By Scott Taylor
On Thursday June 23, Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance presided over the Change of Command ceremony between outgoing Royal Canadian Navy commander, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, and his successor Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd. In a rather light hearted moment during the formal proceedings Vance informed the audience that Lloyd had once been senior to him at the Royal Military College, and he had used that seniority to compel the younger Vance to do pushups. Stepping down from the podium, Vance startled those in attendance by reversing the scenario and calling out Lloyd to ‘adopt the position’. Both men then proceeded to engage in a pushup showdown – including some impressive ‘thumb and forefinger’ only lifts.
This literal flexing of military muscle unfortunately ran completely counter the message delivered by outgoing commander Norman. In reflecting on his three-year tenure at the helm of the navy Norman Lamented, “The RCN has gotten noticeably smaller both in terms of fleet and establishment on my watch. There’s been about a 20 per cent reduction in float capacity of the fleet with acute losses in war fighting capabilities, in particular in area air defence and sustainment.” What Norman is referring to is the fact that in the past three years, the RCN had to decommission both of its remaining supply ships, and two of its last three destroyers. HMCS Athabaskan technically remains in active service, but this aged destroyer probably has but one last gasp left in her before she will be officially paid off and sent to the scrap yard next year.
In other words, Canada has already lost the area air defence capability which the destroyers once added to the fleet. An even bigger loss was that of HMCS Protecteur’s tragic fire at sea in February 2014 which left her an irreparable hulk, and the discovery of hull cracks in HMCS Preserver, which resulted in her being permanently beached on September 2014. Without those two supply ships the RCN is incapable of assembling a task force, and at best is reduced to sending out single patrol-class frigates, or Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels on solidarity patrols.
To temporarily alleviate this shortfall, the RCN under Norman’s watch, had to take the innovative step of renting supply ship support from Spain and Chile. That’s right, in order for Canada to put navy ships at sea, we had to rent sea days from the Spanish navy and the Chilean navy. What magnifies the embarrassment of this circumstance in not only the fact that Canada, a G-8 country with one of the highest GDP to population ratios in the world, would not have had the foresight to replace such an essential capability in a timely manner, but that Spain and Chile not only did make such investments, they also possess enough surplus capacity that they can rent some to us.
Norman did venture into political waters when he admitted during his outgoing remarks that the navy’s current woes were ‘avoidable’. With current Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan seated right in front of him, Norman clearly laid the blame for all this mess on the former Conservative government. Had the Conservatives not cancelled the Joint Supply Ship project in August 2008 without seeking an alternative solution, and had the Conservatives not dragged their feet on a replacement for our destroyers, then all would be well with the world, according to Norman.
However it was the Conservatives who prided themselves on the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. Which is to pump some $30 billion into refurbishing the RCN and the Coast Guard over the next 30 years. This will include, Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels, Joint Supply Ships, Canadian Surface Combatants and an icebreaker. The Conservatives also signed the deal with Chantier-Davie shipyard to convert the MS Asterix into an interim supply ship for the RCN.
Norman has been promoted to the post of Vice-Chief of Defence Staff, which is ultimately involved in force deployment for the Canadian Forces. Let’s hope that during his tenure as VCDS he can put some real muscle back into Canada’s enfeebled navy. Pushups or no pushups.