As the Canadian Navy celebrates its centennial and prepares to publish its strategic vision for the next 40 years, Horizon 2050, Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, Chief of the Maritime Staff, spoke with editors Robert Beaudoin and Chris Thatcher about the Navy’s challenges and opportunities.

A number of maritime experts have referred to the current century as a “century of seapower.” What are the implications of that for the Canadian navy? What are your strategic imperatives?

I think seapower will play a significant role in the 21st century. There has been more change in the regime governing the ocean environment in the last 30 to 40 years than there had been in the previous 300 or 400. For most of the past four centuries, a governance regime has assured that the oceans really are highways for everyone to use without restriction providing they are using them in lawful ways. There have always been illegal, criminal activities – piracy, the slave trade – that were improper uses of the oceans. But the legal regime that governed them was fundamentally different than was the case on land. Apart from Antarctica, every square centimetre of dirt on this earth is under someone’s absolute sovereign jurisdiction. It had only ever been a narrow strip along the coast – now generally accepted to be 12 nautical miles – over which state sovereign authority extended.

Then along came the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Sea, which extended jurisdiction out onto the oceans. We now have exclusive economic zones, 200 nautical miles where the coastal state establishes their regulatory regime under which that entire environment can be explored and exploited. People have fought for hundreds of years to set the boundaries of those little square centimetres of dirt; we are watching what will be pressure to establish ocean boundaries, because the difference between where boundaries are set can have immense effect. That is a fundamental change in the regime that has governed the oceans for hundreds of years.

The 21st century is going to watch that work itself out. There are fundamental changes going on that we are only starting to recognize. We’re watching demographic shifts as populations concentrate in coastal areas. As people move they need to be supported. Food resources – the bounty of the seas – are becoming more important for feeding greater proportions of the earth’s population. And technology, though it has allowed for increased fishing, can now completely destroy a fishery. Access to energy resources is almost insatiable. In some parts of the world, economies are rapidly expanding, with immense need for assured access to energy resources.

21st century oceans are becoming more important because their resources are becoming of greater importance to sustain economies and people at a time when maritime boundary disputes need to be reconciled. In addition, we are seeing a progressive expansion of lawless onto the ocean state – piracy, human smuggling. Land borders are well set and established and can be relatively easily surveilled, secured and defended. Maritime boundaries are very different things. These pressures are bringing ocean politics to the centre of what must be the means by which we resolve regulatory issues.

Why is it important to Canada? To engage in that maritime domain, Canada needs a navy that has the understanding and capacity to support the protection of the ocean environment, promote the good use of the oceans and prevent conflict, but, ultimately, if we are not successful at that, then prevail in combat if it is required. The majority of disputes will be reconciled by making lawyers rich, through legal argument and diplomacy. But not all of them will. Canadians understand we are a large country but they don’t fully appreciate the size of the ocean estate over which we claim jurisdiction. We have the longest coastline in the world and an ocean estate about 70 percent of the landmass. Much of that ocean estate is in the Arctic, an area of the world that is becoming of substantial interest because of access to resources and the movement of goods. This is not simply an international issue for Canada, this is very much a domestic sovereignty issue as well.

The Arctic is a parable for the change we are going to see in the ocean environment. When people see transit through the Arctic, they see an increase in risk, which means you need a regulatory regime in place to limit that risk right from the start – construction of the types of vessels that can be used, inspections of those to make sure that they are compliant, restrictions on where you can do certain types of activities. Those are all regulatory bits that we would establish for our sovereign control. But if the Arctic route opens, it fundamentally changes trade flows. And the consequence is enormous. A large degree of trade moves across southern hemispheric routes, around the Horns, through the Canals. If that is no longer the necessary route to take, it has the potential to impact many places along those southern routes. It compounds the problem of where we see the greatest amount of pressure. Almost half of the foreign income to Egypt comes as a result of royalties for the use of the Suez Canal. If that was to be substantially reduced, I can’t imagine that that reduces the pressure we already see in the Middle East.

We’re going to see change in trade routes of a global nature. And we’re going to see greater pressure upon those coastal zones as states establish regulatory control to assure environmental protection, to ensure they can be a sustainable resource for a population, and to limit activity that they would see to be harmful.

The most likely threats you face are contained within those pressure points, which are paradoxically the points at which lie new opportunities.

Absolutely. Canada needs a globally deployable, sea control navy. This is about assuring a regulated use of the ocean commons because it is in Canada’s interests. Globalization has the potential to raise a large portion of humanity out of some of the destitution it is in at the moment. Are there problems with it? Absolutely. But there is no countervailing trend to globalization. This world is becoming more and more connected. Ninety percent of the world’s trade travels by oceans. The vast majority of goods come to Canada on some vessel. We’re also connected in a social sense. The demographic make up of this country has fundamentally changed in the last 50 years and that trend isn’t changing. We have global cultural connections. So it’s not just for the purposes of international and trade policy, but for domestic policy as well.

What do you need to do to get from where you are now to where you need to be to deal with all of that?

