Why the Navy’s woes are much like our own

Who hasn’t dealt with budget cuts in tough times?



Talk to anyone who’s proud of the Royal Canadian Navy. Ask them about chronic underfunding. A typical response will downplay the effect of smaller budgets. Canadian governments always spend more on other priorities. The occasional bout of austerity is a fact of life, and none of that stops sailors from doing their jobs, they’ll say. When the order comes down, sailors execute, no matter what. That’s the business.

This week, I wrote about the Navy’s laundry list. Tight budgets, spurred on by across-the-board federal austerity, have spawned other problems: less money for operations, which means fewer ships at sea; less money for maintenance, which means the Navy can’t patch the fleet’s oldest ships; and delayed procurement, which means there’s no replacing those aging ships. It all adds up to a handcuffed bunch of sailors. David Perry, a senior defence analyst at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, told me that 2014 is “the absolute low point.” When new ships come, whenever that happens, a government could beef up the Navy’s wallet and put a bolstered fleet to sea. But those ships are a ways off.

Still, the Navy’s boosters remain unperturbed by a year-long spate of bad news that’s seen an American fishing trawler tear a hole in a frigate in British Columbia, a destroyer collide with a supply ship during manoeuvres, and the same supply ship catching fire off the coast of Hawaii. Jim Carruthers, a proud former sailor who’s now the national president of the Naval Association of Canada, dismissed the notion that the Navy’s woes are somehow unfair. When it comes to budgets, everyone pinches pennies. “You have to do that at home, don’t you?” he says. “You can rail against it, and you can complain, but my goodness.” He says Canada’s decades-old destroyers and supply ships—all of which were commissioned before 1975—may be old, but their survival demonstrates sailors’ competence. “We’ve been consistent leaders, and have delivered to the Canadian taxpayer ships that have lasted way longer than anybody else anywhere in the world,” says Carruthers. “We’ve continued to run them, and that’s why they’re so old. It’s a great success story.”

Carruthers and Paul Maddison, the retired vice-admiral who ran the Navy until last year and spoke to me for the story, justifiably point to good-news stories in the dockyards: The dozen Halifax-class frigates are in the middle of a billion-dollar refit that’s on time and on budget. The refurbished ships, as they roll out of dry docks, are some of the world’s finest. The four Victoria-class submarines purchased from the Brits are in good shape after years of work. Starting next week, five Canadian ships and four aircraft in Halifax will participate in an international exercise off the East Coast. That marks Canada’s fourth such exercise this year.

But there’s a limit to any navy’s capabilities when its oldest ships start to show their age. I asked Maddison about rumours that HMCS Iroquois, a destroyer on the East Coast that sought refuge in Boston last February, was so badly damaged it was unsafe to sail back to Halifax. The ship eventually made the trip and is now sitting unused. “It is not conceivable that the technical authorities would ever allow a Canadian warship to sail in peacetime knowing that somehow there is a grave danger that could lead to loss of ship or loss of life,” he told me.

The line between safe and unsafe is fine. Yesterday, the Canadian Press reported that Maddison warned the Department of National Defence about potentially unsafe electrical systems aboard HMCS Protecteur, a supply ship that caught fire Feb. 27 and was dead at sea off the coast of Hawaii. In a briefing note a year before the incident, Maddison warned of “a potentially dangerous and unsafe situation for the ship and crew.” That ship went out to sea, anyway. The Navy won’t talk about the source of that fire, and it’s unclear if Maddison’s warnings went ignored. But that note is emblematic of the tough calls the Navy is forced to make.

The feds promised new ships in 2011 with much fanfare. They’re meant to revitalize the fleet, but are years away from hitting the water. Our story quoted recent estimates that the first Arctic patrol ship, meant to patrol newly melted waters in the wake of climate change, will enter service in 2018. Same goes for the first joint support ship meant to replace Canada’s hobbled supply ships. The first surface combatant, a replacement for the destroyers and frigates, will be ready sometime in the middle of the next decade.

What we didn’t get into in the story were details from the government’s Defence Acquisition Guide, published last month. That document is a one-stop shop for all ongoing procurement, including naval purchases. It doesn’t offer any estimate of when the first new ships will be put to sea, but it does estimate the year when shipyards will deliver the last ship in each class. The last of the six to eight Arctic patrol vessels scheduled for construction is set for delivery as late as 2025. The last of two new supply ships is on pace for 2020. The last of the 15 surface combatants—a number some analysts say will come down—is scheduled for 2035, at the earliest. And that’s if the government holds the line on current plans and budgets.

New ships are coming. But it’s a long game, and the good news on the other end is vastly outpaced by frustrating bad news and short-term budget woes—something every cash-strapped Canadian can understand, if on a vastly smaller scale.

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Why the Navy’s woes are much like our own

  1. With DND’s record for procurement it’s unlikely the navy will get 15 surface combatants- my guess is 10 before the inevitable massive cost overruns and delays scuttle the project. The real question is why would the navy be allowed to plan to replicate the force it put to sea for the Cold War? What possible use do we have for 15 surface combatants? Admirals and old sailors can go on about new 21st century threats but they are mere shadows of the Soviet Navy. Pirates, terrorists, and smugglers are annoyances requiring policing and intelligence not anti-submarine frigates. The “21st Century threats” call for an effective Coast Guard more than a navy wanting to relive it’s glory days of preparing to fight Soviet subs.

    • Totally agree. We are trying to relive the old days….gawd knows why…and Canada needs nothing like that.

    • That’s all well and good, until “they should do something about that”. You know, like the last time Lebanon went crazy and every nation was evacuating their citizens… then “they” were complaining that while everyone else was sending in their navies, we had to wait until we could contract a cruise ship. “Where was our navy?” They asked… like all we had to do was send our carrier task-force. Then there’s the people complaining about how our military equipment was being held hostage on some contracted freighter. Just a billing dispute, they say. Sorry… you make your choices and you live with them.

      Then there’s the silly notion that that the current peace we have is earned through meaningful deterrent. Why, exactly, do you think we don’t need to hunt for subs? Do you really expect the world to cooperate after you eliminate all deterrents? Don’t you read the news?

      Unfortunately, we do need to meaningfully contribute to the alliances we make such that said alliances can be real deterrents. The money spent is an insurance policy, hopefully never actually needed to be used as intended. Meanwhile, they’re quite handy when people start screaming about how somebody should do something.

    • Wow! Another idiotic comment by Michael Shannon. You really know nothing about what you speak of.

    • Are we not going to talk of chronic waste? Chronic stupidity?

      Why are we paying 10 times what Australia pays for Korean made warships using standard engines and parts for low cost maintenance in this class? Sort of like helicopters, got so man know nothing idiots customizing the things to drive up costs, sorry, this is 2014, SAR helicopters are off the shelf purchases…no need to incompetency redesign and inflate there costs.

    • And why we should just order them from Korea, 1/10th the costs, can exchange parts with other NATO allies like Australia. Korea can design, build and arm one up cheaper than we can do a design.

      We are McHale’s Navy North in CF and Ottawa. Its all about lining someones pocket. We don’t build ships for other countries any more, we don’t even have the basic competencies…Korea launches these every month.

  2. If this government(harper gov) had its own way, our navy personal and commanders would be down to using hockey sticks and broom handles as a rifles, used as a form of defense, like our merchant marine sailors had to use during the crossing of the Atlantic during the second world war.