The sinking of the Canadian Navy

A maritime nation has let its naval fleet fall apart. Here’s how a once-proud force fell into such an embarrassing state of disrepair
The Royal Canadian Navy ship HMCS Protecteur arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam after it was towed by the U.S. Navy ship USS Sioux after a fire disabled it while at sea in Honolulu, Hawaii, March 6,2014. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)
(Andrew Vaughan/CP)
After being damaged in a storm, HMCS Athabaskan is no longer seaworthy. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

This October, NATO is launching Trident Juncture, its largest and most ambitious military exercise in a decade. The massive land, sea and air exercise will be held in the Mediterranean and will include 36,000 troops from 30 nations. Its goal will be to help the fictitious country of Sorotan, “a non-NATO member torn by internal strife and facing an armed threat from an opportunistic neighbour.” Not surprisingly, this is widely seen as an explicit response to Moscow’s increasingly belligerent pressure on the alliances’ eastern borders. The Canadian government, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine, had planned to send its flagship destroyer, HMCS Athabaskan, as “a strong signal to the Russians,” whose ships and aircraft have also been bumping up against Canada’s territorial claims in the Arctic.

But, last week, it was reported by the Ottawa Citizen that the 43-year-old Athabaskan was no longer seaworthy and is being sent back to Halifax for extensive repairs. Athabaskan is a fitting symbol of the overall state of the Navy: Its engines require an overhaul, the hull is cracked, the decks need replacing, and the weapon systems are questionable. Even Rear Admiral John Newton, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, describes his flagship as worn and tired.

In February, during a storm off the East Coast, Athabaskan was damaged and a number of engines failed. After that, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) decided it was no longer capable of weathering the heavy seas of the North Atlantic, so it was sent south for calmer seas. Nonetheless, its engines broke down in Florida, then again in placid Caribbean waters.

“It was garbage. Everything was always breaking,” says Jason Brown, who served as an electrician and technician on Athabaskan for seven years, ending in 2010. “We did 150 to 300 corrective maintenances a month.” Although Brown praises the ship’s crew, he often spent 20-hour days trying to fix equipment. “The two main engines didn’t like to play nice together. It was 4½ years before that issue got fixed.”

Related: Peter C. Newman on his naval career and the ‘bad joke’ of our fleet

Ken Hansen, a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies and a former naval officer himself, believes the ship will never leave port again. “The problem is that you couldn’t send Athabaskan anywhere and reliably expect her to get there, or to get home again.”

Until very recently, Athabaskan had two sister ships that could have replaced it at the Trident Juncture exercise. But, in May and June of this year, these were decommissioned as no longer seaworthy. After years of neglect, budget cuts and delays, our maritime forces have no more destroyers. Hansen believes the only message now being sent to Moscow is: “Canada’s Navy has crapped out and they [the Russians] don’t have to be worried.”

Louis S. St.-Laurent in Nunavut in 2008. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Compared to its allies, the Canadian Navy is now only one-third the size it should be, given our GDP, and can only play smaller and smaller roles. Stanley Weeks of the U.S. Naval War College, a former U.S. admiral who follows NATO closely, is dismayed at the decline of the RCN. “[Canadian politicians] need more seriousness. Canada is an inherently maritime nation, dependent on overseas markets, especially in Asia Pacific, and, therefore, it has to be a contributing stakeholder, militarily and diplomatically.” He believes American military leaders in the Pentagon have not yet grasped the serious implications of losing the Canadian destroyers. Regardless, “Canadians should worry more about this than Washington.”

Pirates off the coast of Africa? Assisting migrant refugees in the Mediterranean? Evacuating Canadian nationals from a foreign war or disaster? Responding to the growing military tension in the South China Sea? Supporting a United Nations peacekeeping mission? The Canadian Navy is no longer capable of mounting any of these missions without significant help from others.

Even some domestic missions within sight of shore may be beyond the Navy’s ability. For most of the year, Canadian icebreakers would be unable to respond to a Russian challenge of our Arctic sovereignty. The outcome of a major maritime accident, such as a ferry sinking off Vancouver or Saint John, N.B., would depend on how much the American Coast Guard was able to assist. Illegal fishing? People smuggling? An effective response to any of this requires a navy with more assets than we have now.

