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Changing Tides

The helicopter detachment with HMCS Winnipeg (2nd) prepares a Sea King for operations over the Gulf of Oman, July 2005. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES]

The helicopter detachment with HMCS Winnipeg (2nd) prepares a Sea King for operations over the Gulf of Oman, July 2005.

In 1945, naval minister Douglas Abbott announced he wanted Canada to have “a good, workable little fleet.” Some interpretations of Abbott’s statement suggest this was a cry for an efficient and versatile force, which, through its ability to perform numerous maritime tasks, would give the government the greatest flexibility when dealing with foreign policy challenges.

What Abbott actually had defined, however, was a versatility paradox that would haunt the Canadian navy throughout the postwar period. Cutting budgets and capabilities while telling the navy to respond to a wide range of contingencies and increasing operational commitments may seem counterintuitive, but that is exactly what a number of Canadian governments have done over the past 55 years. While previous efforts to meet this challenge have frustrated many naval planners, a powerful argument can be made that the modern Canadian navy has come closer than any of its predecessors to providing the government with the flexible, yet small and relatively inexpensive, fleet Abbott had called for.

The Canadian navy was in rough shape when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Early attempts to extend the life of Annapolis and St. Laurent class DDH (helicopter carrying destroyer) as well as the Restigouche and Mackenzie class destroyer escorts (DDE) did not change the fact that these ships were relics of a previous age geared towards countering the Soviet submarine threat. The fleet’s 1960s vintage Oberon class submarines and replenishment ships were equally outdated, while the six Bay class patrol boats used to train officers had a lineage that reached back to the 1950s. Even the Porte boats (Gate vessels), which were often tasked to give modern naval reservist experience and training at sea, looked as though they would be more comfortable in a Second World War setting.

HMCS Calgary (2nd) was commissioned in 1995. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES]

HMCS Calgary (2nd) was commissioned in 1995.

Not all news was bad, however. At 17 years old, the fleet’s youngest and most capable ships, the DDH 280 Tribal class, were in the middle of a major modernization program. Moreover, a new fleet was on its way. The ships of the Canadian Patrol Frigate program (CPF), which were being hailed as a technical marvel and “a leap into the future,” were scheduled to join the fleet in the early and mid-1990s, while a slate of 12 Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs) would follow soon after. Yet until these ships were ready, the navy would have to rely on its old Cold War fleet to deal with the emerging instability and uncertainty of a “new world order.”

It did not take long before that fleet was put to the test as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 1, 1990, would see Canadian warships going to war for the first time since the Korean War. Canada was quick to respond to the crisis, but years of neglect had left the Canadian Forces hard-pressed to provide the required military might to back up the government’s policy. The navy was in the best position to respond, and as a result the defence minister, Bill McKnight, announced Canada would be sending its own task group—consisting of Her Magesty’s Canadian ships Athabaskan (3rd), Restigouche (2nd), Terra Nova, and the replenishment ship, Protecteur—to deter further aggression and show support for United Nations trade sanctions against Iraq.

Sub-Lieutenant Nadia Shield participates in an approach exercise on board HMCS Iroquois (2nd), May 2008. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES]

Sub-Lieutenant Nadia Shield participates in an approach exercise on board HMCS Iroquois (2nd), May 2008.

The navy faced immense challenges even before Canadian Task Group (CTG) 302.3 deployed for the Gulf. Given the nature of this upcoming conflict, it was soon clear that the anti-submarine suites on the ships of the task group would do little in an operational environment where surface vessels and aircraft posed the greatest threat. This not only required the impromptu fitting of a Harpoon surface-to-surface missile system on Terra Nova, but it also necessitated extensive upgrades to all the ships’ self-defence capabilities, as well as communication and electronic warfare equipment. Thanks to the miraculous efforts of dockyard personnel who worked feverishly around the clock, the task group was ready to sail in less than two weeks. Intense training en route to the Persian Gulf, which included a French-run program to prepare for possible Iraqi Exocet missile attack, also helped prepare it for the operational challenges the war would bring.

Despite these ad hoc preparations, as well as the fact that the Canadian navy had never operated in this specific region, the task group did extremely well in the Gulf. When looking for help intercepting traffic in the Gulf’s central region, the United States Navy (USN) was quite keen to have the Canadians work with them because of the similarities between their equipment and procedures. The Canadian navy’s senior commanders were equally anxious for their political masters to approve the assignment, particularly since it would give the task group a distinguished and meaningful role to play in the Multinational Interception Force (MIF) responsible for preventing shipping from leaving or entering Iraq. They were right. The task group distinguished itself admirably as the rela­tively small Canadian contingent accounted for just over 25 per cent of the 6,963 interceptions conducted by coalition forces prior to commencement of the air offensive on Jan. 17, 1991.


