The Canadian Navy’s slow-motion crisis

How aging ships, budget cuts and outdated military priorities are crippling the Canadian Navy

Paul Darrow/Reuters

Paul Darrow/Reuters

A few Canadian sailors took to drinking in San Diego earlier in July and, sufficiently inebriated, allegedly unleashed themselves on the city. Their misbehaviour may include shoplifting and sexual misconduct, actions that forced the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, to publicly denounce the men and women aboard HMCS Whitehorse, a coastal defence vessel that was in southern California as part of massive international war games. Norman called her back to Canada, having “lost confidence in the ship’s ability to meet its current mission.” Norman also launched a broader review of sailors’ behaviour when they’re ashore, a move that reinforces the stereotype that sailors are prone to booze-fuelled adventures. The acts of the few aboard HMCS Whitehorse delivered days of embarrassing headlines to a Navy that can’t seem to buy good press.

The litany of recent headaches is long. An American fishing trawler hit a Canadian frigate, HMCS Winnipeg, last April. A destroyer, HMCS Algonquin, collided with a supply ship, HMCS Protecteur, during exercises in the Pacific Ocean last August. Algonquin requires expensive repairs. Protecteur later suffered an engine-room fire and spent hours dead at sea off the coast of Hawaii. An East Coast destroyer, HMCS Iroquois, sits unused in Halifax, bruised after many years of service. The other East Coast destroyer, HMCS Athabaskan, also needs repairs after a 2012 collision with a tugboat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It all adds up to a slow-motion crisis for the Navy. Even when the destroyers are operational, they’re more than 40 years old. The supply ships are about the same age, and the government’s not sure if it’s worth repairing the hobbled vessels. Canadian-made replacements are years away, mired in the morass of government procurement. Meanwhile, a punishing federal austerity program that has military spending firmly in its crosshairs is only adding to the challenges for a Navy that prides itself on accomplishing any mission asked of its sailors—even when it means doing more with less.

It’s leading some, including the man who ran the Navy until last year, to warn that Ottawa’s military priorities are increasingly out of touch. “I believe that we are currently out of balance, and we need to look very hard at ensuring the maritime side of that sea, land, air, special-forces equation is protected,” says Paul Maddison, a vice-admiral when he retired. He says his former colleagues deserve a bigger chunk of funding, certainly more than the 12 per cent of DND spending the Navy received when he was at the helm. “I think it’s time for a fundamental re-look at how that pie’s being carved.”

Maddison says the Canada First Defence Strategy, a Conservative vision conceived in 2008, is outdated, and insists that Canada’s national interests are “increasingly challenged in the maritime domain.” No longer should the dusty deserts of landlocked Kandahar, where Canadian military priorities lay for more than a decade of brutal fighting, rule the day. Countries on the Pacific Rim are shifting resources to the water and building bigger navies. Meanwhile, other conflicts, including fighting in eastern Ukraine, have the Navy’s attention. HMCS Regina is now patrolling the Mediterranean with NATO’s mission in the region. As well, the lingering threat of climate change has the potential to turn Canada’s Arctic waters into a shipping superhighway and raises issues of Canadian sovereignty. “This is not 2006, this is not Afghanistan,” Maddison says. “This is 2014. The world has changed.”

As it stands, the Navy is on the brink of losing its oldest ships for good. The destroyer Algonquin may never sail again, while its counterpart, Iroquois, could also be retired, and the supply ship Protecteur is nearing the end of its usability. The feds could inject millions more into repairs of the decades-old warhorses, but the several months of extended life may not be worth the cost. Destroyers serve as command posts at sea and carry more sophisticated weaponry than any Canadian vessel. Supply ships carry valuable fuel. Not having access to those types of vessels would hamper the Navy’s ability to carry out missions without depending on foreign allies.

