Lessons from Canada’s Pacific re-​engagement

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42 navires et sous-marins de 22 nations durant l'exercice multinational RIMPAC 2014. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe/US Navy)
42 navires et sous-marins de 22 nations durant l’exercice multinational RIMPAC 2014. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe/US Navy)
Originally published in Embassy News, embassynews​.ca.
Courtesy of the CDA Institute

In the last few years, Canada has displayed interest in militarily re-​engaging in the Pacific.

The Canadian military deployed a sizable contingent to the 2012 RIMPAC exercise, then defence minister Peter MacKay attended the 2013 Shangri-​La Dialogue with great fanfare, and his successor Rob Nicholson signed an Asia-​Pacific Defense Policy Cooperation Framework with his US counterpart later that same year. Ottawa even secured a military access arrangement with Singapore and a cross-​servicing agreement with Japan.

Observers began advocating a modest shift in naval assets from Halifax to Esquimalt. Such a Pacific-​centric fleet posture would help to ensure the Royal Canadian Navy has sufficient deployable vessels in the Pacific, reassure skeptical countries that Canada’s renewed focus was not temporary, and potentially give Canada access to high-​level security forums, such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

Such a vision proved short-​lived, however. Canada’s military presence in the 2014 RIMPAC exercise was noticeably small. The RCN fleet posture continues to favour the Atlantic, and no invitation to join either the East Asia Summit or ADMM+ are on the horizon. Clearly, regional concerns over Canada’s long-​term staying power were correct.

In some respects, Canada’s inattention is due to the emergence of other concerns. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has placed the spotlight on Europe, resulting in the deployment of Canadian ground troops to Eastern Europe under NATO’s Operation Assurance. Canada has also found itself joining the anti-​ISIS coalition led by the United States, where it has participated in air strikes and placed military advisers to help train local allies and direct air strikes.

Yet it is not simply the emergence of these new flashpoints that have stalled Canada’s re-​engagement. Nor is it from pressure from our NATO allies worried about Canada’s trans-​Atlantic commitment, though such concerns cannot be discounted. Even without them, it was doubtful whether Canada could have sustained its Pacific reorientation.

Navy challenges

The reason comes down to challenges facing Canada’s navy. For one, the RCN will be retiring its two replenishment ships, which will eliminate its at-​sea replenishment capability and sharply curtail the operational sustainability of its surface fleet. Due to Canada’s expansive coastline, the RCN will be hard-​pressed just to maintain a continual presence in its offshore waters, to say nothing about traversing the enormous distances of the Pacific theatre.

In effect, it means the temporary end of the RCN role as a self-​deploying blue-​water surface navy until the arrival of the Queenston-​class Joint Supply Ship (JSS), expected by 2019. Talk is currently underway on a temporary stop-​gap measure, such as a leased commercial tanker or an arrangement with an allied navy.

The RCN will also be retiring two of its remaining three destroyers. As a result, Canada has only one dedicated command ship with an area air defence capability, sharply reducing its ability to take command of a naval task group or protect such a flotilla from air attacks. The remaining Iroquois-​class ship HMCS Athabaskan is also home-​ported in Halifax, meaning that the West Coast fleet has little ability to play a significant role in the Pacific, even if it could succeed in sustaining a regional presence in that theatre.

Fortunately, the RCN will at least benefit from the modernization/​life extension of its Halifax-​class frigates. Four frigates have already been given a command and control upgrade, thereby minimizing the impact of the loss of these two destroyers (and likely retirement of HMCS Athabaskan in the not too distant future).

Yet even this upgrade does not offer an area air defence capability, which raises the question as to the utility of a command vessel unable to protect its own naval task group, especially in a high-​threat theatre like the Pacific. With five frigates undergoing upgrades, it has also sharply reduced the number of ships available until 2018. Shortfalls in ships will disproportionally impact the Pacific fleet, not least due to the fewer vessels home-​ported on the West Coast in the first place.

As a result, the RCN has found itself severely constrained in the near future, with no at-​sea replenishment capability, limited command/​air defence capabilities, and a greatly reduced number of warships. Canada’s ability to deploy a self-​contained, self-​sustaining naval task group would be at an effective end. Instead, it would likely need to rely on either the generosity of others for both logistics and air defence, or settle for plugging in individual ships among its allied fleets.

