The Canadian Navy's slow-motion crisis

How aging ships, budget cuts and outdated military priorities are crippling the Canadian Navy

Paul Darrow/Reuters

Paul Darrow/Reuters

A few Canadian sailors took to drinking in San Diego earlier in July and, sufficiently inebriated, allegedly unleashed themselves on the city. Their misbehaviour may include shoplifting and sexual misconduct, actions that forced the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, to publicly denounce the men and women aboard HMCS Whitehorse, a coastal defence vessel that was in southern California as part of massive international war games. Norman called her back to Canada, having “lost confidence in the ship’s ability to meet its current mission.” Norman also launched a broader review of sailors’ behaviour when they’re ashore, a move that reinforces the stereotype that sailors are prone to booze-fuelled adventures. The acts of the few aboard HMCS Whitehorse delivered days of embarrassing headlines to a Navy that can’t seem to buy good press.

The litany of recent headaches is long. An American fishing trawler hit a Canadian frigate, HMCS Winnipeg, last April. A destroyer, HMCS Algonquin, collided with a supply ship, HMCS Protecteur, during exercises in the Pacific Ocean last August. Algonquin requires expensive repairs. Protecteur later suffered an engine-room fire and spent hours dead at sea off the coast of Hawaii. An East Coast destroyer, HMCS Iroquois, sits unused in Halifax, bruised after many years of service. The other East Coast destroyer, HMCS Athabaskan, also needs repairs after a 2012 collision with a tugboat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It all adds up to a slow-motion crisis for the Navy. Even when the destroyers are operational, they’re more than 40 years old. The supply ships are about the same age, and the government’s not sure if it’s worth repairing the hobbled vessels. Canadian-made replacements are years away, mired in the morass of government procurement. Meanwhile, a punishing federal austerity program that has military spending firmly in its crosshairs is only adding to the challenges for a Navy that prides itself on accomplishing any mission asked of its sailors—even when it means doing more with less.

It’s leading some, including the man who ran the Navy until last year, to warn that Ottawa’s military priorities are increasingly out of touch. “I believe that we are currently out of balance, and we need to look very hard at ensuring the maritime side of that sea, land, air, special-forces equation is protected,” says Paul Maddison, a vice-admiral when he retired. He says his former colleagues deserve a bigger chunk of funding, certainly more than the 12 per cent of DND spending the Navy received when he was at the helm. “I think it’s time for a fundamental re-look at how that pie’s being carved.”

Maddison says the Canada First Defence Strategy, a Conservative vision conceived in 2008, is outdated, and insists that Canada’s national interests are “increasingly challenged in the maritime domain.” No longer should the dusty deserts of landlocked Kandahar, where Canadian military priorities lay for more than a decade of brutal fighting, rule the day. Countries on the Pacific Rim are shifting resources to the water and building bigger navies. Meanwhile, other conflicts, including fighting in eastern Ukraine, have the Navy’s attention. HMCS Regina is now patrolling the Mediterranean with NATO’s mission in the region. As well, the lingering threat of climate change has the potential to turn Canada’s Arctic waters into a shipping superhighway and raises issues of Canadian sovereignty. “This is not 2006, this is not Afghanistan,” Maddison says. “This is 2014. The world has changed.”

As it stands, the Navy is on the brink of losing its oldest ships for good. The destroyer Algonquin may never sail again, while its counterpart, Iroquois, could also be retired, and the supply ship Protecteur is nearing the end of its usability. The feds could inject millions more into repairs of the decades-old warhorses, but the several months of extended life may not be worth the cost. Destroyers serve as command posts at sea and carry more sophisticated weaponry than any Canadian vessel. Supply ships carry valuable fuel. Not having access to those types of vessels would hamper the Navy’s ability to carry out missions without depending on foreign allies.

This hasn’t left Canada’s military entirely landlocked, by any means. Even after Whitehorse’s embarrassing recall in July, a frigate, sub, and another coastal defence vessel took part in a month-long, multinational exercise near Hawaii known as RIMPAC. Rear Admiral J.P.G. Couturier, a Canadian, runs the maritime component of the war games, involving 54 military vessels from 22 countries. The submarine HMCS Victoria is playing the role of an enemy vessel—a job at which it excels, thanks to a relatively quiet diesel-powered engine that regularly eludes powerful American warships. But, in years past, the Navy would also send a destroyer and a supply ship. These days, it simply doesn’t have the ships available.

There’s no clear end in sight for this gap in operability. The Harper Conservatives tried to provide a fix when they launched a $36.6-billion shipbuilding strategy in October 2011. The program could eventually replace virtually every vessel in today’s Navy. The plan includes new Arctic patrol ships for frigid northern waters, up to 15 warships meant to replace the current destroyers and frigates, a pair of joint support ships that would take over from the existing pair of supply ships, and a gaggle of smaller vessels. The glaring problem in Canadian shipyards is just how unprepared they are for such an urgent and costly job. “There’s not much experience anywhere in government, and even across Canada in the industry,” says David Perry, a senior defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

A generation has passed since Canada took on the construction of frigates. All the prep work required at Irving Shipyards in Halifax and Seaspan in Vancouver is costly. The Parliamentary Budget Office has cast doubt on the plan to locate all the construction on home soil, reporting last December that the feds could save $690 million if better-equipped American shipyards built the supply ships. Doing it all in Canada from start to finish is a complex process, says Perry. “When you’re doing a design-and-build project, you need to have a different relationship with your suppliers than you would if you were just buying aircraft off the assembly line,” he says, adding that each ship requires a juggling act with suppliers that requires expert coordination. “It’s a pretty tough call to make. This is much bigger, more costly and more complicated a project than the F-35 [fighter jet] is, in a lot of ways, so I think that’s a big part of the reluctance” to make final decisions quickly.