This hasn’t left Canada’s military entirely landlocked, by any means. Even after Whitehorse’s embarrassing recall in July, a frigate, sub, and another coastal defence vessel took part in a month-long, multinational exercise near Hawaii known as RIMPAC. Rear Admiral J.P.G. Couturier, a Canadian, runs the maritime component of the war games, involving 54 military vessels from 22 countries. The submarine HMCS Victoria is playing the role of an enemy vessel—a job at which it excels, thanks to a relatively quiet diesel-powered engine that regularly eludes powerful American warships. But, in years past, the Navy would also send a destroyer and a supply ship. These days, it simply doesn’t have the ships available.

There’s no clear end in sight for this gap in operability. The Harper Conservatives tried to provide a fix when they launched a $36.6-billion shipbuilding strategy in October 2011. The program could eventually replace virtually every vessel in today’s Navy. The plan includes new Arctic patrol ships for frigid northern waters, up to 15 warships meant to replace the current destroyers and frigates, a pair of joint support ships that would take over from the existing pair of supply ships, and a gaggle of smaller vessels. The glaring problem in Canadian shipyards is just how unprepared they are for such an urgent and costly job. “There’s not much experience anywhere in government, and even across Canada in the industry,” says David Perry, a senior defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

A generation has passed since Canada took on the construction of frigates. All the prep work required at Irving Shipyards in Halifax and Seaspan in Vancouver is costly. The Parliamentary Budget Office has cast doubt on the plan to locate all the construction on home soil, reporting last December that the feds could save $690 million if better-equipped American shipyards built the supply ships. Doing it all in Canada from start to finish is a complex process, says Perry. “When you’re doing a design-and-build project, you need to have a different relationship with your suppliers than you would if you were just buying aircraft off the assembly line,” he says, adding that each ship requires a juggling act with suppliers that requires expert coordination. “It’s a pretty tough call to make. This is much bigger, more costly and more complicated a project than the F-35 [fighter jet] is, in a lot of ways, so I think that’s a big part of the reluctance” to make final decisions quickly.

The complexity of the work also means the Navy remains years away from obtaining a single new vessel. The first joint support ship in Vancouver won’t hit the water until 2018 at the earliest. Until then, Canada’s left with a single supply ship, HMCS Preserver, on the east coast. The first Irving-built Arctic patrol ship—a top priority for the military, as Canada and other nations, including Russia and the U.S., grapple for control of the region—could enter service in 2018.

Those projections also assume that the new ships remain on schedule and on budget, by no means a certainty, given Canada’s devastatingly poor record on big military procurement projects. When the Tories arrived in office, they planned purchases of new trucks, helicopters, fighter jets and ships. Few arrived on schedule. Last month, the feds finally announced they’d acquired long-planned replacements for the 50-year-old maritime fleet of Sea King helicopters, nearly 30 years after Ottawa first determined the choppers were no longer up to the task.

Until any new ships materialize, the Navy is stuck with what it’s got. It didn’t provide an updated list of deployable ships at press time, but we know the operable fleet includes frigates, some of which are stuck in refit; Athabaskan and Preserver in Halifax; a fleet of submarines that are nearly all operational; and a group of coastal defence vessels split between the coasts. It all adds up to a fleet that features “essentially lower availability than they had in roughly 20 years,” says Perry. “The Navy right now is at a pretty fundamental transition point,” he says. “This is going to be the absolute low point right now for the Navy, in terms of having operational output.”

Maddison says sailors are looking forward to a point, a decade or more down the line, when that fresh fleet is at their disposal. “A decision to introduce a new class of ship like the Canadian surface combatants is a . . . decision that will outlive a series of governments on both sides of the House. It’s a long game,” says Maddison. “There will be challenges, and you have to manage the end of life of a couple of fleets. But we are moving smartly forward here in introducing the future fleet, and that’s what’s got sailors energized.”

