Published: Wednesday, 01/27/2016 12:00 am EST
An upcoming defence review will necessitate a hard look at what capabilities the Canadian military wants to maintain or develop in the future.
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For the Royal Canadian Navy, which is arguably facing the biggest capability gap in the Canadian Armed Forces, current and former officials agree this could result in a major culture shift.
The question boils down to this: will the navy maintain a significant international presence in the future, or will it turn most of its focus inwards, to maintaining sovereignty in Canadian waters?
With a change in government and leadership changes at the top of the Canadian Armed Forces—including a naval command shift coming this summer—Vice-Adm. (Ret'd) Ron Buck, a former commander of the navy and vice chief of the defence staff, said in an interview that there’s an opportunity to start making decisions more cohesively.
And David Perry, a senior analyst for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he thinks the 2016 defence review will be an educational opportunity for cabinet ministers who might not know much about the navy to begin with.
“My guess is there’s not a lot of people in cabinet that have a fulsome understanding yet of what it is the navy currently does,” he told Embassy.
'Self-image' of force could shift
“The ability to go anywhere in Canadian waters to demonstrate sovereignty is a critical one,” retired Lt.-Gen. Michael Day told Embassy in a recent interview.
“Canada has the longest coastline in the world, or one of the longest in the world if you count the Arctic. Those are our sovereign waters. Do you want the capability to know what’s going on in those waters...and to be able to do something about it?” added Vice-Adm. Buck.
“To be blunt, I think it would be very difficult for any government of any stripe to say, ‘no, we don’t care, we’ll let somebody else do it.’”
Beyond these basic necessities, though, things get tricky.
Up until recently, the navy was Canada’s go-to service when something happened internationally, Mr. Perry said.
A Canadian frigate has typically been deployed near conflict zones or areas of instability—in the last few years, that’s meant off the coast of Libya or close to the Baltic countries. It “reassures our allies,” Mr. Perry said, to have a “dedicated military asset which has a number of different capabilities,” from surveillance to deploying humanitarian aid or sending out a helicopter detachment.
But going a step further, to give Canada a place of “relative prominence” within a naval coalition, the navy needs to be able to form “task groups” of three or four ships, with anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities. These groups give Canada international clout, said a defence official speaking on background.
But readiness has dropped, the official said. Destroyers and supply vessels have been retired. While Canada's fleet of Halifax-class frigates are expected to last until the 2030s, possibly into the 2040s, with refit programs, after which new Canadian Surface Combatants are expected to take over, long expensive defence procurements like these have a habit of slipping. The fear is that replacements might not arrive, or not enough would be built.
From a political perspective, the government might be satisfied to let go of the naval task group capability, meaning that it would retain a more modest ability to participate overseas.
“If we showed up with only one modern ship, that might satisfy the politicos, as they can argue that we’re doing our bit,” the official added. Domestic capabilities, in that case, could be prioritized. “The self-image of the force would shift from a combat-capable organization with global reach to a regionally-focused force that can provide a very modest presence in a single crisis area."
Procurements need to be more than 'public relations exercise'
The previous government’s major thrust towards generating naval capability, the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, was announced in 2011 and aims to maintain shipbuilding capabilities in Vancouver and Halifax. Some ships are already being built, among them six Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships.
Vice-Adm. Buck, while suggesting the "fundamental concept" of the NSPS is solid, said the issue was understanding the financial premium Canada is paying for trying to build the ships at home. The premium is paid in exchange for sovereignty, he said—not relying on outside suppliers—as well as industrial capabilities.
The drawback? Costs inevitably spiral up, up, up.
A recent example surrounds the Canadian Surface Combatants, a procurement project touted as the largest in Canada’s history. The government awarded the prime contractor designation to Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax, but Irving had already won the "umbrella" contract in 2011 to build new combat ships like the CSCs. The government had reserved the right not to award the two contracts to the same company, but then chose not to exercise that right, leading to criticism that it had sole-sourced the contract.
On top of that, the project has already faced delays, and costs are indeed skyrocketing. Though $14 billion of a $26.2-billion budget was initially devoted to building 15 new warships, independent firms predicted they would really cost more than $30 billion, CBC reported in December.
It’s the surface combatant project that, of the projects under the NSPS portfolio, is most likely to be revisited by the Liberal government, Mr. Perry suggested.
Capabilities are a 'Rubik's cube'
The defence official accused successive governments of procrastinating on naval capability to the point where everything is now happening at the same time, saying, “government is given to benign neglect because it doesn’t perceive the navy’s utility.”
“There has always been tension between various capabilities under the defence portfolio,” Mr. Buck said—the army, the navy and the air force can’t all be fully satisfied. “There’s never going to be enough money to do everything everybody wants. So it’s always going to be a compromise.”
In a report titled Smart Defence, University of British Columbia political science professor Michael Byers argued that Canada’s submarine program should be cancelled, calling them a “misadventure from the outset” and saying they weren’t useful enough to justify their cost.
Mr. Perry said he thinks that would be a mistake. The submarine fleet is “extremely relevant,” he said. Given the sightings of Russian submarines in Northern European waters, he said he would be “thoroughly unsurprised” to find similar activities were being conducted in Canadian waters.
“If that’s the case, then having a submarine of our own provides the most effective way of countering that potential activity,” he said, adding that Asian countries have been ramping up their submarine capabilities. Canada shouldn’t be left behind when so many other countries are developing this capability, Mr. Perry argued.
The defence official told Embassy that the navy would “dearly wish” to keep the submarine capability, even though it would be pricey.
“A replacement project would have to overcome biases within and without DND against a vessel that, by its very nature, operates in the shadows. Out of sight could mean out of mind at budget time,” the official said.
The Liberals have promised to maintain defence spending, including a three per cent budget escalator mandated by the Conservatives in their 2015 budget, but made no commitments to increase it. The defence review promised by minister Harjit Sajjan will initiate a “difficult conversation” about what the military should prioritize, and every decision will have repercussions on the rest of the force structure, Mr. Buck said.
“It’s a Rubik’s cube. Everything is interrelated.”