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Canada’s Navy Ripe for Change

May 8, 2010

The Canadian Navy Victoria-class long-range patrol submarine HMCS Corner Brook (SSK 878).

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.

Canadian Flower-class corvette HMCS Kenogami (K125).

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2010 11:26 am

    What if we had about 6-8 Aegis style ships able to tackle any threat and meet international or UN commitments, then using the same hull or shorter version of the same hull, we had another 10-20 ships which didn’t have the Aegis system but could still hold their own? These lesser capable ships could be used for patrol of our waters, fight piracy (no need to waste an Aegis doing that), training, etc. The crewing could be less since there are less systems to operate. Maybe even the Coast Guard could use a few of these lesser hulls as well?
    I’m not a navy guy so I don’t know how realistic it would be.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 24, 2010 6:33 am

    Marc, its an idea whose time has come. The West can never afford as many frigates as we need, but patrol ships will do for most modern problems of seapower. They would not replace the bigger, more powerful warships, but complement them, insuring we have maintain presence and capability.

  3. Marc permalink
    July 23, 2010 9:20 pm

    I agree, a fleet of small versatile corvette sized boats in the 1000 to 1400 ton range and built in sufficient numbers could prove to be an effective platform. This new platform could have “bolt on” mission specific kits further adapting them to specific types of deployments. Costs could be kept to a minimum by using “off the shelf” civilian components. With these smallish boats Canada could get away with fewer frigates but would need more, albeit less complex, supply ships. Overall a larger number of surface hulls in the water for less money could free up resources for a fleet of conventional submarines which, in my opinion, Canada needs to patrol it vast coastlines including the entrances to the arctic ocean.

  4. Jed permalink
    May 8, 2010 10:09 pm

    Mike, unfortunately your opening paragraph is off the mark. The general citizenry of my adopted country is as sea blind as that of the UK or the USA, and the politicians are, believe or not, even worse.

    The current government promises much, has done for a long time, and has delivered very little. New ice breakers and patrol ships are not even designed yet, never mind ordered. Work is yet to start on a new deep water arctic base on the north of Baffin Island etc Don’t forget the majority of the Canadian population lives within 300 miles of the US border !

    The size of the Canadian Navy is tiny when you consider we have the longest coastline in the world on 3 oceans (Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic), and I have seen less than flattering articles about our Coast Guard (apparently they are glorified bouy tenders, not all that interested in SAR and definately not into national security – not my words by the way).

    Personally I think what we need is modified British HoverWorks BHT160 hovercraft for arctic patrol, modern ‘under ice ops’ capable AIP subs (we will never go nuclear) and Iver Hutfeld and Absalon class to replace the Tribals Updates and the Halifax class.

    At least we have nice TV adverts to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Canadian Navy :->

  5. Scott B. permalink
    May 8, 2010 3:23 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Corvettes of 1000-1500 tons can mount the same weapons as larger destroyers and frigates”

    That simply is NOT true.

    And the mythical corvette lags behind even further when it comes to sensors…

  6. Scott B. permalink
    May 8, 2010 3:21 pm

    David Mugridge said : “It would have a flotilla of versatile, capable corvettes to deliver enforcement operations across the globe”

    At the risk of repeating myself again, here is what Norman Friedman said last year during a conference on Naval Strategy in Sweden (emphasis added) :

    “Sustained operations involve, first of all, endurance. That means not only the paper endurance of a ship, which depends on her fuel load and her stores capacity, but also the endurance of her crew.

    For example, after the Royal Danish Navy participated in the 1991 Gulf War, it concluded that its ships were too small. The crews grew stale too quickly. Hence the much larger ships the Danes are now placing in service, which they associate with the new world of expeditionary operations.”

    The Danish surface combatant that proved too small during the Gulf War was the OLFERT FISCHER (F-355), which displaces 1,100 tons (standard) and 1,320 tons (fully loaded).

    The bottom line is that depicting the mythical 1,000-ton corvette as being able *to deliver enforcement operations across the globe* is just wishful thinking.

  7. Scott B. permalink
    May 8, 2010 3:10 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “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.”

    Let’s take a quick look at the pirates operating off Somalia, which cause so much concern to the international community at present.

    Do they hunt their prey in *shallow water* as is claimed above ? I think NOT !!!

  8. Scott B. permalink
    May 8, 2010 3:03 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “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.”

    The above should read : “If you were to disperse the capabilities into many affordable hulls,…”

    As has been explained on this very blog soooo many times in the past, you keep confusing *small* and *affordable*, which is one of the most fundamental errors you’re making.

  9. Scott B. permalink
    May 8, 2010 2:59 pm

    (delete previous post)

    Mike Burleson said : “With frigates today so expensive”

    1) Not all frigates are so expensive.

    From your own Warship Costs page :

    ABSALON : $269 million

    IVAR HUITFELDT : $332 million

    Which, incidentally, might explain which these designs generate so much interest in some Canadian circles.

    2) Conversely, corvettes are NOT necessarily cheap, as you seem to believe.

    Again, from your own Warship Costs page :

    Baynunah class (UAE)-$137 million

    Visby (Sweden)-$184 million

    Note that the price indicated for the Visby is GROSSLY underestimated.

  10. Scott B. permalink
    May 8, 2010 2:57 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “With frigates today so expensive”

    1) Not all frigates are so expensive.

    From your own Warship Costs page :

    ABSALON : $269 million

    IVAR HUITFELDT : $332 million

    Which, incidentally, might explain which these designs generate so much interest in some Canadian circles.

    2) Conversely, corvettes are not necessarily cheap, as you seem to believe.

    Again, from your own Warship Costs page :

    Baynunah class (UAE)-$137 million

    Visby (Sweden)-$184 million

    Note that the price indicated for the Visby is GROSSLY underestimated.

  11. May 8, 2010 1:03 pm

    I know there is a preserved Flower Class in Canada which I would love to see.

    I think Canada’s decline as a military power is sad. It seems the Canadians have developed a very European out look on defence; that is Uncle Sam will defend us. I find it interesting to compare Canada’s and Australia’s defence postures. The Australians don’t get everything right, but they are forward thinking, and they are trying to be proactive.

    I believe I am right in saying that the Polar ice has returned this year in a greater thickness. If I were the Canadians I would be cautious and look to a class of largish ice breakers. Rather like the one which South Africa have just purchased from that Finnish yard. Its main plus point is that has been built around a large flight deck and hangar. If the ice doesn’t recede as quickly as predicted this will mean the Canadians can still “project power.”

    The Arctic can’t be compared to Australia’s northern coastal region which is the stomping ground of the wonderful Armidale Class. The latter is smaller, there is a higher population density (meaning aircraft are more common,) and lastly it is a benign environment.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 8, 2010 8:36 am

    Thanks War News! I’m a huge admirer of the Canadian military, both historic and today’s!

  13. May 8, 2010 8:18 am

    As a Canadian, I follow news on Canada’s military forces closely.

    Your post on the Canadian Navy is the best summary that I have read in a long time.

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