In the latter part of the 20th century, we were able to establish a globally deployable, sea control navy. Is that the right type of doctrinal construct to propagate into the future? Yes. We have already made the shift from a Cold War–focused, NATO contributing force with certain specific skill sets such as anti-submarine warfare. That has not been my navy. We’ve brought online capabilities and organized them into task groups for an independent Canadian capability to deploy and be sustained globally, and we were remarkably busy because of that. We fundamentally changed the capacity of the Canadian navy with the construction of the Halifax class ships. They were conceived and designed in a Cold War construct – a “robo” cruiser in the north Atlantic, able to go toe-to-toe with the Soviets – but we put sufficient adaptability into the hull platform such that it was not put on the shelf when the Cold War ended. The patrol frigates are extraordinarily flexible, adaptable platforms.

In the conduct of warfare at sea, we used to use the term “a clean environment.” If we couldn’t prove you were a good guy, you were assumed hostile and action would result. That’s predicated upon the belief that you’ll get a clean operating environment where there are only good guys and bad guys. That is not the modern world. There is no such thing as a clean environment. Even in the conduct of intense operations, there will still be people going about their lawful business. We will require a sufficiently robust and sophisticated surveillance capacity to be able to identify people going about their lawful business on the oceans and those engaged in illegal or improper activity – it’s that asymmetric threat from a strike missile system on the back of a Toyota truck that looks the same as every other Toyota truck. That’s a different philosophy in how we manage operations.

That speaks to developments in C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). What do you see as the most significant changes in the coming years?

The environment we will operate in will be more complex, with greater traffic and elements that we’ll need to identify within what is the normal background activity of ongoing legitimate work – fishermen, traders. And we will operate more extensively in littoral regions because that is where the majority of the pressures we’ve discussed are coming to fruition. We’ll need to put greater resources into C4ISR to be able to conduct sophisticated surveillance to reach a level where an anomaly stands out. That’s an extraordinary difficult challenge, which requires all the sophisticated capabilities you have, from space to surface to subsurface surveillance.

By the same token, sailors like me love blue water. Sea room gives you options and time for decision making. Lose sea room and the threat increases. Flash-to-bang cycle from asymmetrical threats in littoral regions is measured in seconds. That’s not the same as having layers of defence 300 miles off shore. So we not only need to do surveillance better – what we call an intelligence preparation of the operating space – we also need to move in ways from a technical perspective that modify our weapon sensor suites so that they can do a better job looking out over land as opposed to that far less complicated sea environment. Changes to weapon sensors will occur from a technical perspective, but changes are also required for our deployment philosophy, in my view. You’re not going to have that level of deep, sophisticated understanding by showing up two days before you’re wanted. So we will see more persistent deployment so that we become familiar with an operating area. And that will likely require choices. Where are the areas of strategic importance or real national interest? Maritime forces are ideally suited to that type of work.

Does that always mean being part of a coalition or do you see Canada operating independently?

In the defence and security of North America, we will operate with the United States predominantly, but I think in international contingency operations our modus operandi will be to operate in coalitions or alliances. I don’t mean that we simply contribute to somebody else running that show. One of the things in the Canada First Defence Strategy is that we will maintain the capability to be interoperable, but we’ll also maintain the capability for Canadian leadership in those types of operations. Canada will be more consequential as the world order sorts itself out in the 21st century. However, we also need to have a capacity to operate independently in our own ocean approaches to assure and assert as necessary defence of our own territory.

To the issue of interoperability, are there still difficulties to working with either the U.S. or wider coalitions? Does everyone need to adopt U.S. systems to participate or lead such operations?

From a technical perspective, Canada has for decades been involved in establishing what are fairly robust standards of interoperability. We have invested substantially. There is no doubt that because of its strategic engagement around the world, the United States has substantial weight in how interoperability is to be done. But I don’t think it is as simple as saying, here’s the standard, if you can’t come up to the standard you can’t be engaged. We have made conscious choices – put resources into certain things and not into others – to be able to maintain a level of technical interoperability with U.S. But interoperability is more about relationships, understanding doctrine, understanding tactics and training than simply technical interoperability. It’s about making sure that you discuss procurement strategies so that the equipment you are buying is as interoperable from the start as it can be.

There is a cultural dimension to interoperability which I think we blow by because we don’t realize how well we do it. Not everybody does it this well. We have achieved a great deal of credibility among other maritime nations because of our ability to seamlessly integrate. I was the task group commander when Hurricane Katrina devastated the southern states. When we sailed we didn’t know the organizational construct the U.S. would put in place but it made absolutely no difference. We were able to sort that out as we went down range because of the deep cultural, doctrinal connections that we had developed over decades of operations. It was the same with our response to the earthquake in Haiti. At a certain stage, that is what interoperability is about.

