(Halifax-class frigate, the HMCS Toronto off the coast of Baffin Island. Picture: Department of National Defence)
Canada has a total of thirty-three warships and submarines doing everything a first-world Navy should be doing—patrolling its home coast, performing humanitarian missions in places like Haiti, and participating in the multinational Task Force 150 off the coast of Somalia and Yemen. But to hear the country’s top military officers tell it, Canada’s ships are too old, too few, and have some significant technological gaps that the country is struggling to fill.
General Walter Natynczyk, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff told an audience in Ottawa last week that he wants to see a fleet of fifty ships put in place over the next thirty years, and that building new ships is “my number one equipment priority,” even eclipsing the reset and refit of the country’s land forces once Canada pulls out of Afghanistan in 2011. “We need to start cutting steel on ships,” he said, pointedly reminding the audience that Canada hasn’t built a major warship since 1996, and the rest of the fleet is showing its age. Canada’s only supply ship is forty years old, and the country’s three destroyers, all launched in 1972, are “approaching the age where a birthday cake for those ships would require a permit from the fire marshal.”
Vice Admiral Dean McFadden, chief of the Maritime Staff was presumably pleased to hear his boss place so much emphasis on maritime issues, and he followed up with a pitch for a national shipbuilding program. “I’m desperately trying to get ships built in this country in a better way” he admitted, blaming the fourteen-year (and counting) gap between laying new hulls on an uneven approach to procurement. “We can’t keep doing boom / bust,” he said. “We build them, we get out of the business for a generation, we try to get back into that business and that’s a tough uphill fight.”
But even under the best scenario, McFadden said that “there’s nothing I can do about a gap that will develop in our destroyer capability. There are consequences of over a 15-year period of having decisions deferred to build. We’re trying to come to grips with the fact that there’s been a long stage of deferment. So the first of the four ships that we put in the Halifax-class modernization [Canada has twelve Halifax-class frigates] we will deliberately build into that mid-life upgrade as much as a gap-filler capability as we can. Is it a destroyer? No. Which means I need to try and get the building program started so that the gap is as short as I can make it, and in the interim we manage the fleet that we’ve got to the greatest effect.”
The frigate that comes out of that refit process will have an expanded command and control capability, but will still lack any long-range air defense missile, McFadden said, so the Navy will have to “do what we can to be able to manage the gap.” But from the sound of things—neither officer would offer any sort of timetable or budget for Naval refit— that gap won’t be filled any time soon.