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Views and Opinions

Reviving the Princes

by Commander Kenneth P. Hansen

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Major Les Mader’s article, “Reviving the Princes” (Summer 2006), contains several historical and doctrinal errors that undermine his thesis. After 10 years’ experience instructing joint operational concepts and maritime doctrine at CFC, I must comment in the hope of supporting Mader’s commendable desire to educate Canadian Military Journal readers in “the use of solid doctrine.”

The author enumerated the lift capacity for a hypothetical contingency force: “...a battalion-sized landing force that is equipped with some Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs); 17 medium or 9 to 12 heavy transport helicopters; six attack helicopters; and six landing craft.” He showed that such a force could only be accommodated by one of the largest and most expensive of modern amphibious ships, making it likely that a multi-ship solution will be required for Canadian expeditionary purposes. He described the resultant force as “a robust and reasonable capability to conduct a Canadian-only Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO), or to contribute effectively to a large coalition operation.” The author hinted darkly that “...minimalist approaches to meeting the requirement” are simplistic, and could lead to a “limited operational capability.” He did not link his thesis back to the three Prince-Class medium-sized infantry landing ships (LSI[M]s) mentioned in the title, which is a pity because they provide several doctrinal lessons that are very appropriate to current circumstances.

First, some civilian vessels are suited for conversion to military purposes, but the best and least expensive conversions are those that most closely match the vessels’ original purpose. The Royal Canadian Navy’s first inclination was to convert the Prince-Class coastal passenger liners to auxiliary warships, not to support ships. Even after their utility as armed merchant cruisers had proven to be very limited, one ship was retained for a second very expensive conversion to another type of questionable auxiliary warship role – an auxiliary anti-aircraft cruiser – rather than creating a joint capability for which there was a pressing need. In that era, service ambitions overrode joint requirements, a condition that must not be allowed to occur today. Conversion of merchant vessels is a viable option to achieving an amphibious capability, and their characteristics do not need to approximate theoretical ideals for them to be very useful.

Second, the LSI[M]s demonstrated how their intended use in an amphibious assault, where enemy opposition was anticipated to be strong enough to imperil the success of the operation, dictated the composition of the landing force. In all cases, the embarked force was considerably smaller than the theoretical capacity of the ship permitted. The combination of a myriad of operational and tactical factors produced a joint perspective that reduced the importance of the volumetric requirements of the landing force to third place behind the naval characteristics of the ships that made them optimal for landing duties – speedy transit, manoeuvrability, and rapid disembarkation – and competing demands for landing craft – fire support coordination, obstacle clearance, landing higher priority units. These factors are still true today, which is why marine forces around the world do not resemble their army equivalents.

Third, despite their relative smallness, the Princes were employed extensively as strategic lift assets. Their speed, flexibility, and simple mode of operation made them highly useful in a variety of ways and on a number of occasions other than their specific tactical role – amphibious assault. However, modern doctrine downplays the assault role as archaic and undesirable. How, then, should the relationship between the landing ship and the landing force work for the other two types of amphibious operations – the amphibious landing and the administrative landing?

For an amphibious landing into enemy-held territory, where opposing forces are not anticipated to be strong, or where it is hoped they may be avoided, the emphasis should still be placed upon the naval capabilities of the landing ships, rather than upon the volumetric requirements of the landing force. This is particularly true if the speed of the vessel or its efficiency in disembarking the landing force (or both) is expected to be key to achieving the necessary criteria for success. Again, the landing force will be required to modify itself to achieve the most effective organization possible within the volumetric capacities provided. In the case of an administrative landing into friendly territory, the tactical situation does not demand a wholly capable landing force, and the loading of the vessel will be dictated by volumetric efficiency, and not by the order of deployment desired by the commander of the ground forces. There is no such thing as “robust administrative delivery.”

History shows that joint priorities will vary depending upon circumstances, and that the compromise necessary will lead to altered circumstances that do not satisfy all planning requirements. These types of operational logistics considerations represent only some of the complicating factors that exist in expeditionary joint warfare, and they number among the reasons why amphibious operations are some of the most challenging of all military endeavours. The type of administrative neatness and completeness suggested by the author has never been attained in real world operations.

Far from being “simply a flag-waving tool,” the addition of an amphibious (and thereby sealift) capability to the Canadian Forces (CF) will enable an even wider range of diplomatic, sovereignty, and military tasks than the Canadian Navy has ever undertaken. While Mader posited a deployment of the Canadian contingency force at a rate of about once every four years, in the intervening years and months, these ships will ‘show the flag,’ ‘deliver the goods,’ and make Canadian diplomatic intentions clear around the globe. That kind of flexible multi-purpose capability is what makes sea power so enormously useful to governments.

I commend Major Mader for venturing boldly into what is probably the most challenging area of joint warfare theory, and for stimulating a useful debate. However, the organizational concept he proposes is little more than a thinly disguised effort to justify the army’s existing ‘infantry-centric’ force structure. A move into amphibious warfare will be a major change in direction of CF policy, one that has not been seen in Canada in over half a century. Such a development will require dramatic force structure reorganization and a new flexibility of thought by both the navy and the army.

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Ken Hansen is a Professor of Political Science, Defence Fellow, and Naval Liaison Officer to the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University.

Call for Papers

The deadline for submissions is 15 November 2007

University of Victoria

Military Oral History Conference: Between Memory and History, 21-23 February 2008 Victoria, British Columbia

Papers addressing all facets of military history which rely heavily upon oral history will be considered. This includes, but is not limited to, the writing of popular military history, official history, operational history, military families and the home front, First Nations, military medicine, records management and archival preservation. Proposals are welcome from all scholars, but senior undergraduate and graduate students are especially encouraged to submit. Submissions are also welcomed from community and independent scholars, archivists, and librarians. Proposals should not exceed 250 words and be accompanied by a short biographical sketch. 

Submit proposals to: Dr. Shawn Cafferky,
Dept of History, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3045,
Victoria, B.C., V8W 3P4
or e-mailed to shawncaf@uvic.ca

For more information, contact:
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