If anything defuses that energy, it’s the painful effect of the Harper government’s budget cuts that Perry outlined in a June report. Defence spending now sits below 2007 levels, thanks to cuts that have accounted for a quarter of the government’s overall spending reductions. “The funding for training, routine operations and maintenance has been cut, significantly reducing operational readiness,” wrote Perry. “At the same time, a sizeable proportion of the funding to acquire the military of the future is going unused.” All those ships going through modernization have actually masked the Navy’s budget woes, because dry-docked ships don’t need to draw from even a slashed operations budget. “If there isn’t an ability to increase the amount of money going to the fleet overall, then the capability gap is probably going to keep persisting,” says Perry.

Slashed budgets already have some ships resting in their jetties. Perry told Maclean’s earlier this year that a pair of coastal defence vessels, which take the lead on counter-narcotics missions in the Caribbean, are tied to the docks in favour of the submarine fleet and the refurbished frigates re-entering service. Maddison admits that the fiscal pressure—and the lack of available ships—has an impact. “We go through these cycles,” he says. “It has placed a lot of pressure on commanders at all levels to generate technical personnel and operational readiness.”

There is good news, hidden though it may be. The Navy’s multi-billion-dollar, mid-life refit of its dozen frigates—the fleet’s workhorses—is by all accounts on schedule, due to wrap up in 2017, and on budget. The modernization stripped the frigates of outdated technology and produced a rare successful procurement under Tory auspices. And the Navy and its supporters trumpet its ability to keep three destroyers and two supply ships, all of which entered service before 1975, afloat for so many decades—a boast few navies can make.

But those morsels of success have done little to raise the Navy’s profile in the eyes of Canadians and officials in Ottawa, especially against the backdrop—until the last troops pulled out earlier this year—of land operations in Afghanistan. The Navy’s anti-smuggling missions in the Arabian Sea or Caribbean regularly took a back seat to that land war. Jim Carruthers, a former Navy captain who serves as the Naval Association of Canada’s national president, says the Navy’s accomplishments in faraway seas are tough to sell to governments and voters. “It’s hard to describe to people that a ship over in the Indian Ocean is delivering value to Canada. It’s a very complex story,” he says. “It’s not like the Army guys putting sandbags in Winnipeg. That’s a direct connection; you can see it.”

Maddison understands that his former colleagues will never have all the money they require. “There are never enough resources to make each and every commander absolutely comfortable, nor should there be,” he says. “Governments are faced with extraordinarily difficult decisions each and every day about where to spend the coin of the realm.”

As for Carruthers, he says he is determined to look at the bright side. “I would argue that the Canadian Navy has nothing but a success story going back to the 1950s,” he says. “Every group of ships we’ve built have been the leaders in the world, and they’ve stood us in stead for decades.”

But the country’s seamen remain overshadowed, not only by their battle-worn army comrades and precision-guided fighter pilots, but also a government bent on fiscal restraint. As the Navy waits for a new fleet and copes with the shackles of austerity, its struggles remain largely outside an indifferent public’s consciousness. Small wonder it’s the odd drunken sailor who makes his way into the news.




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The Canadian Navy’s slow-motion crisis

  1. Imperial overstretch at it’s best.

  2. Bit of a quibble, but there are no operational Battleships left in any navy on the planet. They have gone the way of Triremes, Galleys, Barques, Galleons, and Viking Long Ships – they are an obsolete naval design.

    A pick-up truck and a bus both have wheels and run on asphalt, but they are very different vehicle types.

    Likewise, pointing at a Guided Missile Destroyer and calling it a Battleship is wrong.

  3. It’s a crisis only if the navy is called upon to defend Canada and can’t. Baring a replay of the Battle of the Atlantic almost every cent not spent on the navy and the rest of DND is to the good. We’d in all likelihood be better off if the surface combatant and AOPS programs deliver half the hulls they’re supposed to a decade or so late. Ditto for fighter replacements.

    The chance of a war between industrial powers is infinitesimal. The last one ended 69 years ago with decidedly mixed results (the war in the west was fought to prevent a tyranny from conquering half of Europe, which was exactly what we ended up with). Whether we have eight frigates or 15 could make no difference to the outcome of a world war nor deter it. People who argue we wouldn’t have time to build ships are assuming we would lose quickly. Almost everyone who has ever said “the war will be over by XMas” has been proven wrong.

