Maritime Security
Sep 15, 2010

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The Canadian Navy: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow was the focus of this year’s Maritime Security Conference, organized annually by the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. This being the Canadian navy’s centennial year, the conference was largely introspective, discussing a broad range of topics – from historical perspectives to future challenges and considerations for the navy.
Attendance for this year’s conference was as broad as the topics discussed; those present included serving and retired Canadian Forces personnel, scientists, academics, and concerned members of the public. Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and the Canadian Nautical Research Society (CNRS) were also well-represented.
Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden’s opening address emphasized the navy’s importance in maintaining a safe and secure global system, one of political, economic, and social connectivity made possible through the world’s oceans. The sessions that followed were also contextualized through thoughtful keynote speeches by Marc Milner, Jim Carruthers, and Robert Walker.
This year’s conference had two aims:

  1. To look back over 100 years of Canadian naval evolution at select activities, such as R&D, operational research, operational and training concepts, ship types, equipment, that have influenced the evolution of the Navy, and draw out lessons to take forward into the navy of the future.
  2. To examine new and emerging concepts and technologies likely to influence future development of Canada’s navy.

In accomplishing these objectives, many papers were retrospective, focusing on aspects of the navy’s history, celebrating its accomplishments, and most importantly, working the wisdom of the past into lessons for the future.
The navy is world-class in innovation when it comes to vessels and platforms used throughout its history. For instance, Mathieu Brosseau outlined the excellent contributions made by RCN Flower Class corvettes in the Second World War, and Doug Thomas identified many ground-breaking innovations of Canada’s Cold War workhorse, the St. Laurent-class destroyer.
The men and women of yesterday’s navy were also the centre of attention. Michael Whitby discussed the ‘provocateur’ A.B.F. Fraser-Harris, and Jason Delany presented on the life and Arctic experiences of James Croal. Wilf Lund provided a retrospective of experiences at HMCS Venture naval college, while Jim Boutilier offered insights into the lives of lower-deck sailors – the ‘matelot memories.’
These and many other stories offer fascinating and relevant reflection, showcasing the navy’s rise from a small fisheries protection fleet to a modern and internationally-engaged force.
Challenges on the Horizon
But what about tomorrow? What are the existing challenges in the navy, and what challenges will it face in the future? How can the navy prepare for those challenges?
The conference made clear that the future is rife with challenges. Discussions noted one of the most significant emerging difficulties – recruitment and retention of personnel.
Vice-Admiral McFadden noted that  recruitment objectives are being met, yet vacancies remain as high as 20% – particularly in technical trades – and recruitment and retention for the future remains uncertain. Clearly, the navy will continue to grapple with its ‘people problems’ into the foreseeable future.
Broad challenges also lay in the design and structuring of navy fleets. Mark Sloan cautioned about a variety of future trends that will serve to complicate the security environment, including climate change, globalization, the proliferation of technology, and the relative decline of American dominance. Further, Vice-Admiral McFadden and presenter David Mugridge cautioned about emerging ‘hybrid’ adversaries – independent, non-state entities backed by high-tech weaponry and state funding.
As Canada’s navy carries out its missions – identified by VAdm McFadden as protecting a regulated ocean commons, promoting good, preventing conflict, and prevailing in combat when needed – it is not immune to the complexities of the future. Indeed, implications to the navy will be significant; as Sloan noted, the navy’s future operating environment will be “congested, cluttered, contested, connected, and constrained.”
Therefore, while the navy’s centennial offers an opportunity to celebrate the momentous accomplishments of the navy, its future seems bleak. Between the difficulties of attracting and keeping skilled sailors, and the complexities and new trends in the emerging security environment, the navy will be challenged to remain effective in its missions and relevant to the new security environment and the Canadian public.
Planning for the Future
Yet, as history has shown, the navy has demonstrated a pattern of resilience and innovation. Though the future is rife with challenges for the navy, conference presentations on science, technology, and future planning considerations illustrate that such adaptability and innovation will continue.
The navy may be grappling with ‘people problems,’ but the conference showcased research in areas that can fill or bridge personnel gaps. For instance, Leesa Tanner’s presentation on the ‘millennial generation’ offered valuable insights into recruiting the navy’s future leaders from today’s youth. Similarly, Mae Seto discussed advancements in unmanned underwater and surface vehicles, which have the potential to save personnel from dangerous tasks. By applying research projects like these, the navy has the potential to recruit tech-savvy youths into its ranks, and augment its fleet structure with unmanned systems that allow personnel to be assigned to less dangerous duties.
So too can the navy adequately prepare for the “congested, cluttered, contested, connected, and constrained” future security environment.
Dan Middlemiss identified the impending need to ‘green’ the Canadian navy as fuel costs rise and are projected to consume very sizeable shares of operating budgets. New technologies boosting fuel efficiency in ships are being showcased by Canada’s allies, including electric drives, hull designs, propeller coatings, stern flaps, and biofuels.
Captain (N) J.D. O’Reilly discussed a variety of emerging hull and propulsion concepts, identifying a number of options like trimaran hulls and bulbous bows that may improve efficiency and cut costs. Such innovations may prove critical in designing the navy’s fleet of tomorrow.
Binding these innovations together, David Mugridge identified the need for greater investment in support units and sealift and littoral capabilities to keep the navy flexible, cautioning against adhering to the SALY principle: “same as last year.” Modifying the fleet structure may be expensive, but Mugridge advises that costs can be minimized through commercial off-the-shelf components.
Alternatively, while Mark Sloan also underlined the need for adaptability and agility, he argued that a frigate/destroyer fleet mix can provide the best capabilities and flexibility needed to put weight behind Canada’s commitments.
Both Mugridge and Sloan noted that the use of military power is but one instrument of the government, and that future missions will require a whole-of-govern ment approach brought to bear to prevent and diffuse conflict.
Over its century of service, the Canadian navy has accumulated many momentous achievements and successes. Conference presentations highlighted the navy’s resilience and innovation as it faced challenges over its history.
The navy is once again confronted with challenges, ranging from personnel recruitment and retention problems to an increasingly complex and unfamiliar security environment. However, the conference made clear that these challenges are by no means insurmountable. Many bright minds exist in the navy, in the defence research community, and among the civilian population. Unmanned systems, the emerging ‘millennial generation,’ and the capabilities and capacities needed in a future fleet structure offer highly relevant solutions to the challenges raised.
The conference therefore very successfully showcased a significant ‘brain trust’ of Canadian research available to the navy as it advances into its next century.

J. Matthew Gillis is an MA candidate at Dalhousie University and a research assistant at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.
© FrontLine Defence 2010