Canada’s Navy: Dying From Neglect

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
May 14, 2016

One highly desirable result of an isolationist Donald Trump presidency is that it would expose in short order the philosophical, economic, political and moral corruption that has been at the heart of Canadian defence policy since the year dot.

Trump says he wants to jettison those allies who are freeloading on the United States and its taxpayers. By any measure, Canada is the worst freeloader of the whole lot. What is almost worse, successive Canadian governments of all political stripes have been utterly shameless in the eagerness with which they suckle the American taxpayers’ milk.

HMCS Toronto flies a Canadian flag in the Arabian Gulf during Operation Altair with the US Navy, a 2004 mission to monitor shipping in the Arabian Gulf. Photo by MCpl Colin Kelley, Canadian Armed Forces
HMCS Toronto flies a Canadian flag in the Arabian Gulf during Operation Altair with the US Navy, a 2004 mission to monitor shipping in the Arabian Gulf. Photo by MCpl Colin Kelley, Canadian Armed Forces

According to NATO figures, Canada’s defence spending amounted to one per cent of gross national product last year, and is already lower this year. In NATO’s league table, that puts Canada down among bottom feeders like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. Mind you, the country is still a bit ahead of Luxembourg’s defence spending of 0.47 per cent of GDP, but heading in that direction.

If President Trump took the U.S. out of NATO and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), the corridors of power in Ottawa would echo with politicians shrieking like stuck pigs, while deputy ministers and the mandarinate of the Privy Council Office would be overcome by apoplexy and faint away in their corner offices.

In its purest form, Trump’s vision of the U.S. as a self-sufficient, gated community decorated with an endless supply of Stepford Wives would for the first time cast Canada out into the cold. For the first century of Canada’s nationhood we relied on Britain to keep us safe. Since the Second World War we have happily clung to Washington’s coattails.

In Trump’s world, Canada’s model for maintaining its security and defending its sovereignty would be Australia. That’s not such a bad thing. Canada doesn’t pay nearly as much attention to Australia as it should. The countries have the same cultural and political heritages. They both have small populations relative to vast landmasses. They are both now immigrant societies wrestling with the challenges of multi-culturalism. Both economies are anchored by resource industries at one end and some of the world’s leading and innovative technological industries at the other.

The big difference is that Canada has got fat and lazy because easy access to the U.S. market has driven the competitive and entrepreneurial genes out of its national DNA, and it’s handed over responsibility for its sovereignty and security to Washington.

Australians, in contrast, have always had to be lean and mean. Their continent is out there at the end of the world. In trade, diplomacy and defence they have never had anyone to rely on but themselves. They have risen to the challenge with fortitude, pragmatism and imagination. In most aspects of international relations, Canada looks naïve, irresolute and terminally short-sighted in comparison.

Australia currently spends 1.8 per cent of its GDP on defence, according to the World Bank. The Canberra government announced in February it intends to increase that to 2 per cent by 2021. There will probably be an election well before then, but one of the significant differences between Australian and Canadian defence policy is that in Australia it tends to be a bi-partisan issue. Defence policy, and especially equipment purchases, tends to carry on relatively seamlessly despite changes of government.

An excellent account of the criminal neglect of its armed forces by successive Canadian governments of both major political stripes was set out by Jack Granatstein in his 2004 book “Who killed the Canadian Military?”

In Canada, of course, cancelling a previous government’s plans to purchase new military equipment has become an almost essential demonstration of machismo. Thus when Jean Chretien became prime minister in 1993 he ostentatiously cancelled the previous Tory government’s contracts to buy new naval helicopters to replace the ageing and dangerous Sea Kings. Officially that cancellation cost about $500 million — though my contacts in the defence business say the real number was about twice that – and 23 years later Canada still doesn’t have replacements for the Sea Kings. It now takes 30 hours of maintenance to keep them in the air for one hour.

The truth is Canada lacks a fleet air arm of any utility. Indeed, it doesn’t have a blue water navy any more. What is left of the Canadian Navy cannot operate independently, and the only warships of any significance  left –  12 Halifax Class frigates – are too limited in their range, armaments and surveillance capabilities to be allowed out alone. The best that can be said is that Canada has a coastal defence force on a par with that possessed by Bangladesh.

