In the fall of 2007, the United States Navy released “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” a forward looking document that left politicians and pundits used to sifting through budget projections and hull measurements searching in vain for specifics.

In fact, the authors firmly believed that any detailed discussion of force structure “would dilute the strategic importance of the document,” Captain R. Robinson Harris, one of the strategy’s architects, recently explained to the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Instead, the strategy sets out a vision for a highly agile, flexible and scalable joint force – Navy, Marines and Coast Guard – with a global presence able to deter as much as win any conflict.

And despite its lack of specifics, the strategy may have much to say about the direction of the Canadian Navy’s future fleet.

“I think it is rich in implications for force structure for the U.S. and Canada,” said Harris, director of advanced concepts for Lockheed Martin MS2 Integrated Defense Technologies, a position he took up almost a decade ago after 30 years of commissioned service in the U.S. Navy.

A member of the Canadian Navy’s Strategic Advisory Group since 2008 and a recent appointee to the Secretary of the Navy’s Naval Research Advisory Committee, Harris has had a unique vantage point.

Key to the strategy, he says, is a simple but vital notion: “Preventing war is just as important as winning war.”

For the navy of tomorrow, accomplishing that is predicated on achieving six core capabilities: forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster response. “There will be a premium on cooperation and collaboration, which places a premium on highly flexible platforms,” Harris predicted. And that will be equally applicable to Canada, he added.

While the Navy’s next Leadmark will likely address future naval force structure, its 2002 paper, The Navy’s Strategy for 2020, envisions “a medium global force projection navy that will serve Canada as a multipurpose, interoperable force, capable of joint and combined operations worldwide.”

The common theme to all this is “flexibility.” With western navies facing constrained budgets in the coming years, any future build must be flexible enough to do both the “high end and low end” operations, Harris said. Moreover, with a service life of between 30-40 years – probably greater for Canadian ships – it must also be built to meet unknown future needs.

Attempting to forecast the next generation of ships may not be a fool’s errand, but it’s not without its pitfalls. Harris, however, does have a few design predictions.

For starters, think big. Given that two thirds of the cost to build a ship is spent on what goes into her, “build as big as you can,” he said. This is especially true for a nation like Canada that must operate in high sea states. “Once you’ve built it, you’re pretty much stuck with that size,” he noted.

Modularity will continue to be the evolving norm. In the U.S., the littoral combat ship program is ISO container-based and other navies are designing in such a way that they can accommodate a change in mission simply by changing a module in the ship’s configuration. “This is critical for a small- to mid-size navy,” Harris said.

Expect open architecture to form the electronic backbone of all ships, even though there remains some debate about how quickly it will be adopted. The ability to plug-and-play future applications, regardless of the manufacture, will mean greater competition for upgrades, which should help control costs.

If the key to the U.S. Navy’s strategy is “prevention,” then “cooperation and collaboration” are a close second. Fifteen navies currently patrol off the coast of Somalia and that type of operation is only likely to increase. Consequently, information sharing will be critical, Harris said. That means improved interoperability not only within national armed services, but also across governments and across future multinational coalitions. However, collaboration on maritime domain awareness means synthesizing information, data and intelligence from disparate nodes, and in the U.S. at least, “there is some culture change we need to work on,” he said.

Finally, expect the use of unmanned systems – aerial and submersible – to grow exponentially as they continue to assume riskier and more daunting human tasks.

Though all of this recognizes the need to work better in a multinational environment, don’t expect that to lead to multinational shipbuilding. The idea of a naval equivalent to the Joint Strike Fighter program might sound good in theory, but naval shipbuilding still has a distinct nationalistic bent. So while countries may collaborate on systems, the platforms will be home grown.