The complexity of the work also means the Navy remains years away from obtaining a single new vessel. The first joint support ship in Vancouver won’t hit the water until 2018 at the earliest. Until then, Canada’s left with a single supply ship, HMCS Preserver, on the east coast. The first Irving-built Arctic patrol ship—a top priority for the military, as Canada and other nations, including Russia and the U.S., grapple for control of the region—could enter service in 2018.

Those projections also assume that the new ships remain on schedule and on budget, by no means a certainty, given Canada’s devastatingly poor record on big military procurement projects. When the Tories arrived in office, they planned purchases of new trucks, helicopters, fighter jets and ships. Few arrived on schedule. Last month, the feds finally announced they’d acquired long-planned replacements for the 50-year-old maritime fleet of Sea King helicopters, nearly 30 years after Ottawa first determined the choppers were no longer up to the task.

Until any new ships materialize, the Navy is stuck with what it’s got. It didn’t provide an updated list of deployable ships at press time, but we know the operable fleet includes frigates, some of which are stuck in refit; Athabaskan and Preserver in Halifax; a fleet of submarines that are nearly all operational; and a group of coastal defence vessels split between the coasts. It all adds up to a fleet that features “essentially lower availability than they had in roughly 20 years,” says Perry. “The Navy right now is at a pretty fundamental transition point,” he says. “This is going to be the absolute low point right now for the Navy, in terms of having operational output.”

Maddison says sailors are looking forward to a point, a decade or more down the line, when that fresh fleet is at their disposal. “A decision to introduce a new class of ship like the Canadian surface combatants is a . . . decision that will outlive a series of governments on both sides of the House. It’s a long game,” says Maddison. “There will be challenges, and you have to manage the end of life of a couple of fleets. But we are moving smartly forward here in introducing the future fleet, and that’s what’s got sailors energized.”

If anything defuses that energy, it’s the painful effect of the Harper government’s budget cuts that Perry outlined in a June report. Defence spending now sits below 2007 levels, thanks to cuts that have accounted for a quarter of the government’s overall spending reductions. “The funding for training, routine operations and maintenance has been cut, significantly reducing operational readiness,” wrote Perry. “At the same time, a sizeable proportion of the funding to acquire the military of the future is going unused.” All those ships going through modernization have actually masked the Navy’s budget woes, because dry-docked ships don’t need to draw from even a slashed operations budget. “If there isn’t an ability to increase the amount of money going to the fleet overall, then the capability gap is probably going to keep persisting,” says Perry.

Slashed budgets already have some ships resting in their jetties. Perry told Maclean’s earlier this year that a pair of coastal defence vessels, which take the lead on counter-narcotics missions in the Caribbean, are tied to the docks in favour of the submarine fleet and the refurbished frigates re-entering service. Maddison admits that the fiscal pressure—and the lack of available ships—has an impact. “We go through these cycles,” he says. “It has placed a lot of pressure on commanders at all levels to generate technical personnel and operational readiness.”

There is good news, hidden though it may be. The Navy’s multi-billion-dollar, mid-life refit of its dozen frigates—the fleet’s workhorses—is by all accounts on schedule, due to wrap up in 2017, and on budget. The modernization stripped the frigates of outdated technology and produced a rare successful procurement under Tory auspices. And the Navy and its supporters trumpet its ability to keep three destroyers and two supply ships, all of which entered service before 1975, afloat for so many decades—a boast few navies can make.

But those morsels of success have done little to raise the Navy’s profile in the eyes of Canadians and officials in Ottawa, especially against the backdrop—until the last troops pulled out earlier this year—of land operations in Afghanistan. The Navy’s anti-smuggling missions in the Arabian Sea or Caribbean regularly took a back seat to that land war. Jim Carruthers, a former Navy captain who serves as the Naval Association of Canada’s national president, says the Navy’s accomplishments in faraway seas are tough to sell to governments and voters. “It’s hard to describe to people that a ship over in the Indian Ocean is delivering value to Canada. It’s a very complex story,” he says. “It’s not like the Army guys putting sandbags in Winnipeg. That’s a direct connection; you can see it.”

Maddison understands that his former colleagues will never have all the money they require. “There are never enough resources to make each and every commander absolutely comfortable, nor should there be,” he says. “Governments are faced with extraordinarily difficult decisions each and every day about where to spend the coin of the realm.”

As for Carruthers, he says he is determined to look at the bright side. “I would argue that the Canadian Navy has nothing but a success story going back to the 1950s,” he says. “Every group of ships we’ve built have been the leaders in the world, and they’ve stood us in stead for decades.”

But the country’s seamen remain overshadowed, not only by their battle-worn army comrades and precision-guided fighter pilots, but also a government bent on fiscal restraint. As the Navy waits for a new fleet and copes with the shackles of austerity, its struggles remain largely outside an indifferent public’s consciousness. Small wonder it’s the odd drunken sailor who makes his way into the news.

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