The full horror of what has happened to the Canadian Navy was set out last year in a thorough and depressing article in Macleans Magazine by Scott Gilmore. It is worth nailing up this article and seeing what the Australians have done when confronted by very similar demands and pressures as Canada.
As Gilmore describes, fulcrum moments in the destruction of the Canadian Navy came last year. One tipping point was the death form old age and infirmity of the three remaining Iroquois-class destroyers — HMCS Athabaskan, HMCS Huron and HMCS Algonquin. With their superior weapons and radar, these warships were essential to putting a battle group to sea. But, like the Sea King helicopters, the destroyers had got to an age when they just didn’t work properly any more. Without them, the Halifax-class frigates are of limited utility.

The second important development was the beaching of the two supply and replenishment ships – HMCS Protecteur on the west coast, and HMCS Preserver on the east. Without these ships it is impossible for Canada to deploy vessels for a prolonged operation, such as the anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia. But these supply ships were so old that it was no longer possible to get parts for them. Members of the crews are reported to have even resorted to eBay in their hunt for spares.

Protecteur hastened its trip to the knacker’s yard by having a terminal engine fire while off the Hawaiian coast. An American tug was persuaded to tow her back to Esquimalt in return for the value of the fuel oil in her tanks.

The ignominy doesn’t stop there and this is a good point to start looking at what the Australians are doing – and in this case the British Navy as well — when they needed new supply ships in a hurry.

For some years successive governments in Ottawa have been rabbiting on about replacing the supply ships. But they are still only in the design phase and sea trials won’t be until 2021 at the earliest. So, when confronted by the brutal reality last year that the Canadian Navy couldn’t go far out of the sight of land, the then Conservative government rushed to adopt a two-pronged rescue bid. One prong was to rent a supply ship from the Chilean Navy for the west coast and another from the Spanish Navy for the east coast for around $1 million a month each. Meanwhile, Davie Shipyards of Levis, Que., was contracted to convert a commercial tanker into a naval supply and refuelling ship. This will not be ready until 2017 at the earliest.

This is all a classic piece of Canadian defence procurement tomfoolery. While failing to renew equipment in time, governments also insist for reasons of patronage, if not outright corruption, that new ships must be built in Canada. But by the time Ottawa gets around to each contract for more ships, the shipbuilding industry has died, because its last round of construction was a generation prior. So task number one, every time, is to rebuild a Canadian ship-building industry. To put it politely, that doesn’t make much sense.

In 2012 the British Navy decided it needed four modern, twin-hulled resupply and refuelling ships, known as Fleet Auxillaries, and it needed them quickly. So it went to the South Korean shipbuilders Daewoo Shipbuilding and Engineering and bought four tankers. The basic ships were then taken to Britain where they were kitted out with all the value-added, high-tech stuff that made them part of the Royal Navy.

The lead vessel in the class, called Tidespring, was laid down in December 2014 and launched in April 2015 – four months. The second vessel was laid down in June 2015 and launched in November last year. The keel for the third vessel was laid last December and it was launched in March. The first steel for the fourth ship was cut last December and it will be in the water any day now. All four ships will be in service with the Royal Navy by the end of this year.

When a navy needs ships quickly it makes perfect sense to buy hulls and power plants from countries that make them fast and well, such as South Korea, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, and then focus on adding the CanCon high-tech components here at home.

The Australians have become masters of this approach to building and sustaining their navy.

Canberra also needs to replace supply ships that will come to the end of their usefulness in 2021. Australia is doing a deal with the Spanish naval shipbuilder Navantia to supply two fleet auxillary supply and refuelling ships. Navantia will deliver the basic ships and then Australian companies will supply and fit the combat and communications systems.

Canberra has considerable experience of dealing with Navantia. It has already bought what are euphemistcally called “landing helicopter docks,” or “amphibious assault ships.” Again, Navantia supplied the hulls and the Australians put in the clever stuff.

And to you and me these ships look like aircraft carriers, which is what they in fact are. Australia is only equipping them with helicopters at the moment. But that ski-jump over the bow is not there just for fun. If it ever needs to, the Australian Navy can fly warplanes off these ships, some of the 100 F35s Australia plans to buy, for example. But for now they will be used as, in essence, large and capable supply ships that can move large numbers of troops, equipment and humanitarian aid to wherever they are needed.

