August 2013 Commentary

A Navy for the 21st Century?

by J. L. Granatstein

Where's the Royal Canadian Navy going? There is a lively discussion underway among naval experts on whether--or just how much--the fleet needs to be re-balanced between the East and West Coast. At present, the RCN's tiny but capable fleet is split 60/40 with Halifax having the bulk--seven frigates, two destroyers, and 18 ships all told, and some 7,000 military and civilian personnel. Esquimalt has five frigates and one destroyer, and 15 ships in all, with some 6000 naval and civilian personnel. Is this any longer the right balance?

Our friends no longer think so. The United States Navy is now planning to move ships and sailors to the West Coast, basing 60 percent of its fleet in the Pacific in the next half-dozen years. Clearly, Washington is beginning to be seriously concerned with the China's saber rattling over control of the Spratly islands and other island chains in the South China Sea, including a bitter dispute with Japan over control of the Senkaku islands. Chinese claims are historically very weak, but there are likely off-shore oil deposits at stake in the Spratleys, and China's need for energy and its sometimes extreme nationalism drives its policy.  This has led Beijing to expand its navy with aircraft carriers, modern destroyers, and very effective anti-ship missiles.

Predictably, the five other claimants to the Spratly Islands--Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam--and a nervous Japan are looking to the United States for assistance, and they and  Singapore, India, and Australia are pouring money into building up their presently small navies to counter China's new aggressiveness. The tensions are growing, and there is fear that shots will be exchanged between Chinese naval vessels and one American ally or another. The potential to set the Far East afire is real.

Does Canada have any interests at play here? The United States has treaty obligations in Asia; Canada has none, but Canadian trade is increasing with Asia and Canadian investment there--and Chinese investment in Canada--is mounting. Australia and New Zealand are close intelligence partners, as well as Commonwealth members, as are Singapore, Malaysia, and India. Those ties matter, but they have never shaped Canadian defence planning.

But Ottawa does have a real interest in seeing the Pacific remain a peaceful ocean with unhindered trade. No one wants to see China and Japan fight or China act aggressively against the Philippines or Vietnam. Such conflicts could not fail to involve Washington in some military and naval ways, and the pressures on Canada to join in might become very strong. In essence, Canada has national interests in the peace of the Pacific, and it makes sense for us to re-balance the RCN's fleet.

But the real question is what kind of fleet we will have in the next decade. The procurement of helicopters and ships for the Royal Canadian Navy is in a mess. The replacement for the 50-year-old SeaKing helicopters continues to be stalled, just as it has been for twenty years. The construction of the RCN's new support ships remains a dream, and a costly one at that, with construction of a (much-needed) new icebreaker for the Coast Guard jockeying for shipyard space in a British Columbia with the supply vessels. The planned new Single Class Surface Combatant ships that are intended to replace the RCN's obsolete destroyers and its fine but aging frigates were supposed to begin arriving by 2016-17. It is certain this date will not be met, and it is doubtful if the new ship plans will even have been finalized by then.

The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy that laid out the government's plans looked very good when it was a $33 billion political announcement in October 2011 that drew cheers in Nova Scotia and B.C., but it has thus far failed to deliver anything meaningful. All that will emerge in the near future, some observers fear, are the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships that the Navy doesn't really want or need. The AOPS aren't really designed to fill a naval necessity; instead they aim to meet the Conservative government's political purposes around Canada's (unthreatened) Arctic sovereignty.

So, yes, Canadians should think about re-balancing the Royal Canadian Navy's tiny fleet. But much more important is that they--and their government--should consider what the RCN will do when its aged destroyers stop working, its obsolete supply ships finally sink at their moorings, and its helicopters fall from the skies. Canada needs a competent sea-going navy to serve its national interests, and it needs the government to move quickly to sort out its shipbuilding mess.

J.L. Granatstein is a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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