(Dirk Meissner/CP)
(Dirk Meissner/CP)

Canada is a maritime nation. To the north, east and west, there are oceans, and to the south, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. We have more coastline than any nation on Earth; and the largest maritime territory—approximately the same size as the continent of Australia. Yet, inexplicably, we have allowed our Navy to rot so badly, it is now ranked with the maritime forces of Bangladesh.

When he became Prime Minister in 2006, Stephen Harper pledged to end what he called a “decade of darkness” for the Canadian Forces. The outgoing Liberal government was castigated for bungling critical procurement projects and cutting spending. Ironically, after 10 years of Conservative management, Canada effectively no longer has a blue-water navy (a force capable of operating across the deep waters of open oceans).

Losing all our destroyers was bad, but not as bad as losing our supply ships. Canada has relied on only two auxiliary replenishment vessels for over a decade, HMCS Protecteur on the West Coast, and HMCS Preserver on the East. These ships were the backbone of the Navy, ensuring the fleet could travel long distances and, once there, remain on station.

Last year, Protecteur caught fire and broke down off the Hawaiian coast. Backup generators failed and the crew was forced to fight the blaze through the night in darkness. Eventually, the U.S. Navy towed the ship to safety, but only after 20 sailors were injured.

(Hugh Gentry/Reuters)
(Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

Given their critical importance, Navy mechanics worked hard to keep these ships afloat, but they were so old, the manufacturers had long since stopped producing spare parts. Eventually, sailors resorted to scouring eBay, but to no avail. In May of this year, Protecteur was finally decommissioned and Preserver is being stripped out in harbour, leaving Canada’s Navy with no supply-and-refuelling capability.

Related: As the fate of the Protecteur shows, the Navy’s future is dead in the water

In desperation, Ottawa has turned to the Chilean and Spanish governments to lease supply ships that will permit the RCN to at least conduct exercises and maintain proficiency. Keep in mind that, not long ago, Spanish and Canadian navies faced each other in the Turbot War off the Grand Banks. Perhaps recognizing the delicacy of relying on Iberian goodwill, last month, the government announced it intends to sole-source a contract to Davie Shipyards in Lévis, Que., to retrofit a commercial tanker for naval resupply and refuelling. Even this stopgap measure would not be ready until 2017 at the earliest. It is hoped that the long-promised and long-delayed replacements for the supply ships will begin sea trials in 2019. But the new ships are only in the design phase.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney skipped Protecteur’s decommissioning ceremony, but, four short weeks later, he, Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Public Works and Government Services Minister Diane Finley found time to fly out to Halifax to pose for a photo op with a Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone, the military’s replacement for its infamous Sea King helicopters.

The Sea Kings are even older than the Navy’s supply ships. Various governments have been promising to replace them for 30 years. More than a third of the fleet has crashed, killing eight crew and injuring many more. When the Conservatives came to office, there was already a contract to replace the helicopters by 2008.

 (Tim Krochak/CP)
(Tim Krochak/CP)

One would think that, after an additional seven-year delay, Kenney and his colleagues would be somewhat embarrassed to bring attention to yet another procurement failure. But this is election season, so the ministers smiled and posed in front of the helicopter, glossing over the fact that this was actually just an interim test aircraft, that the fully operational helicopters will not arrive for some time, and that the Sea Kings will, unbelievably, need to stay in service for at least another two years.

Related: Military procurement is a national disgrace

What actually remains of Canada’s naval forces? The bulk of it consists of 12 Halifax-class frigates. The now-retired destroyers had crews of around 280, carried two helicopters, were armed with long-range radar and missiles to protect the whole fleet, and contained extensive command centres. The frigates are smaller, have a crew compliment of 220 sailors, carry one helicopter, have shorter-range radar, less firepower and far less capable command abilities. They are more than 20 years old, and are going through an extensive refit and modernization that is expected to be completed by 2017. It’s hoped they’ll remain in service for another 10 to 15 years.

