Canada’s Navy Ripe for Change
The ongoing celebrations in the Great White North concerning the 100th Anniversary of the Canadian Navy, gives me hope that the people there still support a rich maritime heritage, advocating a strong navy. While politicians these days might suffer from sea blindness, most of Canada understands the vastness of their coastline and the richness of the resources, which future foes or even friends might covet to possess.
The anniversary often centers around the World Wars, especially the Battle of the Atlantic where Canada fought alongside the superpowers Britain, America, and Russia to help defeat the Nazi U-boat menace. One of the most effective warships to serve in those wars was the corvette, a light and lethal, easy to build vessel which helped to stem the tide in the dark days, turning the mostly constabulary force into a war-winning arm of the government. Here’s more on Canada’s mighty Flower corvettes from John Boileau at the Chronicle Herald:
The most common navy warship at the time was the corvette, a tiny vessel that made a disproportionate contribution to the final victory. The corvette was seaworthy, maneuverable, inexpensive and simple to build, although it was said to “roll on heavy dew.”
By the end of the war, the navy had 123 corvettes, most of them named after Canadian cities and towns.
The first corvettes were 62 metres long, displaced more than 860 tonnes and had a maximum speed approaching 30 kilometres per hour, about the same as a German U-boat. Their armament consisted of a 10-centimetre gun, a light anti-aircraft gun and depth charges.
Initially, corvettes had a crew of 52, but this grew as the war went on and the complexity of weapons and sensors increased. One veteran described corvettes from less than pleasant memories: “Wet! Cold! Uncomfortable!”
The Canadian Navy of today has come far since those cold wet and miserable days, with state of the art missile frigates, submarines, and destroyers. It is a force truly fit for the era it recently departed, for the advanced high tech competition from the Cold War. It is strangely unchanged though, some 20 years in a new era, with many new threats. Here are more thoughts on the Navy’s present and future from David Mugridge, also at the Chronicle Herald:
The navy stands at a crossroads. Not because it is 100 years old, but because it has failed to adapt to a world of Osama bin Laden and failing states. It needs to recognize that its foes today are no more similar to Capt. Ramius than the Red October is to a pirate skiff or a rubber boat laden with explosives.
Is a frigate-based navy really the most appropriate to confront today’s unconventional maritime threats? Current plans will not see the Canadian navy change into a versatile and dynamic joint entity. Instead, it will remain focused on the need for escorts; it will debate incessantly the need for submarines and likely ignore the issue of meaningful force projection from the sea.
A return of the corvettes might fit the bill for bringing the fleet in a new century. With frigates today so expensive, so much as to be considered capital vessels in European service, many armed with Aegis and cruise missiles, very few can be afforded for the many threats faced by even a medium power. The huge coastline behooves a large fleet prepared for any contingency. Still, overseas deployments with fleets might also call for some larger warships with numerous capabilities, heavy fuel stocks, cargo supplies, helicopter facilities.
The navy wants to replace its current frigates and destroyers, like for like. It wants to continue to be able to generate a task-group to counter such conventional threats as a resurgent Russia in the Arctic or China in the Pacific.
Yet the likelihood of these conventional threats is low and will follow a long lead-in time. So how will 15 highly capable naval ships be employed in the meantime? They are likely to be underemployed responding to humanitarian, fishery protection or enforcement-type operations.
A few large vessels then, and many small ones. Building individually very capable but fewer frigates won’t get you here. A couple large supports ships, or motherships, even from converted merchant vessels might solve the multimission problem and you won’t need very many at that. Because mercantile hulls have plenty of space, they are actually more capable than frigates, readily adaptable for upgrade. Motherships would also be suitable for amphibious transport and ripe for disaster relief with ready-made cargo spaces.
Concerning the corvettes, they would not have to be so much like the “Wet! Cold! Uncomfortable!” of World War 2, but neither would they have to be state-of-the-art Cold War frigates. The latter are so much over-kill in a low tech warfare, plus too expensive to order in sufficient quantity for sea control. Instead, modern corvettes ranging from 1000-1500 tons are advanced weapon’s platforms themselves, and more suited to shallow water warfare where pirates, and smugglers haunt. Many small warships are also perfect for patrolling expansive coastlines which Canada has in abundance.
It would have a flotilla of versatile, capable corvettes to deliver enforcement operations across the globe, as well as providing the backdrop for regional capacity building. This highly employable, agile and cheaper navy should be attractive to those with their hand on the corporate tiller. And if not, we should ask why not?
At least 30 are called for, in my opinion, with a few carrying ESSM for advanced threats, but the majority consisting of lighter armed patrol ships to keep costs down. Some if not all should be ice ready to operate beside the Canadian Coast Guard. These would be backed by at least 4-6 support ships built to mercantile standard, bigger than frigates, but only just so and able to take over the long-range patrol duties of the latter. In this same way is Britain using her excellent RFA vessels, “for want of frigates”, and it works!
Canada’s Navy could be one of the first to take advantage of the Hybrid tactics used in Iraq, and now transfered to Afghanistan of which fight our Northern neighbor plays no little part. The principle lessons, as the commander there would testify, is not so much in platforms but how you use them. The larger divisions, unable to contend with a dispersed and agile foe, were broken down into small combat units, more flexible, able to cover more area than before. They were no less powerful, however, backed as they were by new precision arms, from airpower, artillery, to man-portable weapons, but also swift new armored vehicles like the American Stryker.
So would a New Navy, the Stryker’s at sea, be networked into a more dispersed, more able fighting machine. Large missile battleships (destroyers and frigates) can’t be in more than one place at a time, no matter how capable. If you were to disperse the capabilities into many small hulls, you would be more effective, patrolling vast distances, being where you are needed in a crisis. Each vessel, taking advantage of advances in technology would be taking with it the capability of the large warship, only using it with greater precision, as I wrote a while back:
Corvettes of 1000-1500 tons can mount the same weapons as larger destroyers and frigates, only lacking the range,performance, and payload. For Canada’s needs, short range light warships would be more than adequate since they would operate most often close to home, or for extended periods could always travel with logistics motherships. Vessels which performed the exact same functions, of basically the same size, and possessing the same limitations during the World War years were known as destroyers and frigates!
Without a major boost in shipbuilding funds, Canada could deploy this corvette/mothership fleet by mid decade, discarding the aging expensive surface fleet left over from the Cold War. Missile battleships, while very handy in a peer conflict, haven’t been very effective overall in stemming piracy in the Gulf, and would be of little use anyway in the frozen arctic vastness. Funds leftover after rebuilding the coastal defense force could go to a few submarines and missile frigates, later in the next decade.
It would be a start in restoring the Navy’s sinking fortunes, and beats extinction.