Guarding the Coast
Jan 15, 2011

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The question most often comes in the form, “Do we need to arm the Coast Guard?” implying that relying on the Navy is somehow insufficient.

The answer to this very important question is unlikely to be simple. Guarding the ‘coast’ requires more than just armament; it requires knowledge of activity both over sea and over land; in short it requires surveillance. At an even more basic level, it requires organization and responsibility. Sadly, neither the Coast Guard nor the Navy have been assigned the responsibility to monitor and to guard our coasts.

Why not? Another good question. To answer, history is important. The Coast Guard has evolved to what it is today: Icebreaking, Navigation Aids, Vessel Traffic Management, Marine Search and Rescue, Pollution Response and indeed a contribution to sovereignty through the provision of a federal presence in our offshore waters. The latter is important albeit insufficient. The Coast Guard does provide a ‘presence’ but, without an element of control, it lacks any claim to be ‘guarding the coast.’ Nor does the Coast Guard have any significant air resources to provide a level of ­sur­veil­lance conditional to a future enforcement role.

Well, what of the Navy? Certainly the assets are there. A robust core capability of frigates and destroyers is supported by a dozen coastal defence vessels. Supporting helicopters widen the surveillance coverage of the larger vessels, and a fleet of Aurora maritime patrol aircraft stationed on both coasts also has the potential to conduct very wide surface surveillance.

However, the Navy does not, and has never used its assets for routine and persistent surveillance of our territorial waters.

Again, history provides relevance. During the Cold War, Maritime Command was a force generation command with no significant operational role. Within NATO, our Navy was essentially assigned to SACLANT (Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic) in time of conflict, and while COMCANLANT (Commander, Canadian Atlantic Submarine Area) had an operational role, it was a role subordinate to WESTLANT (Allied Command Western Atlantic) and SACLANT – not to the national command authority in Ottawa. While the Air Force had forces earmarked for NORAD and Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force in Germany, the Army was assigned to the central front. A further force generation organization, established under Canadian Forces Europe (CFE), served to further distance Canadians from command of their own forces during the Cold War.

Maritime Command therefore, came to regard itself primarily and essentially as a force generation organization with no operational command responsibilities.

This was further exacerbated by the Government’s insistence on cost recovery for operations in support of other government departments. Looking at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, for example, the Navy was committed to providing a number of sea days for fisheries patrols, and days in excess were subjected to financial recovery. ‘Operations’ in Maritime Command came to be regarded as major exercises that dominated the calendar.

Maritime Command was too ‘busy’ to conduct routine surveillance and control of our three oceans. Moreover, the Command had no assigned ‘responsibility’ to conduct such surveillance. Fisheries flew many of its own missions, as did Transport Canada for pollution control.

Many will remember the debates of the 80s and early 90s over the location of the heads of the three ‘services’ or ‘environmental commanders’ as they came to be known. Should they be in Halifax, Winnipeg and Montreal, or co-located with the CDS in Ottawa? The First Gulf War, with the establishment of a joint headquarters in Bahrain, demonstrated clearly, for the first time, that the environmental commanders must be in Ottawa for the conduct of joint operations at the national level. It is imperative that the CDS have direct access to his component commanders – for advice, yes – but also to act as a check and balance to the joint staff.

That did not happen during the First Gulf War. The Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (DCDS) was an Air Force three-star general, with a two-star commanding Conventional Forces in Europe, and a one-star commanding the Air Division in Europe. Not surprisingly, the Commander Air Command, in Winnipeg, was largely left out of the decision chain.

On the Navy side, the commander in theatre (Ken Summers) and the Chief of Staff to the DCDS (yours truly as the first COS J3) were both Commodores. There simply was no way to include Maritime Command in the essential decision chain given the distance between Ottawa and Halifax. Suffice it to say that it became evident that the Commanders must reside in Ottawa and that is where they are today. So, what has changed from an operational perspective?

The biggest change has been the increase in the operational tempo of the Navy. Post 9/11 in particular, we saw a huge demand placed on our Navy for expeditionary operations while at the same time (and with the creation of Northern Command by the U.S.) there was increased emphasis on the need for coastal operations and perimeter defence – this did not change Navy priorities, instead, we saw the challenge handed over to an ‘interdepartmental’ committee, with predictable results.

