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Seeking Solutions for Canada’s Navy Pt 1

February 15, 2010

The Canadian Navy auxiliary oiler HMCS Preserver (AOR 510) cruises Hudson Bay during Fleet Week 2009.

The Indispensable Asset

Canadian Forces Maritime Command is in an interesting position of being assigned to guard one of the world’s hotspots, the Arctic Circle, while suffering from funding woes unseen perhaps since the 1930s. The Navy has traditionally been counted as one of the world’s best. The Third largest Allied Fleet of World World Two, during the Cold War she was a leader in anti-submarine warfare, and produced a succession of large frigates that helped introduce advanced helicopter tactics. Despite several scandals from faulty submarines purchased from Britain (one caught afire while being delivered), plus embarrassing episodes in attempts to replace 30+ year old Sea King helicopters (recall the Sea King Song?), she still is at the forefront of UN peacekeeping missions and NATO anti-piracy patrols. Despite her small size of about 33 warships, today’s Canadian Navy is hardly an insignificant player in world events.

It is distressing then to read of ongoing procurement woes, something all Post Cold War navies are facing, with most funding diverted to Middle Eastern conflicts on land the past few decades. Brian Stewart of CBC News sums up Canada’s particular situation after the recent Haitian Earthquake, and the Navy’s response:

The big problem is size. Both the Halifax (4,700 tonnes) and the slightly larger Athabaskan (5,100 tonnes) are fast, multi-purpose ships adept at many sea operations around the globe. But they’re positively puny in terms of the supplies they can carry. They were never designed to provide the kind of strategic sealift needed to respond to global emergencies like Haiti or the tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia five years ago.

These vessels can carry a few hundred tonnes of supply, where many thousands are needed.

In fact, if you combine the size of the two ships together they amount to only about one-third the size of the modern joint support ships (JSS) that the navy has long been promised, but which still languish on the drawing board. Designed for a vast range of heavy sealift duties, these large support ships can adapt quickly to large humanitarian crises.

The Elusive Joint Support Ship

An elusive project, on again, off again, has been the JSS to replace the ancient Protecteur-class Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment ships now some 40 years old. The 25,000 ton base ships would have been more than adequate for the sealift mission, save that the only East Coast vessel, HMCS Preserver, was in yet another refit at the time. The type of vessel the Navy wants as a replacement doesn’t come cheap. According to the Western Star, Holland recently placed under construction Canada’s dream ship:

The Netherlands’ Defence Matériel Organisation, and Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding, have signed a contract to build a 28,000-tonne joint support ship, similar in size and capability to one Ottawa has been wanting to construct for six years but can’t seem to get going.
The Conservative government shelved the Canadian navy’s own $2.9-billion supply ship replacement program in 2008 when the bids came in far above the project’s approved budget envelope… 

The Dutch, who’ve followed the Canadian program closely, want a ship that can resupply other warships, transport vast stores of army equipment and vehicles, but also act as a floating headquarters and hospital if necessary.
Having a ship that can do all of those things is not only a necessity in a small navy, but also more expensive than single-purpose vessels.

The last comment brings up a good point, and might I argue also the problem? Getting back to HMCS Preserver’s inability to reach Haiti because of repairs, lets remember that even new ships are often forced into port, for unexpected breakdowns or collisions. Had the original JSS program gone through, this would still mean only 2 vessels, one for the East Coast, the other for the West. Perhaps Canada, faced like most Western Navies with spartan, even shrinking budgets in an age of austerity for defense at least, might lower its expectations slightly and increase the number of available ships. In other words, instead of a huge “perfect” JSS which can only be in one place at a time, perhaps several smaller motherships would perform better service.

Tomorrow-Introducing the mothership to Ottawa.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2010 10:22 am

    Mike B said “????????”

    >Coughs< Um. 1812………

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 16, 2010 9:06 am

    Jed, you are right to the extent that if Canada will not fill the void, some other navy will. I hope it would be Ottawa, as I said, this is an indespensible ally for us.

  3. Jed permalink
    February 16, 2010 9:01 am

    Dear Mike and Mr Reddick, it was more of an attempt at humor then being facetious, but it is true. Canada’s biggest ally (?) along with other allied nations (including my motherland, the UK) are refusing to acknowledge the North West passage as internal waterways and consider it to be an international ‘strait’ – so best we develop a strong coast guard with lots of boarding parties so we can stop all the merchant traffic and demand our tribute ! (thats bad humor again…..)

    Also a SOSUS type net and non-US sources ASW sensors and weapons to deal with US, UK and USSR nuclear subs transiting through our pristine and ecologically undamaged norther back yard …… (facetious / humor / sarcasm as required).

    Back on topic, Mikes second posting is correct, something like an BMT Aegir AO / AOR would suffice, plus some Absalon’s. We could even buy 4 x Iver Hut-whatsits AAW ships (based on the Absalon) to replace our 4 old AAW destroyers and gain from some standardization.

  4. D. E. Reddick permalink
    February 15, 2010 7:04 pm


    Jed may have been writing a bit facetiously, but he has a valid point from a Canadian territorial waters perspective. The Northwest Passage (“a sovereign Canadian internal waterway”) might be considered analogous to the Intracoastal Waterway along the US eastern & gulf coastlines. Canada’s mainland and Arctic Islands border their Northwest Passage. Thus, Canada may want to enhance their ASW capabilities in order to monitor / control the presence / passage of USN SSNs, SSBNs, & SSGNs within Canadian territorial waters.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 15, 2010 6:32 pm

    “Of course we also need to tool up to fight the U.S. Navy”


  6. Jed permalink
    February 15, 2010 4:59 pm

    Well I hear you Mike, but “massive social programs” might not be such a big deal north of the border, as we already have social health care etc.