    The navy exists principally for the navy and it’s supporters. It is an institution looking for a justification which is why it’s off in the Arabian Sea looking for narcotics. Every call for more ships or sailors should be seen as primarily an organization fighting for it’s bureaucratic life and not an actual effort to protect Canada.

    • You are correct in your assumption that great battles between fleets of ships are over and that first world nations are unlikely to go to war on a grand scale again. It is very hard for most people to understand how much ocean surrounds our country. I have sailed it all and it is a sizable portion of the surface of our planet. The only way to police that water is to put people on ships to project power and enforce Canadian law. Things like not dumping bilge water when traveling in the arctic, planes and drones can’t board an offending ship and check to see if they are following Canadian law, over fishing, or smuggling etc. The other problem I have with your argument is your assumption the world is getting safer. Human population is getting larger, resources are limited, the climate is changing, and resource wars are going to become more and more prevalent. Having no means to police the maritime approaches to our country is fool hardy and dangerous.

      • The world is getting safer both from war and criminal violence. No industrial countries have fought since 1945 and at present there are no wars between two states. We’ve been told about pending famines and resource wars for decades. We would run out of food. Oil. Copper. Water. The doomsayers have been wrong 100% of the time. I expect “climate change” to be no different.

        Over fishing and smuggling etc are jobs for the Coast Guard, DFO and the police not multi-billion dollar frigates supported by a massive bureaucracy.

        • So we would just end up with a different multi-billion dollar bureaucracy because none of those agencies have the ability to do these jobs and currently rely on the navy to get them there. The coast guard is not armed and you would spend billions building new ships, fitting them out with weapons and hiring new people and training them to use guns.

          Ridiculous!

          • What purpose does naval artillery have in fishing enforcement? Do we need Sea Harpoons to deal with smuggling? How is a torpedo used when catching people dumping bilge water?

            All the tasks you cited as reasons fro the navy are some sort of policing not war or even near war. I said nothing about spending billions on new ships- that’s your strawman.

          • If a vessel does not answer a hail or decides to run how are you going to get them to comply with your demands? Through the threat of or the use of force.

            The Turbot war in 1995 when Canada extended its economic zone out to 200 nautical miles from 12 nautical miles. The Spanish did not recognize our claim and continued to over fish on the grand banks. We deployed our navy with DFO and RCMP on board. The Spanish deployed patrol boats to guard their fleet from the Canadian threat. In response the Canadian Government authorized the navy to fire on any Spanish vessel that showed an intent to use force. The Spanish felt open war with Canada was not worth it and backed away and finally recognized our 200 mile limit. Now every country in world claims a 200 mile economic zone.

            Naval firepower was what backed up DFO and the RCMP and told the Spanish and the rest of the world we were serious. Currently if a fishing vessel runs from a Navy ship with DFO on board during a fisheries patrol warning shots will be fired across the fishing vessels bow. Why would they stop if there was no consequences. How calm do you think the ocean is? You need big ships to handle the weather and be fast enough to catch another ship. Coast guard ships aren’t fast enough or have the sensors to detect vessels trying to be illusive.

            When a drug ship shows up and drops drugs in the water that stay in container semi submerged. Who is going to detect that? Not the RCMP, not DFO, a submarine can hear the splashes and monitor the vessel without them even knowing. A frigate can monitor them from very far away and has the ability to intercept and board them. These ships have far more sophistication and ability than just firing weapons at other ships. They are the eyes ears of Canada and the long arm of effective diplomacy within Canadian territory. “Walk softly and carry a big stick” A warship is a lovely big stick.

    • I wonder if Neville Chamberlain said much the same thing in 1938. Oh, the “war to end all wars” had ended 20 years previously, and no one would ever be stupid enough to start another one. Right. The truth is that the danger of war between industrialized powers has never been higher in the past 69 years than it is today. Vladimir Putin is a megalomaniac hell-bent on rebuilding the Soviet empire, but without the “sober second thought” of the Politburo holding him back.