HMCS Toronto (2nd) off Baffin Island, August 2009.

Fears that the beginning of a shooting war might result in his ships being reallocated to other coalition forces led senior Canadian commander, Commodore Ken Summers, to propose that the task group become a dedicated resupply force. In the words of Captain (N) Duncan ‘Dusty’ Miller, who was serving as Summers’ chief of staff, the Americans “loved the idea” and even proposed that the Canadians co-ordinate a multinational effort to deliver the food, fuel and war materiel needed to sustain the coalition’s maritime combat operations. There were a number of reasons why the Americans were so keen to create a multinational Combat Logistics Force (CLF) under Canadian command. First, this force, which consisted of 10 countries committing over 30 escorts and support ships, not only freed up USN vessels for combat duties, but it gave coalition forces that did not easily integrate with American forces a useful purpose. And second, the Canadians had intimate knowledge of USN tactics, doctrine, and methods as well as critical command, control and communication systems on the Tribals that would allow them to act effectively as an intermediary between the Americans and other coalition navies.

The Canadians also benefited from the CLF. Miller’s appointment as the CLF’s commander was particularly prestigious since he was the only non-American to enjoy this kind of operational authority. The fact the ships themselves did extremely well within the CLF further advanced the Canadian navy’s reputation. Out of the 105 escort missions assigned to the CLF between the force’s formation and the end of operations, approximately one-third were handled by Terra Nova and Athabaskan. Nor was that the only highlight for the navy during the war. Protecteur certainly enjoyed a widespread reputation for efficiency, while Athabaskan gained additional notoriety for braving minefields to go to the aid of the stricken USS Princeton on Feb. 18. But the greatest reward was reserved for the government itself as this relatively small naval force was producing a maximum return for Canadian foreign policy; Miller’s command of the CLF portrayed the nation as a vital inter­national leader and key player that was committed to global security.

HMCS Windsor leaves the U.K. for her new home in Halifax, October 2001. [PHOTO: ALAN ROWLANDS]

HMCS Windsor leaves the U.K. for her new home in Halifax, October 2001.

That reward, however, taxed the navy to its operational limits and it is perhaps fortunate the war did not last long. The ability to switch the ships from their anti-submarine emphasis to a point where they could operate in an anti-surface and anti-air environment was impressive, but it is questionable whether some of these impromptu modifications would have stood up to any serious challenge from the Iraqis. It was also clear the navy would have had tremendous difficulty sustaining an extensive war effort. Rather than sending ships that would all require the same extensive modifications that Athabaskan, Terra Nova and Protecteur had received, a plan was devised that would rotate entire crews instead. The first rotation saw HMCS Preserver’s crew swap places with Protecteur’s on Jan. 6, 1991, but the start of the allied air offensive led to a decision to replace ships after all as HMCS Huron (2nd) and Restigouche were to take over from the two destroyers. More frenzied yard work ensured that Huron was ready for operations before the end of hostilities; however, the stunning success of the coalition ground offensive and subsequent ceasefire on Feb. 28 negated the requirement to send Restigouche.

Operation Friction, the name given to the Canadian contribution to the Persian Gulf War, was an unquestionable success for the navy, but in the end the small task group was close to the limit of what it could realistically provide. It was equally clear that the new world order was going to produce situations that would require the navy to possess dedicated anti-surface and anti-aircraft capabilities. The navy would have to wait until the four TRUMP (Tribal Update and Modernization Program) ships were completed and the CPFs were delivered between 1992 and 1996 to fully possess these capabilities, meaning it would have to rely on a mixture of old and new ships to fulfil the growing demands placed upon it by the inter­nationalist policies of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government.

