Seeking Solutions for Canada’s Navy Pt 1
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.