By Vincent J. Curtis
At the recent change of command ceremony of the Royal Canadian Navy, outgoing Vice-Admiral Mark Norman excoriated the former Conservative government and warned the new Liberal government before handing over to Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd. Vice-Admiral Norman’s new job is Vice Chief of Defence Staff, the second-ranking officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.
VAdm Norman did not name names, but he described the declining state of the RCN as a consequence of political and bureaucratic indecision, foot-dragging, of putting off tough decisions in the interest of short term expediency. His remarks concerned the navy, but the same bad tendencies that undermined the RCN are at work in the Liberal government concerning the CF-18 replacement.
VAdm Norman touched on the loss of naval combat power through the forced retirement of two destroyers and both supply ships. “There’s about a 20 per cent reduction in the float capacity of the fleet, with acute losses in war-fighting capabilities, in particular in air defence and sustainment. As well, we’ve seen alarming reductions in both our establishment and effective strength.”
Without a supply ship, the RCN cannot send out a fleet of frigates; it can only send them out individually. Replacements are years away.
In addition, the Lemon-class — I mean the Victoria-class — submarines also need a few billions to make them entirely serviceable as a submarine fleet.
In all, the latest number being kicked around as the price tag to bring the RCN up to the standard it was just a few years ago is $40 billion. The current state of naval incapability was “completely avoidable,” according to VAdm Norman.
This space has been used to advocate for an imaginative and capable future for the RCN. All the RCN has requested is a fleet of replacement frigates, supply vessels, and an operational submarine fleet. It has focussed on making the frigates as electronically capable and as up-to-date as yesterday’s technology can make it. RCN visionaries are looking to fill a minor niche in a future Battle of the Atlantic; and they would like to fill it with a fleet of slow-moving dwarfs: 29 knots, 4,800-ton frigates, as many as they can get. How exciting.
Several holes gape in this strategy. Without supply ships, only one frigate at a time can be sent to sea, even if you had more than a dozen of them available in the fleet. If you build a supply ship, that cuts into the number of frigates you can build within a fixed budget. Cutting the number of frigates, perhaps, to less than a dozen, and with fewer than six ships on a coast, the word “fleet” begins to lose its meaning.
Another gaping hole is the lack of combat power. It is fine to have a ship on station with the electronics that can sniff out the enemy from miles away, but what are you going to do with that information? The RCN’s answer is to pass it on to another country’s navy with the capability to destroy the threat.
The RCN is the one service that could reasonably possess a strategic strike capability. The RCAF has no long-range bombers, and Canada has no network of overseas bases which would allow short-range RCAF aircraft to strike a blow in Canada’s interests without the aid of any other country. The army on its own is inherently unable to strike an unexpected strategic blow. That leaves the RCN, which is capable of sailing all around the world.
What does the RCN need to have so that Canada would have its own ability to make an unexpected strategic strike? A nuclear-powered vessel of about 20,000 tons would fit the bill. A vessel of that size would be large enough to carry launchers for Tomahawk cruise missiles, which have a range of 1,500 kilometres. It would have the size in addition to carry big naval guns, anti-ship missiles and protective phalanx Gatling guns. An electronic suite from a frigate would provide the means of detection and perimeter protection of the vessel, a vessel that has the means of doing something about the enemy. It would also have to space to be a fleet command vessel. Its speed would be near 35 knots.
Being nuclear-powered, the vessel would require no replenishment on a mission anywhere in the world. And if we did procure a replenishment vessel, Canada would be able to put its own naval task force to sea.
Whether $26 or $40 billion, the RCN needs to have the combat power of one $5 billion capital ship.