It was indeed an active period. Freed from the Cold War bonds that had prevented Western involvement in certain regions of the globe, the U.S. was in a position to act as the world’s “policeman” and the Mulroney government wanted Canada to be one of its top constables. As a result, Huron would maintain a Canadian presence in the Gulf enforcing economic sanctions against Iraq while CF operations Deliverance and Relief saw the replenishment ship Preserver act as a sealift, administrative support and joint forces headquarters ship to the Canadian Airborne troops involved in the inter­national humanitarian assistance and conflict control mission in Somalia. Other operations, such as Sharp Guard in the Adriatic, which involved enforcing UN sanctions to restrain ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, and the effort to restore Haiti’s democratically elected government through Operation Forward Action, also drew attention to the navy’s efficiency and growing involvement in stability operations. Indeed, the fact that no arms-laden ships were able to slip through the blockade of the former Yugoslavia, and that crews from two ships involved in the Haiti operation were able to make 9,424 hailings, 1,388 armed boardings and diverted 119 ships (along with Terra Nova’s heroic rescue of 57 passengers from a stricken vessel), brought the navy much praise. More importantly however, all these operations went a long way to furthering Canada’s reputation as a steward of global peace and order.

HMCS Iroquois (2nd) with HMCS Regina (2nd) and a New Zealand warship in the Arabian Gulf, May 2003. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES]

HMCS Iroquois (2nd) with HMCS Regina (2nd) and a New Zealand warship in the Arabian Gulf, May 2003.

This was something prime minister Jean Chrétien wanted to continue after his Liberal party was elected in October 1993. Clearly articulated in the 1994 white paper, the Liberals told Canadians they faced an unpredictable, as well as a fragmented, world and it was the nation’s duty to ensure global security by developing multi-purpose forces both at home and abroad. For the navy this translated into the requirement for a maritime task group on each coast consisting of a combination of up to four destroyers, frigates or submarines each that would allow the government to respond with a broad range of military contingencies.

While the navy had just enough ships to comply with this directive, the trouble was that the state of the nation’s finances made deficit reduction a priority for the Liberals. The subsequent cuts to the defence budget, which began in 1994, were heavy (paralleling levels not seen since the early 1980s) and that ran counterintuitive to the realities of the costs and needs associated with multi-purpose maritime forces and their operations.

To achieve a truly versatile fleet capable of performing the functions outlined in the white paper, the navy required more ships of varying types than what the government was willing to deliver. The fact that the acquisition of other much-needed assets was delayed by politics or budget cuts made things worse. The replacement of the fleet’s aging Sea King helicopters, for instance, had become a highly contentious issue ever since Chrétien cancelled the EH-101 program immediately after taking office. In fact, the program was so politically charged the Liberals not only had to deal with a string of Sea King accidents (along with the embarrassment that the aircraft now required 30 hours of maintenance for every hour spent in the air), but they also had to wait until Chrétien resigned in December 2003 before selecting the H-92 Superhawk as the winner.

Likewise, due to the Liberals’ battle with the deficit, the navy’s desire to take advantage of a remarkable deal to replace the 30-year-old Oberons with the relatively modern British Upholder class was delayed until 1998. As a result, the navy was unable to take possession of its first submarine, HMCS Victoria, for another two years.

In spite of the budget cuts and delays with the naval program, the navy’s operational tempo showed no signs of slowing. Maritime interdiction work between 1995 and 2002 in support of continued UN economic sanctions against Iraq (through operations such as Tranquility, Prevention, Determination and Augmentation) continued to dominate the navy’s international agenda. There was, however, an important difference between some of these operations and earlier deployments to the Gulf. Thanks to their previous familiarity with American doctrine and tactics as well as compatibility of equipment, Canadian ships became the only allied vessels to fully integrate into several USN Carrier Battle and Pacific Middle East Force Surface Action Groups, meaning that they actually replaced a USN destroyer rather than just augmenting the formation.

Concerns about sovereignty and fears that Canadian ships could get drawn into American statecraft were quickly outweighed by the political benefits of deploying with USN Groups. Such integration gave the government a new way of simultaneously displaying Canada’s desire to share the collective security burden with the U.S. and support UN resolutions without the need to send a complete Canadian task group that the navy simply could not sustain with extensive and continuous rotations.

Other international and domestic operations further reinforced the view that the navy was doing an effective job of achieving the type of versatility the government wanted with the assets it had. Certainly the destroyers, frigates and submarine sent to support the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 1995 during the so-called Turbot War with Spain off the Grand Banks was a key component of an operation that not only showed the government’s commitment to protect fish stocks, but also resonated with the population’s sense of nationalism.

Whether it was providing small boat units to the Red River floods, assets to the Swiss Air tragedy, or sending ships and small task groups to help the victims of Florida’s 1992 brush with Hurricane Andrew or Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, domestic and continental disaster relief efforts did the same thing. The navy was equally active on the humanitarian front with operations such as Toucan which saw a replenishment ship deployed to East Timor.