One of the immense strengths of Canada is that cultural awareness that comes from our make-up. Last year we sent a Canadian frigate to participate in an exercise in Latin America. We embarked a Peruvian admiral and his staff to be the at-sea commander of that task group. I recall asking how difficult it was for us to generate the Spanish speakers to support the admiral for the conduct of the exercise and I was told we didn’t post a single Spanish speaker into that ship. It was a typical Canadian frigate and the captain said, how many people on board speak Spanish, a bunch raised their hands, we assigned them to different roles for the period the admiral and his staff were on board and we functioned in Spanish. We don’t always recognize the power that that provides. Diversity is a real strength of Canada and we make use of that every day in a maritime environment because the maritime environment is an international environment.

Where do you see the future of “joint” and “integration” heading?

Joint is taking the capabilities generated by the services and bringing them together for some effect. Integration is a step further. I’ve never operated in the Canadian Forces except in a joint way. Do I believe that the future will require us to move beyond joint in an integrated fashion where we have potentially standing, rapidly deployable elements? Yes, because I don’t foresee massive periods of warning and build up before we have to respond. But integrated is more than that. A practical example I see every day is the Marine Security Operation Centres on both coasts. That is integrated. The MSOCs may be a model of what we will see more of in the 21st century. The navy has always conducted surveillance of vessels that were operating along our coasts. Now we have Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans with the Coast Guard, Border Services, the RCMP and the Canadian Forces permanently in those operation centres, bringing together an integrated picture. And I’m using maritime, navy, air and space resources to contribute to that integrated effect.

Military engagement needs to have sufficiently robust capability to be responsive and that will require more forward presence. Forward presence provides you with options. But none of the solutions are independent military solutions. Whether you’re talking comprehensive approach or integrated capabilities – people use different words to define it – I’m certain that will be more of how we engage in the world in the future. And not only in response to man-made or natural disasters; adversaries understand that if they stand and fight, they lose; consequently we are seeing a hybrid adversary make use of criminal elements and reasonably well organized insurgencies, and they will choose to strike in places where they believe they can have the greatest effect upon us. In a maritime environment we are not yet seeing it reach the level of sophistication as ashore, but it is certainly moving in that direction.

Given the emphasis on littoral operations and the challenges of hybrid warfare, do you have the right mix of ships, either currently or on the drawing board?

Sea control forward deployed to allow the flexibility of operational manoeuvre is what maritime forces are able to provide for Canada in an international context. Do we have extraordinarily adaptable platforms at the moment, predominantly the frigate? Absolutely. The changes in the Halifax class modernization give it greater capacity to be able to operate in the more complicated environment of the in-shore. As we look at the Canadian Surface Combatant, which will replace the frigate and the destroyers, we will be looking at a capacity to have more effect operating in the littorals. But nothing has changed doctrinally in the way we are employing them. That has been a very successful model. I still need to have underway sustainment so that I can actually deploy them forward and sustain them for extended periods, and I need that not just for international operations: when I open a map of Canada and point out just how far it is from Halifax to the Arctic or Esquimalt to the Arctic, that is a deployment by anybody’s assessment of global proportions.

You’ve noted that we suffer from “maritime blindness.” How is this affecting the navy and what might be the long-term implications on recruiting as our demographics change?

The vast majority of the population of this country lives in a corridor between Windsor and Quebec City, and although all of it is along water, many wouldn’t see that the water they could throw a stone into can also connect them to the east coast of China. It’s evident on the coasts but, from a demographic perspective, we have a continental mindset. However, there is an opportunity. I have been shameless in making use of the 100th anniversary of a national institution to explain to as broad an audience as I can why they need to have a global perspective. With more immigration, as Canada becomes a more diverse and connected nation, that will become more understandable and relevant – they’ll understand why we need to engage globally.

The demographics, I think, will support it. I don’t believe I will have fewer people to draw from. But we need to be out now talking to those communities who are choosing to make Canada where they want to live. Many of them will have come to Canada to get away from guys in uniform. More new Canadians, as they gain experience, will understand that not only are we a different institution than they might have encountered in their homeland, and if you want the world to be a certain way there are responsibilities that go along with it. So from an operational perspective I need to be recruiting and talking to those communities so they understand why service is appropriate and what the navy has to offer – superb training, superb technical and professional development in marketable skill sets, which can make people better citizens.

As a last word, what is most important for the navy of the next 50 years?

Nobody predicts the future right. Therefore, we need to maintain a range of capabilities such that we can effectively respond to the shocks that will occur. We need to ensure that we are propagating into the future a balanced capability across the environments of air, sea and land and that we continue the process of an integrated effect, recognizing that there are few problems for which the military is the only solution. We’ve talked about the hybrid adversary but we should appreciate that there is a latent but growing potential for interstate conflict. The stakes are immensely high: assured access to food resources and to energy. When I look around the world, I see the development of maritime capabilities that are becoming extraordinarily sophisticated in regions where ocean politics are already at the centre of discussions. I also worry about the proliferation of sophisticated weapons systems. Believing that what we have seen in the past 10 years is the only future would be a mistake.


An interview with Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, Chief of the Maritime Staff