      Add to that all of the other nasty little conflicts goin on in the world today, to which we have to pay attention whether we like it or not, and I find it difficult to understand Mr. Shannon’s position.

      The fact of the matter is that, as unfortunate as it is, Canada needs to be EXPANDING the armed forces again, not shrinking them. The world is a far more dangerous place that it was during the Cold War, and the only services which can actually defend Canada itself are the Navy and the Air Force. Not to disparage the Canadian Army, who are all very well-trained professionals, but there simply aren’t enough of them to defend the 2nd-largest country in the world. They are also unable to leave Canada to fight without the support of the other two services, and it would be great if those other two services were strong and capable enough to get them where they are going alive.

      80% of the world’s trade travels by sea, and trade is the lifeblood of our economy and those of our allies. Without command of the sea and command of the air, our way of life (democracy, freedom, prosperity) comes to an end very quickly. Canada must do its part to maintain them, and we haven’t really done so since Trudeau became PM in the late 1960s. It’s high time we fixed that.

  4. As the article illustrates, it takes many years to build an effective navy…such a force cannot be created overnight on a whim if required in an emergency…Vice-Admiral Maddison correctly points out that the Canadian Armed Forces have been focused on the Afghanistan War over the past decade, but it is now time to move on….This article notes that the current Conservative Canada First Defence Strategy of 2008 is very outdated to contemporary and anticipated future defence needs that highlights the need for a new Defence White Paper along with the necessary funding….Unfortunately, for most Canadians, their Navy is unseen and forgotten….this has been a constant feature of the RCN’s history since its creation in 1910….Every nation has a navy, either their own or someone else’s…Given the cutbacks by both the US and UK, Canada can no longer rely to the same degree for other nations for its self defence…It’s about time that the nation becomes mature enough to recognize that a certain self-sufficiency in defence is the mark of a sovereign and independent nation…Let’s get on with rebuilding the RCN now!

    • Who would attack us? Why? What would be the aim of an attack? Why would they attack us and not the US? Why would the US ignore an attack on us? Why would an attacker not use Pearl Harbor as an example of the risk of such an attack?

      These are the questions that have always driven Canadian defence policy. The answers are obvious and make “rebuilding the navy” largely a waste of resources- although it should always be remembered that large numbers of rice bowls in the military, defence industries and communities near bases are involved and lead many navy supporters to see “threats” where perhaps there aren’t any.

      • So we should just depend on the US Navy to defend us? Are you seriously proposing that we just freeload off of the Americans? You have lost all credibility, as you clearly have no idea what you are talking about.

      • Last I checked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a success. The turning point was at Midway when the Americans got lucky and caught the Japanese with there planes on their carrier decks re-arming them, were able close the carriers that had no air support and destroy them. Had the Japanese found the US carriers first the war in the Pacific would have been much, much longer. And really the Japanese “lesson” came from a devastating firebomb campaign topped of with the dropping of two nuclear weapons.

        Again Michael Shannon your ignorance is glaring…

  5. > By the end of World War II Canada had one of the largest Naval fleets in the world. The main focus of the Navy at that time was was the protection of the supply lines across the Atlantic though there were other roles. It is not so much whether some nation would attack Canada by sea but whether we could again play our part with our allies in defending supply lines.
    > The question of the possible, new shipping channel across the mid-Arctic waters in another serious issue. The most important is one relating to possible accidents especially with regard to the supertankers. This is a serious matter. A number of years ago the US made a crossing with the supertanker Manhattan without even asking permission. The result was that in future the US would ask permission and Canada would not refuse; a very fine diplomatic solution indeed. The US is our ally and friend; not all countries would behave in such a mutually acceptable and respectful manner.
    > The current building programme is the right plan and within a few years Canada will be in better shape. Its history is strong.