By that time, the Navy plans to have launched a new fleet of up to 15 “Canadian surface combatants.” These ships are intended to replace both the existing frigates and destroyers. But, like the new supply ships, construction is still years away, and they will not enter service until 2025.

Canada also has four submarines, purchased second-hand 20 years ago from the British navy. After a long series of accidents, including a deadly fire—and expenses twice their purchase price on necessary repairs and updates—the vessels did not become fully operational until February of this year. In a recent interview, the commander of the RCN, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, described their capability as “fragile.” Like the supply vessels, the submarines are so old, finding spare parts can be extremely difficult.

For coastal defence, there are twelve Kingston-class maritime coastal defence vessels. These ships are a fifth the size of the frigates, have about 35 crew, and their primary role is coastal surveillance, search and rescue, fisheries patrols, and training. They are also 20 years old and suffer from chronic engine trouble and must be continually rotated in and out of service. Because of their slow speed and small size, there are plans to replace them with a new class of “Arctic/offshore patrol vessels.” They will be twice the size of the Kingston-class ships, and perform a similar role. Construction on these began only last month at Irving Shipyards, which were paid $288 million just to design the ships. (A similar Norwegian vessel was designed and built for one-third that cost.) The first one is not expected to be completed until 2018.

Although they belong to the Royal Canadian Air Force, the search and rescue aircraft, which are responsible for patrolling Canada’s seven million sq. km of ocean, should be taken into account. Some of these are now 50 years old. There have been plans to replace them since 2002. Thirteen years later, the government only released the request for proposals in March.

For Arctic waters, the Canadian Coast Guard has 13 icebreakers. However, only six are strong enough to be considered capable of truly polar operations, and none is able to travel in the far North during the winter. Of these, CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent is the oldest, at 49. It was originally scheduled for decommissioning in 2000, but it has been necessary to keep it in service with two major refits. During his first press conference as Prime Minister, Harper promised three new heavy polar-class icebreakers to buttress this underpowered and over-aged fleet. This was eventually downgraded to one, CCGS John G. Diefenbaker. Originally estimated to cost $720 million, the budget has since doubled. Its final price will not be known for years, as work has not even begun. It was scheduled to be launched in 2017, but this will likely now be pushed back another five years.

When Diefenbaker is finally commissioned, it will not have an Arctic base from which to operate. Eight years ago, Harper personally announced that Canada would build a deep-water port in Nanisivik, Nunavut. Four years after, due to budget constraints, the Navy downgraded the base to just a refuelling station that will only operate during the summer. With luck, the station may be open three years from now.

(Chad Hipolito/CP)
HMCS Algonquin in port in B.C. (Chad Hipolito/CP)

According to retired officers and naval experts, the RCN has objectively deteriorated to its lowest capability in over 40 years. But the dire state of what remains of Canada’s Navy is not fully apparent until one compares it to other nations. Last fall, Ken Hansen published an analysis in the Canadian Naval Review that did exactly that. In it, Hansen noted that, without destroyers and replenishment ships, the RCN had been dealt a crippling blow.

The loss of the destroyers means the Navy can no longer defend a formation against long-range threats, nor can it provide effective command and control. Without replenishment ships, it’s now impossible to sustain the fleet with the necessary supplies, ammunition and fuel over any distance. This, Hansen pointed out, means the RCN can no longer be considered a “medium global force projection navy.”

Naval forces can be ranked on a nine-point scale called the Todd/Lindberg classification system. At Rank 1 is the United States, whose navy is capable of “global-reach power projection.” The Canadian Forces has long aimed to maintain itself at Rank 3, which the Department of National Defence, in its planning document “Leadmark: The Navy’s Strategy for 2020,” describes as “navies that may not possess the full range of capabilities, but have a credible capacity in certain of them, and consistently demonstrate a determination to exercise them at some distance from home waters.” Without the two key abilities to provide command and control, and resupply, the RCN no longer meets this description. It is no longer a blue-water navy.

