On 3 May 2012, Prime Minister Harper stated at the dedication of the Royal Canadian Navy Monument: “Canada is a maritime nation, a maritime nation with trade, commerce and interests around the world.” Mahan, a noted naval strategist and historian, in his Principles of Seapower outlined six major principles that determine whether or not a nation is a maritime nation, namely: geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, size of population, character of the people, and character of the government. Although Canada was created, nurtured and protected by two maritime powers and meets most of Mahan’s principals, Canada lives in a maritime world but is not a maritime nation.
This article will argue that the character of Canadian governments, Mahan’s sixth principal, over time, has ensured that the process to deliver government shipbuilding programs is weighted against success and prevents Canada maturing into a maritime nation.
Mahan spoke to government’s influence in peace and in war. In peace, government policies can either favour or hinder the growth of its industries. Naval Shipbuilding, viewed by Canada’s major allies, is a vital part of a nation’s strategic industrial base – an industrial base that consistently designs and builds complex warships, one of the most complex endeavours undertaken by a government. Canada’s National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) has the potential to grow a strategic and innovative industrial base, but experience tends to indicate that government shipbuilding in Canada may well remain a political tool – as evidenced by the latest government announcement, just prior to an election, of additional Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) vessels and the intention to have a third large shipyard join Irving and Seaspan as a NSS shipyard.
Sir Wilfred Laurier in 1910, as noted in The Seabound Coast – The Official History of the Royal Canadian Navy 1867-1939, told Lord Dundonald: “You must not take the militia too seriously, for though it is useful for suppressing internal disturbances, it will not be required for the defences of the country, as the Monroe Doctrine (U.S. Strategic Policy for the defence of the Americas promulgated in 1823) protects us against enemy aggression.” This guiding principal has given great flexibility for Canadian governments to allocate resources to other more popular political initiatives. Canada’s comprehensive system of social programs, developed in the 20th century, and their benefits, are felt directly by Canadians, whereas defence, in particular the navy, normally affects Canadians indirectly.
Consequently, as the demand and the implementation of the social infrastructure for Canada’s welfare state expanded over time, resources for defence contracted with no public outcry. The Pearson and the first Trudeau governments, essentially relying on the Monroe Doctrine, were able to imprudently experiment with Canada’s national security by implementing Unification and Integration whereby the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the Canadian Army (CA) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) were disbanded and integrated into one, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), breaking out the former service operational forces into tactical functional commands while merging support, administration and procurement functions. This allowed the government to design and implement a “one size fits all” requirement and procurement process – one which favours “off the shelf” acquisition. This transformative change favoured equipping the CAF through a competitive process, with existing systems, which in the case of a warship meant providing the RCN with ships and systems, designed for a different navy, for a different operational environment, that were technologically over a decade old and, in some cases, not even in production. Essentially, government processes evolved to favour the army and the air force and disadvantage the navy.
Navies and naval operations are complex due to the fact that navies operate far and close to land, above the seas, below the seas, and on the seas in a naturally hostile and ever-changing complex environment and face complex multi-dimensional threats. The complexities of ships and navies mean that when war breaks out or an emergency occurs, unlike raising an army, it will be too late to build a navy. Thus, in peacetime, a maritime nation’s navy needs to be sufficient to deter any aggressor and to form a solid foundation to defeat the aggressor. This is the essence of Mahan’s sixth principal. Putting the acquisition of a new naval warship – one of the most complex acquisitions undertaken by Canadian governments – through the same process as the acquisition of a tank or an aircraft guarantees at worst failure and at best delay in delivering less capability to the navy.
The demise of the Afloat Logistic Concept (ALSC), the predecessor to Joint Support Ship (JSS), the failure of the first JSS project, the failure of the Command and Control Air Defence Replacement (CADRE) project (predecessor to the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC)), and the long gestation of the CSC and the current JSS project – all high naval priorities in 1999 – point to the fact that naval shipbuilding projects are complex and do not fit into the simplistic and rigid procurement processes developed post-Unification and Integration. Essentially, the RCN has been attempting to deliver capable combat capability for Canada in the form of new ships for over 20 years using the post-Unification/Integration processes, and yet there is no delivery contract on either the JSS or the CSC. Compare that to the United States Navy (USN), which conceived and delivered the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer within 11 years and are now delivering Flight III, and the Royal Australian Navy ANZAC Replacement project from concept to approval, in a similar period of time.
It may well be that Canada’s NSS program is the recognition by government that a vital naval shipbuilding industry is an important national strategic requirement. It may also be that government will recognize that designing and building some of Canada’s most complex assets does not fit the simplistic mould of “off the shelf” acquisitions, and it may well lead one to believe that Canadian governments have taken up the difficult challenge to separate naval shipbuilding and it’s strategic value to the country from other procurements. If so, then Canada has much to gain and may well be beginning to fulfill Mahan’s sixth principal. But given our recent history, NSS may well become a short-funded political tool. Hopefully, as NSS moves towards success, governments will recognize that complex government shipbuilding is a national strategic necessity and establish a procurement process specific for government shipbuilding.
Captain(N) Ian Parker (Retired) is Director Naval Affairs for the Naval Association of Canada.