By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
The Royal Canadian Navy has just released its latest strategic plan for 2017-2022, at what it describes as ‘a critical juncture' in its fleet recapitalisation programme. In broad terms, the five-year programme offers the latest insight into how navies generally are adapting to the changing maritime environment. But it also underscores that some of the critical decisions and challenges regarding Canada’s future fleet still lie ahead.
The new strategic plan follows a series of other documents over recent years which have sought to map out a future course for the navy in the face of significant hurdles. These have included the withdrawal without immediate replacement of its destroyer force, and the gap in afloat support which is now being filled with the interim oiler MV Asterix pending the arrival of the new Protecteur-class Joint Support Ships (JSSs). The new plan sets out the ambition that the first of the JSSs will be built by 2022, but there are question-marks still over when the ships will be available for service.
The Canadian navy retains the ambition to deploy a blue-water capability ultimately based, according to the defence policy review published in June, on two naval task groups. The new navy plan sets its sights on deploying one such group by 2022 of four surface combatants, a submarine, and MV Asterix as the support ship. And, significantly, a goal is also for the navy to lead a multinational theatre anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercise. That reflects the refocusing on complex ASW requirements within NATO in particular, and points to the Canadian Navy’s potential to offer an important contribution in alliance and partnership terms.
Another ambition is to see the Victoria-class submarines ‘deployed globally’, and to get the process under way for a modernisation programme for the vessels. Again, these submarines, originally designed for the Royal Navy as quiet deep-ocean ASW platforms for the North Atlantic, are potentially significant assets. But they are all at least 24 years old already and have had a chequered history. So the plans to modernize them will be critical. And, ultimately, there will also be the issue of replacement sometime in the 2030s.
Then there is the long-running Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) programme. The deadline for submitting bids for the CSC contract has now passed, with a choice due to be made during 2018. The government has affirmed a commitment to ‘a full complement’ of 15 ships. But, given the history of the programme, its ambition, and continuing doubts over costs, delivery – again – will be a challenge.
The navy’s new document, like the defence policy review, emphasises the need for adaptation. In that sense, one might question the fact that the basic future shape of the core fleet will look very much like the fleet of the past. But there have been significant changes in organisation and structure. And, in an age when all major navies are challenged with meeting commitments and are looking at increasing partnerships and interoperability, the prospect of a modernised, capable, and largely homogeneous Canadian fleet of surface combatants and submarines holds significant attraction.
There are also important niche capabilities in the offing, like the new Harry DeWolf-class arctic and offshore patrol ships. And the promise of investment in maritime unmanned systems. Much will still have to come right to produce the new CSCs, FSSs, and modernised submarines as planned. But the real significance of the Canadian navy’s strategic plan may be as much in how it fits in with the developments plans of other similar allied and partner navies as they also modernise, as much as it does in Canadian national capability terms.
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