    I think the big issue is “infrastructure” spending. If Canada is to make the arctic regions and northern provinces a “profitable” (or at least break even) part of the nation in economic terms, then sea transport and air transport are the key. Part of this is the ongoing debate about the role of the Coast Guard and the role of the Canadian military with respect to northern SAR.

    Of course we also need to tool up to fight the U.S. Navy as your country still thinks the North West passage is not a sovereign Canadian internal waterway…. :-)

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 15, 2010 3:47 pm

    “I don’t think HSV catamarans stand a chance in the norther ocean”.

    I’ll buy that, but maybe for their overseas deployments? Since this is how the USN and Army use their HSVs, in so called soft power operations.

    Like you all I am heartily sick of the politics, here, over there, everywhere. They just don’t get it, and so distracted by the next election. This is why I plead and beg the military to try to live within its means, and seek alternative platforms for building up the fleet and inventive ideas for deploying seapower (the pirates come to mind, so frugal yet effective in their use of converted motherships).

    The funding is just no longer there. The budgets free-for-all is long past as public spending diverts to massive social programs. The government will be no help. Sorry to be so somber but I think it realistic.

  8. February 15, 2010 11:06 am

    I meant to “that isn’t enough for operations” in most places but OK for the Arctic.

  9. February 15, 2010 10:50 am

    I have been very impressed with this…….

    It can carry two large helicopters and about a company of troops. That is enough for operations in most places but for Arctic policing should be more than enough!

    {Shades of Ice Station Zebra! :) }

  10. Jed permalink
    February 15, 2010 10:09 am

    Canadian politicians talk incessantly about protecting the north, and do very little about it. Everyone here is sick of Steven Harper’s constant mantra of “use it or lose it” when he does not stump up the funding.

    Canadian procurement makes even the UK MOD look sensible ! Eeverything has to through 3 ministries ! Dept. of National Defence, Public Works and I can’t even remember the third one.

    The Canadian JSS was indeed a jack of all trades and master of non type of vessel. However if Canada could afford 2 or 3 Dutch JSS that would be good. Even better would be two cheaper Enforcer type LPD (like the UK RFA Bay class) and 3 commercial design AOR’s. See the recent article on ThinkDefence ref replenishment ships:

    Canada’s main problem is that it needs to focus a little more on “home land defence” – it does not really need massive JSS(Canada) type ships to move army logistics to far away lands, what it needs are smaller ships which can get a battalion sized force into the arctic, maybe even through summer ice.

    Mike has a link to the CASR site on this page, its the first link under the Research heading, and they write really sensible articles about Canadian defence subjects, so I recommend taking a look.

    By the way Mike, I don’t think HSV catamarans stand a chance in the norther ocean ! Hovercraft are the way to go in the frozen north :-)

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 15, 2010 9:41 am

    As you likely know, I am against “do it all nothing well” warships, in other words the multimission concept that increases ship costs while reducing fleet numbers. Usually what you get is a mediocre platform at a gold plated price. This is a service-wide disease in all Western militaries, but especially the navies which has bought whole-heartedly into the concept in the post-Cold War period.

    I think I would go ahead and purchase a “mediocre” platform outright, or a focused mission ship which can do one thing extremely well. Often we are surprised at the versatility of focused mission ships, like the HSV catamarans, which were supposed to be fast transports, but have been used for a great number of functions not really imagined in original plans, like mine warfare, a special forces mothership, an APD with Strykers loaded. Yesterday I posted on how a few years back it was under consideration as a fleet command ship which really blew my mind!

    So if we keep our priorities small, something the Admirals are not used to even 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we might just rebuild our aging stocks and return numbers back to Western fleets. The change is going to be hard, but it will certainly come, ready or not.

  12. Marcase permalink
    February 15, 2010 8:39 am

    The Canadian JSS program was unrealistic, as it also was to be a ‘wet well’ LPD/LSD. You just can’t combine that with the traditional role of a fleet oiler/resupply ship, as you’d be forever trimming and pumping and adjusting the cargo and POLs loaded.

    Actually, the Dutch JSS is a sneaky (failed) attempt to get an LPH, with emphasis on aviation, so a fully amphib task force could be formed. The two LPDs already in Dutch service would handle amphib ops, the JSS would handle aviation. It is supposed to transport and support (6) Chinooks AND armored vehicles AND resupply a naval task force, all that at a total cost 363 million Euros / ~US$500 million, which includes a 100 million Euro cost overrun.

    New plans are to create two nearly identical naval task forces, each consisting of a submarine, 1 LPD, 3 frigates, either a fleet support ship (AOE) or JSS and 2-3 assigned minehunter/sweepers. One such task force would be ready, the other on train/maintenance stand-down. Only during large scale ops all would combine to form a combined landing force able support a brigade size formation.

    Trouble is, a JSS can only do one thing at a time. Either transport and support Chinooks, *or* resupply a naval task force, not both.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 15, 2010 7:29 am

    Sadly, you may be right. Still I don’t like to give up on our Northern cousins who have consistently been on the side of freedom in all our recent conflicts. A great nation with much potential.

    It is possible events in the Arctic could arouse the Sleeping Giant.

  14. February 15, 2010 7:14 am

    Canada’s “trouble” is essentially she a European nation tacked on to the US.

    If Europeans separated by an ocean from the US can’t be bothered by defence issues (secretly knowing/hoping Uncle Sam will save ’em) why would the Canadian’s bother?

    The rot set in when they merged their services.

    Compare their outlook to their Australian cousins.

    Perhaps factor in also the reluctance of Europeans to step up to the plate. The English speaking world does more than its fair share.

    (Apologies to our Eastern European friends who seem to understand that freedom does cost.)

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