COMMENTARY

DND photo IS2014-1025-05 by Sergeant Matthew McGregor

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Calgary (FFH-335) departs Pearl Harbor on 8 July 2014 for the ‘at sea’ phase of Exercise RIMPAC 2014. HMCS Calgary is the first of the city-class frigates to be upgraded.

Bridging Maritime Gaps

by Martin Shadwick

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The 19 September 2014 announcement that four of the long-serving stalwarts of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN)—the Iroquois-class destroyers Iroquois and Algonquin (commissioned, respectively, in 1972 and 1973), and the Protecteur-class Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) ships Protecteur and Preserver (commissioned, respectively, in 1969 and 1970)—would be paid off in the immediate future was far from a surprise, given the deteriorating materiel condition of the ships, their declining availability, and the illogic of investing scarce defence dollars in ships which, in any event, possessed little remaining service life. This was particularly so in the cases of HMCS Algonquin, which suffered “extensive damage to its port side hangar” in a 2013 collision, and HMCS Protecteur, which suffered serious damage in a February 2014 fire, and was subsequently deemed to be beyond economical repair.

Although official statements understandably sought to put the best possible face on the disposals—the DND Backgrounder, for example, allowed that the “retirements of these ships will generate some [emphasis added] loss in both capacity and capability for the RCN,” while noting that “these losses…will be mitigated in the short-to-medium term as the RCN builds toward the future fleet”—the paying off of these ships, so far in advance of the arrival of their intended successors, does pose significant challenges. Interim measures will indeed help to ameliorate some of these challenges, but there is no escaping the harsh mathematical reality that these retirements represent 100 percent of the RCN’s existing replenishment fleet, 66.6 percent of its area air defence/command and control destroyers, and—less obviously—a steep reduction in the fleet’s embarked maritime helicopter capacity, although, admittedly, the AORs and destroyers did not routinely embark their full helicopter complements. Expressed another way, the RCN’s destroyer and frigate numbers will decline to levels not seen since the late-1940s and early-1950s, prior to Cold War rearmament.

There are a number of intriguing mitigation options to ‘hold the replenishment fort’ pending the arrival of the Queenston-class Joint Support Ships (JSS). Fewer options are available in the case of the two destroyers (and, in due course, the final survivor of the Iroquois-class, HMCS Athabaskan). Official statements have noted that the first four modernized Halifax-class frigates (Halifax, Calgary, Fredericton, and Winnipeg) were, in any event already receiving enhanced command and control capabilities. Additional mitigation for the capabilities of the Iroquois-class will be “provided through defence partnerships and allies until delivery of [the] new Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC).” It also has been pointed out that on-going modernization and life-extension efforts on the Halifax-class and a host of projected additional upgrades—will produce a highly-capable frigate, although availability will continue to pose challenges while the frigates are in dockyard hands. In retrospect, it is even more unfortunate that the Mulroney government did not pursue—for financial, contractual, and other reasons—a scheme to build some of the later Halifax-class frigates to a stretched design, thereby providing future growth potential for an area air defence missile system. The acquisition, by lease or purchase, of surplus allied warships possessing area air defence and command and control capabilities as a gap-filler pending the arrival of the CSC appears at this juncture to be a non-starter.

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

From Right to Left: HMCS Algonquin, HMCS Protecteur, and HMCS St-John’s in formation while conducting a replenishment at sea (RAS).

Conversely, on the replenishment front, analysts and pundits have been quick to champion such options or supposed options as the lease or purchase of one or more surplus Supply-class fast combat support ships from the United States. The Dutch replenishment ship HNLMS Amsterdam—a vessel broadly comparable, except in age, to the Protecteur-class would no doubt have figured in the current Canadian debate but had already been sold, perhaps unfortunately, to Peru in July of 2014. The Supply-class, a fleet of four fast combat support ships commissioned into the United States Navy between 1994 and 1998 and subsequently transferred, with greatly-reduced civilian crews, to the Military Sealift Command, is a very different proposition. Gas turbine-powered and far larger and of much heavier displacement than the Protecteur-class, the Supply-class vessels are, not surprisingly, expensive to operate— thereby helping to explain the American decision, the controversial decision, to commence phasing them out of service. Canadian sources appeared to rule out such a purchase. With respect to leasing, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the Commander of the RCN, observed in a 7 October 2014 interview with the Ottawa Citizen, that “…we’re unlikely to see a dedicated short- to medium-term capability through a lease but we haven’t ruled it out yet.”

In addition to enhanced partnering arrangements with allies— effectively the default replenishment mitigation option outlined in the Backgrounder of 19 September 2014—other, or supplemental options could conceivably include a Ship Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) and converted to naval replenishment requirements, or a Canadian variation of the 2013 arrangement that saw a Spanish replenishment ship, SPS Cantabria, attached to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), while an Australian replenishment ship, HMAS Success, was in dockyard hands. A variation on this theme that utilized a German Berlin-class vessel could be most intriguing and indirectly help to facilitate the eventual service entry of the RCN’s forthcoming Queenston-class Joint Support Ships—effectively half-sisters of the Berlin-class. The STUFT option could offer attractions on several levels too, particularly if the conversion and leasing (or outright purchase) costs were reasonable and the conversion(s) could be undertaken in a Canadian shipyard (i.e., Davie) that was not part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS). Indeed, some might even suggest retaining a STUFT conversion as a third, albeit less capable AOR/JSS in the event that a third such vessel was required, and an additional Queenston-class vessel proved unaffordable. At least partially representative of the attractions of STUFT was the Australian experience with HMAS Sirius (ex-MT Delos), a commercial tanker that was acquired while under construction in South Korea and converted to an AOR, albeit to meet long-term rather than interim requirements. A detailed and most laudatory, assessment of the Sirius project was conducted by the Australian National Audit Office in 2007.