So where does the RCN rank? According to Hansen’s analysis, it is now a Rank 5 navy, only capable of “offshore territorial defence.” Other navies that share this capacity include Bangladesh and Indonesia. Both are developing nations, poor enough to be long-term recipients of Canadian aid.

Who is to blame for reducing the Canadian Navy to such dire straits? There’s a long list of culprits, and it’s difficult to single out any one, given that the gradual decline of the Navy can be traced back over decades and through multiple governments.

Many observers point the finger at the Department of Public Works and, to a lesser extent, the Department of National Defence itself. Jointly, they have presided over a procurement system that a recently retired Canadian general describes to Maclean’s as “divorced from reality.” Procurement funds are not allocated on an ongoing basis, preventing regular fleet renewal. (Imagine if FedEx waited until all its delivery trucks broke down, and only then began shopping for replacements.) The bureaucrats’ procurement failures are not limited to the Navy. None of the five major defence purchasing projects in the government’s 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy has been completed.

The military leadership also deserves to shoulder some blame. As Canada’s naval assets relentlessly rusted out to failure, admirals repeatedly assured their minister they would figure out a way to get by. In his recent testimony to the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, Admiral Newton, with diplomatic understatement, acknowledged that the loss of the supply ships “presents a challenge,” but, in the very next sentence, promised the Navy would be able to “preserve, to some degree, our freedom of manoeuvre across the vast distances of the North Atlantic and in the European theatre.” In the long term, this can-do attitude and unwillingness to speak painful truth to power only made it easier for the political class to squeeze out more and more cuts.

The supply ship HMCS Preserver sits in a dry dock at the Halifax Shipyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)
The supply ship HMCS Preserver sits in a dry dock at the Halifax Shipyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)

Nonetheless, as Newton explained to the committee, “the size of the Canadian Navy is established by governments,” not by officers. When prime minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government took office, Canada had 21,400 sailors (including reservists). When the Liberals departed 13 years later, there were only 16,000 left. The military cuts during that period “badly undermined the foundation” of the Navy, as one retired admiral explained. In 2001, when Operation Apollo was launched in the Persian Gulf, the Navy was forced to scrape together crews from its schools and reserves.

The Conservative government let the Navy shrink further. While new ships were announced and re-announced, nothing was actually built. Worse, while failing to replace the aging ships, the government has quietly cut the money that would be needed to actually renew and maintain the fleet. According to parliamentary budget officer Jean-Denis Fréchette, the next government will need to find between $33 billion and $42 billion to put Canada’s military as a whole back on a sustainable footing. By his calculations, at current budget levels, the Canadian Forces can only maintain a military around the size it had in 1999.

Does anyone have a plan to refloat the Canadian Navy? Liberal candidate Andrew Leslie, a retired lieutenant-general and the co-chair of Justin Trudeau’s International Affairs Council, told Maclean’s the situation is a crisis, and claims that fixing the Navy would be “just about the top priority” for a Liberal government. NDP Defence Critic Jack Harris told Maclean’s “the Conservatives had known for years that HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver needed replacing. Yet they delayed, and now the Navy is left scrambling to fill the gap.” Harris promised that improving Canada’s Navy would be a priority of an NDP government. The office of Minister Kenney did not return calls from Maclean’s.

Many Canadians know that, at the end of the Second World War, the Canadian Navy was the fifth-largest in the world. Fewer realize that it has been so badly neglected for so long, it’s now effectively reduced to a coastal defence. Our rusting fleet sits out of sight of most Canadians, over the horizon, but not too far from shore; the sailors aboard struggling to keep the aging ships afloat; the admirals ashore juggling to constantly do more with less. And no one is proposing to fill the massive funding gaps. And replacement vessels remain nothing but unreliable plans on paper.

Meanwhile, in the upcoming election, like they did 10 years ago, the politicians will pose in front of shipyards, talk passionately about Arctic sovereignty and the proud reputation of the Royal Canadian Navy, and re-announce long-promised ships with ever receding launch dates.

—with Meagan Campbell

Note: An earlier version stated the RCN is now classified as a Rank 6 on the Todd/Lindberg Scale, it is in fact a Rank 5.