Continuing ship building delays means that Canada’s navy will have to simply make do with less. The JSS is expected to enter service by 2019, while work on 15 Canadian Surface Combatants should begin by 2020. Yet many consider these dates overly optimistic, given past delays with the JSS and uncertainty on whether work on the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships will be completed in time to begin production of the CSC.

Nor can one simple address such deficiencies by rebalancing the existing fleet to favour the Pacific, not with the reduced size of the deployable fleet. One or two additional ships to Esquimalt would do little to reverse the reduction in the size of today’s Pacific fleet, especially with two West Coast frigates in dry-​dock being upgraded. It would also pose particular problems for a Halifax-​based fleet equally stretched in terms of ship availability.

Subs to the rescue?

It might be better to address some of these challenges by relying on the RCN undersea fleet of submarines. Three of four submarines are finally operational, two of which are operating out of Esquimalt. Aside from their stealth and maneuverability, these vessels also enjoy greater endurance and operational sustainability than surface ships, so the Pacific fleet will likely be increasingly reliant on these vessels for its blue water operations.

Importantly, submarines are also seen as a highly valued platform in the Asia-​Pacific region, where many countries are investing heavily in such vessels. Canada can therefore continue to bring a highly valued asset – one that is an ideal anti-​submarine warfare platform capable of taking part in exercises with key allies (US, Australia, and Japan), while also offering a formidable sea denial capability against surface ships with its Mark 48 torpedo. HMCS Victoria has already demonstrated a capacity to fire this heavy torpedo, and additional upgrade kits have since been purchased.

To be sure, Canada’s reliance on the much maligned Victoria-​class submarines is also far from ideal. Simply put, it does not really compensate for the absence of replenishment ships or sufficient number of surface warships. Procurement of both can no longer be delayed.

One should hope that the key lesson from all this is a renewed need to ensure Canada’s navy has the ships and capabilities it needs, not just in the Pacific and internationally but domestically as well. This is particularly true with the planned acquisition of only two JSS, which if one ship is disabled would leave the fleet on that coast without any logistical support. Ideally, Canada would do well to either procure a third JSS, or at least turn one of its prospective stop-​gap measures into something longer-​term.

There also needs to be greater recognition on the role of submarines, which owing to their long operational absence has made them all too easy to dismiss. Their operational readiness and likely greater reliance for blue water operations will place a much needed (and hopefully positive) spotlight on these vessels. We need to start planning for their replacement as well. If the RCN’s recent distress has taught us anything, it is the need to ensure fleet replacement on a timely matter to ensure no capability gap emerges.

A final lesson is more strategic, concerning as it does Canada’s general strategic orientation. Simply put, Canada needs to show a greater capacity for sustained attention to theatres and issues of priority, which might entail flexibility to deal with exogenous shocks, new developments, and domestic political imperatives but would not be totally subject to them. Otherwise, Canada’s foreign policy priorities will continue to shift on short notice, to the detriment to the country’s interests and our perceived reliability as an ally and partner.

Proper attention must be paid to the means by which Canada can realize such priorities. Such a basic element of strategy is often missing here, evidenced by the “capability-​commitment” gap that has long plagued the Canadian military. For a Pacific focus, Canada needs to ensure that its navy has sufficient resources to play a commensurate role in that heavily maritime theatre. To do otherwise would either put at risk such a strategic orientation or magnify the capability-​commitment gap by forcing the military to do more with less – either outcome is simply not good enough. More should be expected from our elected leaders and strategic planners.

David S. McDonough is research manager and senior editor at the CDA Institute, and a research fellow in the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CDA Institute.

David McDonough is Research Manager and Senior Editor at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, and a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.

DiscussionUn commentaire

  1. Il serait bien que votre site qui est en français traduise les texte en anglais qui sont publiés. Nous sommes au Québec et il me semble normale de lire en français. l’auteur de ce texte devrait respecter cela. je me vois mal d’écrire un texte en français dans une province anglophone qui ne veut rien savoir de la langue française.