One of the great ironies of the quest for replenishment mitigation options is that even if Canada could locate a stellar financial and operational opportunity to acquire by lease or by purchase one or two second-hand but modern replenishment ships from an ally, or perhaps something along the lines of the Delos/Sirius arrangement, they could be seen to collide with the made-in-Canada foundation of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy and the arrangements already in place for the Queenston-class, thereby rendering such opportunities ‘non-starters’ for the medium-to-long term, and perhaps even in the short-term. Moreover, analysts and pundits with reservations about the NSPS will almost certainly argue that replenishment capability mitigation would not have been a problem, or perhaps even necessary, had Ottawa opted for the British and Norwegian approach of securing lower-cost, and expeditiously built, replenishment ships from South Korea. They would argue as well that foregoing home-built replenishment ships would have altered shipbuilding priorities, and thereby expedited construction of the Canadian-built Coast Guard icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker.

Irrespective of whether Canada opts for enhanced replenishment arrangements with allies, or chooses to combine such arrangements with some other option, time is of the essence. As Vice-Admiral Norman noted in a 27 September 2014 interview with Defense News, the retirement of the Protecteur-class creates “a significant gap for Canada that we need to look to mitigate as quickly and as cost-effectively as we can.” Replenishment ships are valuable assets in their own right but, at root, they play an indispensable force multiplier role both at home and abroad. This is strikingly so at a time when the RCN’s frigate/destroyer fleet is below its typical post-Cold War strength and at a time when multiple Halifax-class frigates are in, or will be in, dockyard hands for extended periods. If Canada opts purely for enhanced partnering arrangements with allies, it will mark the first time in more than 50 years that the RCN has lacked its own replenishment capability. Indeed, one could argue that it will be the first time in more than 60 years given that the post-war light fleet carriers, initially HMCS Magnificent and later HMCS Bonaventure, were utilized to refuel destroyers and frigates. Additional support capabilities also were available from the escort maintenance ships HMCS Cape Breton and HMCS Cape Scott.

DND photo IS2014-1048-01 by Sergeant Matthew McGregor

The Halifax-Class frigate HMCS Toronto leads a fleet of NATO ships through the Black Sea on a training exercise during Operation Reassurance, 18 September 2014.

The definitive successors to the Protecteur-class, the Queenston-class Joint Support Ships Queenston and Chateauguay, are slated, optimistically, to many minds, for delivery in 2019 and 2020. A Seaspan-built variant of ThyssenKrupp Marine System’s Berlin-class support ship—the lead ship of which, Berlin, commissioned in 2001, followed by Frankfurt am Main in 2002, and the substantially-newer Bonn in 2013—the Queenston-class ships will be able to provide 29 days of support (both fuel and supplies) to a Canadian Task Group, accommodate two CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters, and incorporate two dual-purpose RAS stations and a stern refuelling system for small vessels and submarines. For sealift, noted a PMO JSS presentation to a June 2014 National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) Workshop at Dalhousie University, the Queenston-class will accommodate 50+ TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), as well as have the ”potential for containerized payloads according to mission requirements”—presumably a welcome reference to the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical utilities provided on their German half-sisters to support removable hospital or other (i.e., joint communications) modules.

By comparison to the Bonn, the Canadian ships will incorporate an enlarged operations room, thereby displacing the machinery control room to a lower location, revised armament, notably fore and aft Phalanx close-in weapon systems, the ability to operate and maintain two CH-148s, thereby requiring the displacement of some accommodation spaces, increased heating, venting, and air conditioning (HVAC) components, and insulation to accommodate colder and hotter areas of operation, the rearrangement of messing facilities, and two larger landing craft. In addition, surplus fresh water tanks will be “…repurpose[d]…to cargo fuel to maintain [the] same useable cargo fuel” as the Protecteur-class. All eminently sensible, but the Queenston-class short-sightedly dispenses with one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Berlin-class: a second heavy crane forward of the bridge. This omission dramatically reduces the self-unloading capability of the Queenston-class and undermines its claim to Joint Support Ship status. The elimination of the second crane almost certainly reflects a ‘witch’s brew’ of ill-advised penny-pinching, the lack of a solid naval constituency for non-core AOR/replenishment roles and army indifference, but that most assuredly does not make it a sound or prudent decision. This omission should be reassessed, jointly, on an urgent basis.

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DND photo TN2009-0129-42 by Corporal Igor Loutsiouk

A CC-177 Globemaster III stands on the tarmac at CFB Trenton.

While on the subject of gaps in Canada’s defence capabilities, this column would be remiss if it did not take note of reports at press time that Ottawa appears increasingly likely to acquire a fifth C-17A Globemaster III. This would be a most prudent development. As noted in a previous column (Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer 2013, pp. 76–79), such an acquisition would materially bolster Canada’s strategic airlift capability, and significantly enhance availability and lines of tasking, provide valuable capacity when a C-17A is absent for heavy maintenance, maximize the return on investment already made in the existing C-17A fleet and infrastructure, avoid or reduce the need to charter commercial aircraft or rely upon the airlift resources of allies, extend the service life of the C-17A fleet, and provide an added hedge against unforeseen contingencies. Most importantly, perhaps, a strategic airlift fleet with credible critical mass is relevant to all branches of Canada’s armed forces, to the full spectrum of military, quasi-military, and non-military roles, and to domestic, regional, and overseas operations. Conversely, failure to secure a fifth C-17A before Boeing’s small run of ‘white tails’ is exhausted would represent a lost opportunity of the first magnitude.

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.

ACC-177 ‘Globemaster III’ in flight

DND photo TN2009-0129-47 by Corporal Igor Loutsiouk