Don’t Ask
The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, Chaired by Colin Kenny, did much to increase awareness of the deficiencies in our defensive posture. Testifying before that Committee, I observed that, in the U.S., the Coast Guard looks after the first 200 miles and then the Navy takes over – but in Canada, you don’t want to ask who looks after the first 200 miles.

A lot of surveillance is conducted on an ad hoc basis by naval and air units exercising, and transiting through and above our coastal areas. That information is captured and displayed in information centers and command centers on both coasts. The result is a ‘Recognized Maritime Picture’. However, one Commander in Halifax opined that rather than an RMP, we have a picture of only that which we recognize – inferring there are far more unknowns than knowns. In testimony before the Senate Committee, Navy Captain Hickey stated, “… the picture is still somewhat limited by the nature of the surveillance effort that feeds it. Other nations provide valuable data for global awareness and warning, but within Canada’s own area, more surveillance is required to properly cover the area, achieve better timeliness of data and ensure that any potential response required to protect Canada’s interests can be supported by full awareness through the maritime picture.”

Post 9/11, the Navy began a program to create MSOCs (Marine Security Operations Centers) on both coasts and the Great Lakes, in cooperation with the RCMP – funding, however, has been slow to materialize. While this could be regarded as ‘typical’ of National Defence capital programs, it does serve to emphasize that ‘surveillance’ today is still not regarded a high priority, let alone an activity fundamental to our national security.

More surveillance is required to properly cover the area, was the conclusion reached by Capt(N) Hickey in 2003, and little has changed in 2011. How much more time is required?

Enter Canada Command. The recent creation of Canada Command has established – for the first time – an operational organization that can effectively set out and monitor a surveillance regime for Canada. However that has not happened to date. Canada Command plays a key role in the management of events – witness the recent Olympics and the G8 conference. However it is not evident, even to the most casual observer, that Canada Command is engaged on a daily basis in the surveillance and protection of our three oceans.

How Much is Enough?
How much surveillance is required? We have to start before we can have insight into the answer, and there are lots of tools available. Some years ago, the West Coast implemented a successful Coastal Watch organization with the RCMP. We have heard about technical improvements such as IMIC3 (Interdepartmental Maritime Integrated Command Control and Communications). This will allow computer-based exchanges of positional data between the Coast Guard and the Navy for the first time. Whether that exchange can be mandated is another question to which we don’t, as yet, know the answer.

The Influence of the Arctic
The rise to prominence of the Arctic region in our national cognizance may provide the stimulus to move forward with efforts to protect our sovereignty and to truly put Canada – first. The present Government seems to have a serious desire to know what is going on in the Arctic. The Prime Minister has stated that ‘We must use it or lose it.’ Several significant policy initiatives have resulted.

The Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship project is perhaps the most prominent, certainly the most costly. Northern basing, Icebreakers, UAVs, Search and Rescue Aircraft have all been touted as Canada’s response to potential challenges to our sovereignty in the Arctic – but all are years away. Surely a ‘policy’ to begin using our existing assets on a routine basis to gather information on the Arctic would be a logical and easy first step. It does not require legislation. It requires only tasking. And where two or more Government departments will be involved, the necessary legislation can be preceded by cooperation.

The Aurora Fleet is tasked to conduct a single Arctic surveillance flight every month. But, I am told, even that modest effort is often cancelled due to equipment failures and/or higher priorities. Surely we can do better.

Who should Guard the Coast?
If we pose the question one more time, the answer must surely be: “both!” And every other government agency or department with an interest in the maintenance of our sovereignty should be part of the team. The leadership of this effort would most naturally fall to Canada Command, with responsibility of tasking forces assigned on a daily basis. The coordination and analysis of all forthcoming inputs into the Recognized Maritime Picture would be inherent within this responsibility, albeit devolved appropriately.

In conclusion, I would only add that any debate on whether we should or should not arm the Coast Guard does no service to the real deficiencies that exist in our surveillance framework.
Bruce Johnston, a retired Rear-Admiral, is a Senior Associate at Hill and Knowlton, and the Deputy President of the Naval Officers’ Association of Canada (NOAC).
© Frontline Defence 2011