  6. The RCN has been starved of resources since the end of Op Apollo. Navy budgets have been steadily eroded and the number of sea days reduced for the last ten years. The Navy has tried as best it can to mitigate the cutbacks and concentrate it’s meager resources where they could achieve the best results. It started with a tiered readiness program. This program divided the Fleet into high readiness, standard readiness, and low/extended readiness. Resources were allocated only to ships which were assigned to high readiness or which were ramping up to high readiness. This left the lion share of the Navy at Standard Readiness. Standard readiness, really wasn’t standard. it took the Navy several years to define what standard readiness meant. Ships in standard readiness went to sea without all their sensors systems, weapons, or machinery systems working. In some cases, equipment was stripped out of standard readiness ships in order to meet urgent requirements for spare parts in high readiness ships.
    Spare parts were not purchased. The navy drew down on the few stores it had, and consequently, today, there are no spare parts for Preserver/Protecteur or the Iroquois Class DDH.
    Even the Halifax Class Frigates and Victoria Class submarines suffered from spare parts shortages. The shortage of spare parts in large part explains why it’s taken so long for the Victoria Class submarines to return to sea after entering refit.
    Throughout the Afghan war, the RCN had it’s budget reduced in order to help pay for the war. When Canada finally pulled out of Afghanistan and Canadian soldiers were no longer returning home in caskets, the budget taps were turned off. No one really cared that the RCN and the RCAF to a certain extent had already suffered 10 years of budget shortfalls.
    Today, the Navy is in crisis and it’s worse then Vice Admiral Norman admits. The Navy is undermanned, and skilled sailors, technicians and officers are leaving in droves. Throughout the cold war and up until very recently, the RCN had an excellent reputation amongst our Allies for producing outstanding sailors, and tacticians. That is no longer the case. Our sailors no longer spend as much time at sea honing their skills. Sea days have declined steadily to a point where it is now impossible to maintain training and skill levels. Despite what the Navy might say, shore side training and simulators just don’t cut it, and today skills have eroded. Intuitively, it should cause alarm bells to go off when there are many sonar operators who’ve never actually tracked a real submarine on sonar.
    There are Commanding Officers serving at sea now who’ve had only a few years at sea. The RCN has avoided discussing what role a fleet wide decrease in ship handling experience has had on the Fleet, but one can sea that there have been a number of incidents where experience
    (or lack thereof) has played a role in a collision. The collision of Algonquin and Protecteur, and the Collision of Preserver with an Irving Shipyard dry dock are both a result of decreased experience.
    This slow motion crisis has been coming for many years, and the time has come to pay the piper.

  7. I must agree with with most of the comments, however it now seems the Navy in Halifax feels the need to create revenue to subsidize its lacking budget on the backs of its Military members and DND Employees by charging them to park on all bases at CFB Halifax including pay and display parking for members the need to visit the base hospital and Military Family Resource Centre. This will make CFB Halifax the only Military base in the country ( maybe the world) that charges it’s military for the privilege of serving their country.
    I have struggled to find any industry in Canada that charges it own employees to park (many pay to a 3rd party but not to the employer)
    It’s must be an embarrassment to the Prime Minister, Minister of National Defence and Toney Clement to resort to this desperate money grab to bolster the coffers of the base.

  8. I took notice. Did they dishonorably discharge the offenders? Bet not.

    As for the cost, we pay 10 times what other countries pay in pork barrel union and lobby money. Hate to break it, but these ships are common off the shelf items… no need to blow a billion on customized failures and incomparable parts… Korea will ship you 3 for a billion, included advanced electronics and weapons too, Australia uses them as to many others.

    We screw over seniors with devalued money, below inflation returns on pensions, poverty for disabled, mess with vets…. so we have more to waste?

    And what for, so the ships can haul Somalia ships to port or give them food and gas? When was the last time Canada opened fire in Canadian waters to protect Canada, Wasn’t Tamil human smuggling, we welcomed them.

    Call me when they know efficiency, effective, economical and less opulence BS for political pocket lining. Until then, this McHale’s Navy North needs to fix its lack of competences, its lack of discipline and its other peoples money no object lobby bought recommendations.

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