships will be no match for heavy icebreakers that can push through multi-year sea ice,” the Globe and Mail of 11 July 2007, deemed the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships “adequate for Canada’s needs.”

In the defence academic community, where the original Conservative plan for three “armed naval heavy icebreakers” had very few supporters, the A/OPS enjoys – at least conceptually – reasonably broad support. There is a strong recognition, however, that the A/OPS cannot meet all of Canada’s needs in the north and that the renewal and expansion of the coast guard’s heavy icebreaker capability is imperative. Support for A/OPS also rests on the assumption that we get the design right. This will be no small undertaking, requiring as it does a hull form acceptable in the very different conditions of three oceans, and a vessel amenable to a broad range of military, quasi-military, and non-military requirements, such as the ability to embark personnel from other government departments. An issue of particular note is the displacement of the A/OPS. The Norwegian Coast Guard’s 6500 tonne Svalbard Class offshore patrol vessel/light icebreaker has more than a few Canadian admirers, but Ottawa appears to favour a lighter vessel, perhaps a design in the 3000 to 3500 tonne range, thereby approximating the displacement of the Royal Danish Navy’s Thetis Class vessels. It can be argued that a 6500 tonne A/OPS is excessive, but would a 3000 to 3500 tonne vessel be adequate for Canadian needs? As Senator Colin Kenny quipped: “I think they’re going to be so light, they’ll have trouble breaking the ice in a gin and tonic.” Similarly, the A/OPS “must have a gun to assert Canadian sovereignty,” but how much provision should be made – on a “fitted for but not with” basis – for additional armament and sensors?

The degree to which the new class should be air-capable is also a source of debate, as it has been in other countries seeking offshore patrol vessels. It is intriguing, in this regard, that while the prime minister’s speech of 9 July 2007 indicated that the A/OPS will be “equipped with a helicopter landing pad for our new...Cyclone helicopters,” the DND backgrounder stated that the A/OPS “may also be designed to embark and operate an on-board helicopter, as well as house one flying crew and one maintenance crew.” Other options could include a light helicopter, at the cost of burdening the inventory with an additional type, or a UAV, thereby raising questions of robustness and flexibility. Would a helicopter flight deck but no hangar, an option selected for the OPVs of some foreign navies and coast guards, be acceptable? This debate will continue, but a flight deck and hangar suitable for the Cyclone would appear de rigueur in the Canadian context – even at the not insignificant cost of greater displacement. Of course, not all A/OPS missions would require an embarked Cyclone. 

Other concerns, at both the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ levels, must be registered. All warships are exercises in compromise, but the very nature of the multi-role JSS and A/OPS will require some particularly challenging, and potentially divisive, design and cost-effectiveness trade-offs. HCM/FELEX will also demand some tough choices. These challenges will be rendered even more formidable by the fact that Canada’s public and private sector project management, naval architecture, systems integration, shipbuilding, and related skill sets are now at comparatively low ebb. These skill sets can be resuscitated, but it will require ingenuity, patience, sustained funding, and no small injection of foreign expertise.

The JSS and HCM/FELEX announcements generated virtually no public, media, or parliamentary debate, while the debate surrounding the A/OPS rests more on technical, bureaucratic, and crewing issues, rather than on the basic wisdom of expanding the country’s northern maritime capabilities. What would have happened, however, if Ottawa had taken a leaf out of the recent Australian book and ordered vessels akin to the three Hobart Class air warfare destroyers, derived from Spain’s F100 Class frigate, and two Canberra Class through-deck amphibious ships, also based upon a Spanish design? Would Canadians have regarded these as sensible and prudent, given the age of the three surviving Iroquois Class destroyers, and the perceived requirement, as least in some circles, for one or more “big honking ships,” or would they have been seen, at best, as billion dollar ‘boondoggles’ reminiscent of the Mulroney/Campbell EH101 helicopter project?

Such comparisons are admittedly somewhat crude – the geo-strategic environments and the strategic cultures of Australia and Canada clearly differ – but it is the type of question that needs to be asked, and answered, if it is the Canadian desire to retain, and improve upon, the type of multi-role fleet that was fashioned in the 1990s. Just what that “future navy” should, or could, look like is a matter for conjecture. The Chief of the Maritime Staff, Vice-Admiral Drew Robertson, sketched one possible scenario in a recent interview. “Over the next 20 to 25 years,” the CMS “would like to see maritime forces evolving toward a mix of two littoral manoeuvre ships” (presumably latter-day variations on the “big honking ship” theme, but perhaps with radical concepts or designs), three joint support ships, four to six submarines, four task group command/force air defence destroyers, 12 to 14 future frigates, 28 Cyclone maritime helicopters, 16 multi-mission aircraft for long-range maritime surveillance, eight offshore patrol corvettes, four to six coastal defence vessels, eight to 16 internal waters/inshore patrol vessels, and “a small constellation of tactical unmanned vehicles remotely piloted or deployed autonomously from our ships and submarines.”

Gaining a broad national consensus for such a fleet, as Peter T. Haydon of Dalhousie University has reminded us, will require answering the question: “Why does Canada still need a navy?” in a clear, cogent, and compelling manner. If that answer is not forthcoming, if Canadians conclude that a navy is “an optional luxury,” if Canadians conclude that a maritime state does not require a navy to carry its weight “in maintaining the security of the international system and global economy,” or if Canadians conclude that a navy with expeditionary capabilities – however modest – will serve only to facilitate Canadian involvement in dubious American military adventures, then the gradual but inevitable result could be an essentially constabulary navy.

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