Are We Having the Right Debate?
Nov 15, 2010

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The decision by the Conservative Government to move forward with the replacement of its fighter aircraft is undoubtedly in the national interest. Of that there should be no debate. Canada needs a fighter/strike aircraft in its inventory for air defence in the NORAD context and for sea control operations in its three oceans, most notably the Arctic. Tactical Air Support to Maritime Operations (TASMO) is a doctrine fundamentally important to Canada. Sea control comes via submarines or strike aircraft in our northern approaches. There are no other alternatives.

Where then, is the debate? What is important is that we have a seamless capability transition between our present and future combat aircraft. We cannot withstand a ‘capability gap’ as we go forward. The Government decision on JSF eliminates that possibility. So where is the debate?

The debate lies with the Navy.

The Conservative Government gets good marks for the enablement of a National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS). That strategy will effectively rationalize our shipyards, with only two emerging as productive entities, one for large non-combatants and the other for combatant warships. NSPS will unfold over the next two years, if all goes well.

However, our two replenishment ships (Provider is already gone) will likely not see their Joint Supply Ship (JSS) replacement. Our three destroyers (comprising our Air Defence and Command and Control capability) will definitely not see their replacements. The Halifax Class availability over the next 10 years will be decimated by the extensive and complex modernization now underway.

In short, Canada will very likely be without the naval capability we have recently come to enjoy for many years to come.

So, finally, here is the debate. If we focus on the essential combat capability (destroyers and frigates) that Canada must have, then NSPS and the follow-on build must be accelerated. The Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project will ultimately deliver replacements for both the 3 ­Iroquois Class destroyers and the 12 Halifax Class frigates. But let us consider reality for a moment. The CSC project is presently destined to follow a 3-4 year definition phase, is likely to be a totally new design, and will not begin construction until after the full build of the 6-8 Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). Therefore, CSC is likely 9-10 years from cutting steel, and close to 15 years from the first ship entering service.

NSPS is designed, in part, to provide a more level loading framework for Canada’s shipyards, to avoid the ‘boom or bust’ scenario that characterized past shipbuilding programs. At present, however, it is not at all consistent with Canada’s need for a Navy that can both surveil and protect Canada, while simultaneously projecting Canadian influence abroad.

Do we have the objective wrong? The aim of NSPS is to preserve Canada’s shipbuilding capability, yet it seems wholly inconsistent with the need to preserve the combat capabilities of our Navy. Is this not the real debate?

Bruce Johnston, a retired Rear-Admiral, is currently a Senior Associate at Hill and Knowlton, and the Deputy President of NOAC.
© FrontLine Defence 2010