The navy enjoyed other successes in the late 1990s and early 2000s as well. A string of Great Lake deployments scored a public relations victory by bringing the navy to the nation’s heartland, while a series of initiatives—such as designating HMCS Ville de Québec (2nd) a French language unit, expanding the reserve presence in Quebec and a policy of requiring that all officers become bilingual—helped make the service more appealing as a career option for francophones.

Opportunities in a revamped and expanded naval reserve were equally attractive to many Canadians. The Total Force concept, which sought to make up for government reductions in regular force personnel levels by giving the reserves greater roles, was largely responsible for a new and strong sense of mission within the naval reserves. Handed the tasks of coastal defence and minesweeping through the manning of the 12 new MCDVs (along with a Naval Control of Shipping and later intelligence function) the naval reserves was no longer just an augmentation force for the regulars, and as a result attrition rates dropped while morale soared. New ships and personnel policies meant morale in the regular force was relatively high too, but there were signs of trouble. Personnel reductions, a high sea-to-shore ratio, and an active operational tempo were starting to take a toll, even more so when the events of September 11, 2001, led to further demands on the navy.

The terror attacks on the United States was a seminal event that resulted in a significant redirection of defence policy and resources that were now committed to the defeat of al-Qaida and the larger asymmetric threat posed by terrorism. While the Chrétien government would shy away from Canadian participation in the Iraqi theatre they were fully committed to the war against terror, particularly the military mission in Afghanistan. However, its immediate response, announced by Defence Minister Art Eggleton on Oct. 8, 2001, was to send the navy. Within a mere nine days, six ships were on their way to the Arabian Sea as part of Operation Apollo which was the maritime component to the War on Terror. It was a remarkable feat of readiness and flexibility that resulted in Canada being the second navy after the USN to have deployed ships. More successes soon followed in a two-year mission (Oct. 2, 2001, to Dec. 15, 2003) that represented the most substantial and sustained Canadian naval deployment since the Korean War.

The navy had good reason to be proud. Having conducted thousands of hailings and roughly 60 per cent of the coalition’s boardings, the navy quickly gained a reputation as a world leader in boarding party tactics. The navy was proficient at a number of other tasks as well, so much so, in fact, that a Canadian was assigned to lead the commander of Commander Task Force 151 which was the multinational naval force carrying out interdiction efforts in the Gulf of Oman. Yet Apollo—like the earlier Gulf War—also stretched the navy’s available resources to the limit. Although not designed to perform as task group leaders, the frigates occasionally had to act as such since there was not enough Tribal class destroyers; while a lack of sufficient tankers meant the navy had to turn to other nations when no Canadian ones were available. Moreover, with a total of 4,000 sailors and 16 of its major warships having served in the region at some point or another, the navy found itself in a situation where its ships’ maintenance schedules were far in arrears and its people were missing out on trades training and professional development.

The navy would get a well deserved and much needed break. Operation Altair, which continued where Apollo left off, reduced Canada’s naval commitment to the region considerably. Beginning with HMCS Toronto (2nd) in January 2004, Altair would be characterized by single-ship deployments. The individual ships, however, were kept busy as was demonstrated by the fact that HMCS Charlottetown (3rd)—known as a “go to” ship while serving as part of the USS Harry S. Truman carrier battle group—spent 87 per cent of her time in theatre at sea. This single-ship pattern, which freed other vessels up to resume more traditional tasks and exercises, temporarily came to an end in June 2008 when Commodore Bob Davidson and his command ship HMCS Iroquois (2nd), along with HMCS Calgary (2nd) and HMCS Protecteur, assumed Canada’s turn as lead of Altair’s multinational coalition fleet (Combined Task Force 150).

While Altair’s operational tempo was much slower when compared to Apollo’s, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government nevertheless would keep the navy busy with the missions and new areas of responsibilities outlined in the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS). A truly strategic and clearly articulated document, the CFDS told Canadians that the nation’s defence rested on its ability to protect Canada, contribute to continental defence, and participate in global security. What separated CFDS from other defence papers was it provided guaranteed spending as well as a detailed road map that explained what people, equipment, training and infrastructure the navy would need in order to achieve success.

