More Than Just Showing the Flag: The Case for Amphibious Ships

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Policy Update

by Andrea Lane, Deputy Director and
Jeffrey F. Collins, Research Fellow
Centre for the Study of Security and Development
December, 2016 

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More Than Just Showing the Flag: The Case for Amphibious Ships

Under Justin Trudeau, Canadian foreign policy seems to be marking a return to peace support missions and increased multilateral engagement. As such, it can be expected that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) will find itself deployed abroad in significant numbers in the medium-term. This participation in international military efforts will require a continued investment in personnel, equipment, and budget resources, making the efficient and cost-effective design of Canadian military contributions more important than ever. Nowhere is this need for efficiency more acute than with Canada’s navy.

Right now, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is undergoing the largest ship replacement program in a generation. However, the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) framework enshrines the RCN’s Cold War-era approach to fleet composition, with its emphasis on ‘blue-water’ operations on the high seas. Under the Navy’s direction, the NSS provides a one-for-one replacement of existing capabilities, centered on 15 Canadian surface combatant (CSC) ships designed for operating in the North Atlantic. This traditional, generalist approach to fleet composition excludes an effective Canadian response to the post-9/11 demand for naval capabilities that can assist operations on land and in the littoral, that is, near shorelines. In light of this capability gap, Canadian decision-makers should seriously consider acquiring amphibious ships in the near future.

Amphibious capabilities--the ability to transport and launch troops and vehicles via ship, as well as the launching of ground-targeted weapons from the sea--are flexible, specialized military assets that are highly valued by Canada’s allies, and by the international organizations to which we belong. Amphibious operations have been the focus of recent annual NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea region, assumed by many analysts to be the locus for any potential conflict with Russia. Along with submarine (and anti-submarine) operations, another area of international cooperation in which Canada’s capabilities are limited, amphibious assets are likely to be in great demand on all three oceans in the uncertain future security environment.

Beyond the warfighting utility of amphibious ships, such vessels would provide the RCN with the ability to perform a peacetime helping role for which the Canadian public has an expressed appetite. When humanitarian crises such as typhoons, earthquakes, or hurricanes strike at home or overseas, one of the most prominent responses the Government of Canada can deploy are the ships, aircraft, and naval personnel of the RCN. Ships and their crew provide self-sustaining, self-contained humanitarian assistance, as sailors can live aboard and be fed from their ship’s galleys, without straining local resources. Just this past month, the frigate HMCS Vancouver assisted with the earthquake in New Zealand. Already in the area, the ship’s crew and Sea King helicopter responded within 24 hours of the call for help. Onsite, they aided in the evacuation of residents and tourists, repaired sewer lines, and provided supplies to stranded New Zealanders.

Despite the media attention and goodwill generated by the Vancouver’s deployment the RCN’s fleet remains ill-equipped to go beyond short-term, token contributions. For example, the Vancouver was carrying only basic humanitarian assistance supplies, such as chainsaws, tents, bedding, and generators, and spent only a few days in the area. By contrast, New Zealand’s HMNZS Canterbury, which also responded, carries landing craft (themselves capable of embarking vehicles) that can land on beaches or tie-up to damaged dock facilities. Complementing these features are two helicopters, a 5-bed hospital, a morgue, and galley facilities equipped to feed up to 1000 people, as happened during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Likewise, Australia’s naval humanitarian response is centered on their helicopter platform Canberra-class, dual-purpose ships which can carry four landing craft, 100 vehicles, six to 10 helicopters and over 1000 troops. In early 2016, Canberra responded to a typhoon in Fiji with 60 tonnes of humanitarian supplies, and a complement of several hundred engineers, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, all of whom were able to access even the most remote areas in the Fijian archipelago using the ships helicopters and landing craft.

While the RCN’s official policy guidance, Leadmark 2050, does address the idea of an eventual dual-purpose amphibious ship for Canada, previous attempts to procure such a capability for the military encountered staunch opposition from naval officials who view amphibious ships as coming at the expense of surface combatants. Under the Harper Conservatives, there was extensive discussion of an amphibious task force within the CAF, to have at its centre a “Big Honkin’ Ship,” in then-Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier’s parlance. The concept was abandoned in 2011 due to budget constraints, with the RCN unwilling to endanger the NSS plans for 15 CSC and 2 Joint Support Ships.

