By Vincent J. Curtis
As reported by David Pugliese in Volume 24 Issue 7 of this magazine (“CSC: Forging Ahead”), the Trudeau Liberal government is committed to spending up to $60-billion to rebuild Canada’s surface combatant fleet. This is up from the original $26-billion the Harper Conservative government believed was necessary for the project.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan confirmed that the existing surface combatant fleet of frigates and destroyers will be replaced by “Fifteen [CSCs]. Not ‘up to’ 15 and not 12. And definitely not six, which is a number the previous government’s plan would have paid for, as the Parliamentary Budget Officer reported.”
At $4-billion each, these Canadian CSCs must be the most expensive lightweight punchers in human history.
Let’s compare. What could $60-billion buy in terms of combat ships today?
For $60-billion, Canada could buy 6 of the 100,000-ton Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy only has 10 of them, and they are the backbone of their carrier fleet.
For $60-billion Canada could buy 30 of the 9,000-ton Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers. The United States presently has 64 of these on active service. When in April Prime Minister Trudeau urged the world community to seek justice in the chemical attack that Bashar al-Assad made against his own citizens, President Donald Trump dispatched two of these to deal with issue. If the RCN were similarly equipped, Mr. Trudeau would not have to wave his arms fecklessly and call for others to act in fulfilment of his virtue signalling. He could order it done himself.
For $60-billion, Canada could buy 11 of the brand new 78,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers from the UK, which only plans to acquire two.
You get the idea. For $60-billion spent on naval construction, Canada could change the balance of naval power in the world.
But we won’t. For $60-billion Canada is going to acquire 15 5,000-ton CSCs, basically frigates, of limited combat power, speed, and range. These surface combatant ships are aptly designed to re-fight the Battle of the Atlantic, which pitted German U-boats against corvettes. Except the Germans are on our side now, and the only conceivable submarine fleet that would oppose Canada is the Russian one.
Russia is not well situated to interdict sea traffic across the North Atlantic and, besides, the United States submarine fleet has that problem addressed.
What our design program lacks is actual combat power. There is no doubt that frigates are necessary. But in today’s world, and for the next 20 to 30 years out, naval power is lacking in a hard-skinned fighting ship. For a middle power like Canada, this fighting ship takes the form of a 20,000- to 25,000-ton nuclear-powered battlecruiser carrying six 12-inch guns with plenty of deck space for Tomahawk cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, and air-defence and missile-defence guns. Nuclear power gives the ship unlimited range and enables a speed of over 30 knots. A battlecruiser is preferred because it is less technically sophisticated to operate than a carrier.
One of these would cost no more than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, also nuclear powered. And one or two is all Canada would require.
Much as I love our East Coast shipbuilders, it is plainly cheaper for Canada to acquire its combatant ships abroad. The reason for placing orders for warships in Canadian shipyards is for domestic economic benefits, but in this case we need to look at a larger picture.
Canada is re-negotiating NAFTA with the Trump administration, and can expect a hard bargainer across the table. Sixty-billion dollars represents a huge bargaining chip on the Canadian side. In exchange for American concessions on the trade deal, Canada could place orders with American shipyards for Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers — a proven modern design with all the costs of development fully depreciated. We get a lot more combat power for our defence money, Canadian exporters retain or get freer access to U.S. markets, our marketing boards are left alone, and the East Coast shipbuilders get put on welfare.
Those are the economics of it. Our East Coast shipbuilders are too pricy for the naval combat power the rest of us have a right to expect. We might like our neighbourhood grocer, but we think nothing of shopping at Walmart for the better prices.
For $60-billion in expenditure, Canadian taxpayers have a right to expect serious naval combat power, and we won’t get it with 15 surface combatants.