Will Partisan Politics Sink the Navy?
© 2008 FrontLine Defence (Vol 5, No 3)

In an article on the Halifax Class Modernization (HCM) program in our last edition (#2/2008), author Jerrod Riley raised concerns about the ability of the Navy to meet Canada’s domestic and international ­security obligations for the duration of the upgrade program.  FrontLine asked him to expand on the implications of this situation, his response follows:

With up to seven of Canada’s frigates in non-operational status at any one time, and the lifespan of our remaining destroyers in question, Canada will be woefully under-defended. While the Victoria-class submarines are certain to play a key role in maritime defence during this period, their differing capabilities and limited number cannot make up for the loss of 10 (or 11 if you count HMCS Huron) of our major ­surface vessels.

What are the implications of a five ship Navy? First, we will be able to maintain one ready duty ship on the east and west coast, available to respond to security threats, search and rescue, smuggling and fisheries interdiction operations. Splitting our ocean domain in two makes each of these frigates responsible all these missions within 4,940,000 km2 of ocean territory. The remaining three vessels will be shared between our NATO commitments, other international operations, training the next generation of sailors and a limited number of sea days for patrolling our territory. There will be zero margin to address the unexpected.

Our inability to make sustained international commitments will deal a serious blow to our credibility as a global power, undoing much of great work the Navy has done since HMCS Athabaskan put to sea on September 11th, 2001 to protect our east coast with its Area Air Defence systems and October 17th of that year, when we deployed a full task group to the Persian Gulf. Our ability to deploy an independent Canadian task group or to even maintain our continuous presence in the Middle East will disappear. We can expect our allies to once again start asking “What have you done for me lately?”

I do not envy the Navy for the challenge they face, and I certainly don’t hold them responsible. Given the number of government departments involved in procuring ships and funding for the Navy it is clear that this is a government problem.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal recently addressed a Naval Summit in Ottawa, presenting a very reasonable argument for why we need “a sixty ship navy and a coherent multi-year ramp up”, noting “Every major commitment Canada has made under Liberal and Conservative governments… began with or relied upon a naval deployment.” Liberal Senator Colin Kenney has long advocated for similar increases to our naval capabilities, yet “Canada's Coastlines: The Longest Under-Defended Borders in the World” remain so.

Following the last election, the Conservatives walked away from the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, chaired by Senator Kenny. Only Progressive Conservative Senator Norman Atkins remained on the committee, as an Independent filling a Liberal billet. While the Conservatives have since come back to the table, sources close to the committee report that partisan bickering and animosity between the House of Commons and the Senate continue to distract from important policy discussions that are the hallmark of responsible government.

Within the House of Commons, things are no better. The Conservatives have formed their own Shipbuilding and Marine caucus even as the all-party caucus formed by NDP MP Peter Stoffer strives to address the same issues. While this smacks of a spoiled child taking his toys and going home, the Conservatives government is not solely to blame. Each party shares guilt for the Navy’s present predicament.

Since 1990 our fleet has been reduced by 35 percent. As goes our navy, so goes our country. We need government vision and action that will build a credible navy and invest in our country. Building a fleet indeed builds a nation, yet the three federal parties that are supposed to put ‘Canada First’ continue to put ‘Party First.’ As one result, our ocean approaches will be without a credible naval presence for up to seven years and there has been no progress to remedy the situation.           

The partisan conduct of Parliament has become a national embarrassment, and until we as citizens force this to change, I hold little hope that our sailors will get the ships and support they need and deserve.
Jerrod Riley is the National Deputy Director of the Navy League of Canada. Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone.
© Frontline Defence 2008