With the Trudeau government’s eyes fixed firmly on international cooperation and effective, “Canadian value-added,” military contributions, the RCN should seriously reconsider its procurement priorities. The Navy’s insistence on its traditional tasking and fleet mix makes its out of step with both whole-of-government priorities, and the wishes of the Canadian public. As it stands today, it is doubtful that the original plan, to purchase 15 surface combatants within the planned budget of $27 billion, will come to fruition. Canada does need to replace its 12 Halifax-class frigates at some point by the 2030s; however, in light of fiscal concerns, it would be more prudent for Ottawa to revamp the NSS program with a purchase of 10-12 surface combatants and 2 amphibious ships.

As it happens, Canada may be acquiring some low-level amphibious capabilities by accident, in its planned leasing of at least one interim AOR, the Asterix commercial ship conversion underway at Davie shipyards. Rival shipyard Irving has been touting its own commercial repurposing, which, like Davie’s offering, has its humanitarian credentials front and centre in the promotional material. While these sort of ships can be acquired cheaply and quickly, and provide some needed power, they are a halfway measure between the traditional fuel replenishment ship and multi-role amphibious platform. Hopefully, the RCN will learn from the experiences of its southern hemisphere allies and recognize the utility of dedicated, multi-role amphibious ships and the innovative missions they could enable amid a changing geostrategic environment.

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About the Authors 

Andrea Lane is the Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Security and Development and a PhD Political Science candidate at Dalhousie University. Jeffrey F. Collins is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Security and Development and a PhD Political Science candidate at Carleton University. 

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  • commented 2016-12-19 10:12:37 -0500
    Good column. I don’t know what it is about our Canadian military and successive governments, but methinks they all need a serious enema. I wonder if there is any other nation that has been so constipated for so long in the orderly decision making and acquisition of military equipment.
  • commented 2016-12-19 08:04:20 -0500
    WOW .. the authors state: “… The Navy’s insistence on its traditional tasking and fleet mix makes its out of step with both whole-of-government priorities, [snip] …it would be more prudent for Ottawa to revamp the NSS program with a purchase of 10-12 surface combatants and 2 amphibious ships.”

    I would suggest a change in wording to: … the Navy’s insistence on reality based fleet requirements focussed on defence of Canada may make it out of step with term transitory government priorities. The RCN has postulated [e.g. http://navalassoc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Leadmark-2050-13-May-2016.pdf ]the required number of surface combatants based on decades of analysis continually updated through computer and paper bases simulation. Some of the nation’s best naval thinkers were behind the Naval Association of Canada [NAC] testimony to the Senate and House defence committees’ [ e.g. http://navalassoc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/20161024-NAC-Input-Supp-to-NDDN-Committee.pdf ] recommendation of a minimum of 18 surface combatants. Some would argue for a minimum of 24. Where is the research that supports a reduction to 10? Or did it just come out of the air?

    Regarding two amphibians a total of two delivers no real capability. Naval planners know given the distances and transit times involved capability is needed on both coasts. Naval engineers will tell you if you need to have the capability to put one high readiness ship out the door at immediate notice you need four ships to provide for refits, training and such. One could postulate this means 8 amphibians.

    The authors close with “Hopefully, the RCN will learn from the experiences of its southern hemisphere allies and recognize the utility of dedicated, multi-role amphibious ships and the innovative missions they could enable amid a changing geostrategic environment.” Even a cursory examination would reveal the neighborhood those ‘southern allies’ operate in is very different than the Canadian geostrategic environment. Let’s build the Navy Canada needs.

    Kudos to two of Canada’s leading centres for defence research at Dalhousie [spent a few years there myself] and Calgary [near Drumheller] as well as the authors for their focus on naval matters – which often do not get the attention they deserve.

    I hand this back with the marginal comment – ‘needs more work…’

    Jim Carruthers
    Retired person
  • commented 2016-12-16 08:23:41 -0500
    I disagree. Amphibious ships are not necessary. The example you site did not require landing craft. If Canada were to consider upgrading to a helicopter cruiser, that carries 6-12 helicopters, then the RCN would be a more effective force. Such a ship at the centre of the fleet would allow for all sorts of humanitarian efforts following an earthquake or tsunami, ASW, anti-piracy, anti-smuggling, illegal fishing. Think of it, the power and range that a fleet of helicopters can provide would likely triple the effectiveness of our navy. You are correct that it seems that everyone at DND or Parliament Hill considers is frigates and destroyers.
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