Innovation is speeding up: Will the RCN be left behind?

You may have noticed the one-two punch noted defence journalists David Pugliese and Scott Taylor landed recently against the Department of National Defence in the media. Apparently, through some detective work, Pugliese discovered that DND is considering stripping out parts from older ships in the Navy’s fleet in a bid to save money on new build construction costs.

It sounds like a bad idea. In fact, both Pugliese and Taylor consulted experts Martin Shadwick and Ken Hansen respectively, and each wasted no time explaining that – in straightforward terms – the notion of putting old equipment in new warships was just plain stupid.

Shadwick told Pugliese that, although the Halifax-class vessels may be considered the best candidates for donor parts, much of their equipment would be “technologically inferior” ten years from now, when the first of Canada’s new ships would enter service.

That hints at a much bigger challenge for the shipbuilding industry. In an article written for Time, Stewart Brand argued that constant technological revolution has made planning very difficult. In fact, he says, new technologies are “self-accelerating … new computer chips are immediately put to use developing the next generation of more powerful ones.”

For those businesses that survive by the motto “Innovate or Die”, it’s time to buckle your seatbelts.

Think about this: Canada’s warships are pushing the half-century mark. Go back in time, and imagine that they also replaced vessels that were 50 years old.

You know where that would take you? Back to the Condor-class HMS Shearwater, circa 1914. If fact, the class’ namesake sunk because she was rigged with too much sail. That’s right… Shearwater was launched as a steam-powered tall ship, initially rigged as a barque.

There is no question the lifespan of our warships is far too long, but the real concern is the speed at which technology is evolving.

Moore’s Law states that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years. The law emerged sometime around the 70s, and up until now it’s held true.

Oddly enough, just days ago, Fast Company reported that IBM was promising to break through the limits of Moore’s Law by replacing silicon transistors in microchips with a material – carbon nanotubes – that’s less than half the size of the most advanced silicon technology available today. The speed of innovation, it seems, is about to get faster.

Remember when you could keep the same rotary phone on your wall for ten years and never had a problem with things like available memory, speed, or app availability? These days, you either choose to replace your phone, or alternatively, wait long enough and it will decide it needs to be replaced for you.

Think the RCN’s warships are any different? As militaries keep beating down the track in the horserace to maintain (or gain) technological superiority, new threats are emerging at ever-increasing speed. Will our Canadian Surface Combatants be able to fend off swarmbots, high-intensity lasers, railguns or new long-range anti-ship missiles?

Probably not. As the rate of innovation increases, the gap between countries that keep up and those that do not (or cannot) will widen. Forty years from now, if Canada refuses to invest more money on defence while maintaining the status quo on speed of procurement, our warships will become more of a liability than as asset to our allies.

Our government, and the defence industry, need to think long and hard about what impact the exponential growth of technology means for Canada’s military, and what role they believe it should play in the world.


The Shipbuilding Association of Canada and Vanguard Media are hosting the second annual Shipbuilding Technology Forum on December 8, 2015 in Ottawa. This forum is an opportunity to explore Canada’s excellence in technical shipbuilding, future technologies and the impact on economic growth and export.

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