Navantia is also a partner in the building of three, and perhaps four new Hobart-class destroyers. Again, Navantia is building the hulls in segments, which are then shipped to Australia for welding together and fitted out. The first of what are described as “air-warfare destroyers,” but which in reality are fully capable air, submarine and surface warships, will be delivered in June next year and the third by mid-2020.

The Canberra-class aircraft carriers and the Hobart-class destroyers are good examples of the Australian Navy’s aspirations and the seriousness with which it takes its responsibility to sustain the country’s security and sovereignty. A major element in any naval fleet for a maritime country is submarines. These vessels provide security at many times their value because any potential intruder can never be sure they know exactly where all the submarines are.

Australia gets this. Canada has never quite managed to make two and two add up to four. In the 1980s, when I was working in the Ottawa Bureau of what was then Southam News, I was given a copy of a letter from the Australian Ministry of Defence to the Canadian counterpart. At the time, then Canadian Defence Minister Perrin Beatty was toying with the idea of buying nuclear-powered submarines from either the French or the British. The Australians, meanwhile, were in the process of developing the program for what became their Collins-class submarines. The letter that I saw from Canberra asked if Ottawa would like to sign on to a joint venture with Australia to produce, use and perhaps sell the Collins-class boats. I was told the Australians never got an answer to their letter.

Since then the Collins-class boats have been produced, served with mixed reviews and are now approaching the time when they must be replaced.

Over the same 30-year period Canada went off the whole idea of submarines for a decade. Twenty years ago Ottawa finally plucked up the courage to again contemplate buying submarines. But instead of doing the sensible thing, Canada somehow got itself bushwacked into buying four old conventional boats laid up as surplus by the British Navy. Well, someone should have spent a little longer kicking the tires and checking the mileage. From the moment they were rolled off the lot the submarines suffered a series of breakdowns, including a deadly fire while one was in passage across the Atlantic. The repairs and equipment changes to make them compatible with other Canadian warships have cost twice the original sticker price on the British used boat lot of $750 million for the four. These modifications included, believe it or not, having to change the entire torpedo tube assemblies so they can fire Canada’s stock of veteran Mk48 torpedoes.

It is a feature of submarines that every time a hole has to be cut in the hull and patched it weakens the whole structure, and limits the depths to which it can dive thereafter. It also affects the life expectancy of the vessel.

The four Victoria-class boats all finally got to sea last year, but what use they are will remain a question. In the Macleans article, Gilmore quotes the commander of the navy, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, as saying the capabilities of the Victoria-class submarines are “fragile.”

That’s just what one needs in a warship.

Australia, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with a $US38 billion program to acquire 12 long-range submarines to replace the ageing Collins-class boats.

It looked for a while as though Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in partnership with Kawasaki Heavy Industries had a lock on the contract for their highly-regarded Soryu-class submarines. So it came as a surprise late last month when the Canberra government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the contract will go to the French armaments company DCN for a conventionally powered adaptation of its Barracuda nuclear-powered attack submarine.

The Japanese made many mistakes in the campaign against the French and the other competitor, Germany’s Thyssen-Krupp Marine Systems. Arms sales abroad is new territory for Japanese companies. Laws have been re-interpreted only recently to allow it to happen, so Japanese companies are still neophytes in the field. Their major mistake, however, was not to appreciate that Australia wanted between 70 and 80 per cent of the construction work to be done in Australia, even if it is under the supervision of the winning company. The Japanese companies have no experience of this kind of offshore build, and their negotiators shrank from putting this option on the table. Instead, the Soryu salesmen relied on the growing strategic partnership in Asia between the Australian and Japanese navies in the face of Chinese aggression.
It was not enough. Australian governments of all parties are keen to keep their shipyards functioning and the shipbuilding skills constantly renewed. So while Canberra is never slow to buy in ready-made ships when it makes sense, it also realises that maintaining and sustaining an effective navy needs foresight and nurturing the necessary store of skilled workers.

Ottawa finds that thought impossible to grasp.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
Contact: Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to
World Bank:
The Sinking of the Canadian Navy, Macleans, by Scott Gilmore

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”


Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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