Aside from the funds already committed to the Halifax class modernization, the replacement of Preserver and Protecteur under the Joint Support Ship (JSS) program, and some new Arctic Offshore Patrol ships, the government outlined a 20-year procurement plan that will see the navy acquiring 15 new surface combatants to replace the Tribal and CPF classes. But CFDS was just as ambitious when it came to the return that the government would expect from its guarantee to regenerate the fleet’s aging ships, as was illustrated by its desire to establish a presence in the Canadian Arctic.

The possible discovery of untapped natural resources, the melting of polar ice and the potential opening of the North West Passage as a navigable shipping route has given the Arctic a new strategic significance, and the navy has not ignored this fact. Starting in 2002, the navy sent a mixture of CPFs, MCDVs and a submarine on five deployments over a seven-year period, and as such has maintained a presence in the Arctic that has not been seen since its pioneering cruises in the late 1940s and 1950s. Doing so was not easy for the navy. While the end of the Cold War allowed senior planners to achieve something of a balance of forces between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the addition of the Arctic creates certain logistical and force allocation problems for a navy that has historically not even been given enough resources to protect two of Canada’s oceans, let alone a third.

It is easy to see why some critics wonder how the navy will manage a new Arctic commitment given all the roles today’s fleet is performing. Certainly the navy’s domestic agenda of sovereignty, fisheries, security and surveillance patrols continues to play an important part, particularly for the MCDVs. Slowing the flow of illegal narcotics, both off the coast of Canada and in South American waters, has required the attention of a number of frigates that have worked well in close co-operation with other government departments such as the RCMP.

The Canadian navy has also made a significant contribution in response to the recent rise of international piracy off the coast of Somalia. Ships like HMCS Winnipeg (2nd) have been recognized as expert pirate hunters while Ville de Québec has played a key role in keeping sea lanes open so the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) can deliver food to the 3.2 million Somalis who depend on such aid. WFP deliveries loaded on HMCS St. John’s to assist the starving populations in hurricane ravaged Haiti were just as important and resulted in the dispersal of 547 metric tons of humanitarian supplies. And finally, single-ship assignments to demonstrate alliance solidarity through contributions to the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1)—a rapid reaction force that trains and operates as a cohesive team—round out what is truly an impressive array of functions and capabilities.

Unfortunately, there are worrisome trends on the horizon that may affect the navy’s level of versatility. Whether it is the fact that some of the Victoria class subs are not yet fully operational or that four to six CPFs may be engaged simultaneously in various parts of the Halifax class modernization, the navy will face times during the next eight years when its ability to deploy ships on operations or compose task groups will be greatly hindered. The pressing need to replace the aging DDG 280s (their classification changed from destroyer helicopter to guided missile destroyer after TRUMP) is a particular concern. While the first batch of Canadian Surface Combat Ships (CSCS) will be given area air defence as well as command and control systems, any serious delays in the program will leave the navy in a position where it either will have to modernize the 280s for a second time or temporarily give up a fundamental capability that would allow it to act as an independent national force.

Likewise, the delay with the JSS, which was the product of industry telling the government to either decrease the ship’s requirements or increase the funding allocated to the program, has threatened to deprive the navy of another essential requirement. Without new ships to replace the 40-year-old Preserver and Protecteur, the navy will find it exceedingly difficult to provide for the fleet’s supply and support needs.

It is also clear that the JSS program is indicative of larger procurement problems that could hinder the navy’s ability to provide the government with a versatile force. Some critics claim, for example, that the government’s promises to regenerate the fleet will ultimately fail unless they are accompanied by major reforms to Canada’s “boom and bust” shipbuilding industry.

Manning and recruitment issues also spell potential trouble. The deep manning reductions of the 1990s, a CF recruitment process focused on providing troops for Afghanistan, and fierce competition for jobs from the private sector mean the navy is dealing with personnel shortages that will make it difficult to fulfil operational commitments. The problem is of such concern that the navy has predicted it will be 1,000 personnel short of its requirements by 2011.

That the navy has achieved so much versatility without either the ship types—such as cruisers and carriers—or the numbers possessed by its larger allies is a testament to its ability to do more with less. Finding ways to perform a wide range of tasks on a limited budget has not been easy. Yet the operational record and successes of the last 20 years shows that a combination of effective leadership, strong people, an ability to integrate with its chief allies (most notably the USN), its adaptability and the successful employment of task groups based on a mix of command destroyers, multi-purpose frigates, submarines and replenishment ships, has led to what historian Richard Gimblett has correctly characterized as the navy’s Golden Age.

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