New Hope for Canada’s ‘Big Honkin’ Ship’?
Jul 15, 2012

This spring, senior Canadian military leaders were again talking about the need for a ­dedicated amphibious ship. At an industry event in May, Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy spoke about “the need to broaden the fleet’s ability and flexibility to support operations ashore across a range of missions” – this had been a key platform lesson from recent operations ranging from East Timor in 1999 to Haiti in 2010. For all future combatants Maddison said, requirements staff will be looking at more ­flexible deck arrangements, bigger and more versatile ships’ boats and more space for humanitarian stores and accommodations.

Beyond that, he said recent operations underscore the need for Canada to consider a “dedicated platform to support operations from the sea” – including humanitarian operations and disaster response. Frigates and destroyers are useful but limited. The navy received good publicity for its support to Operation Hestia in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, even though that assistance was limited by the nature of the assets Canada despatched.

Amphibious ship capabilities can combine command and control, aviation support, cargo and fuel handling, hospital facilities, vehicles, Replenishment At Sea, and some can carry or generate sufficient water, food and fuel to make an impact in humanitarian operations. Adm Maddison made it clear that such a ship would need to be able to work in “manifestly chaotic conditions, often in the absence of, or hampered by extensively damaged transportation networks and infrastructure. The ship would have the lift capacity to embark personnel, force logistics, vehicles and humanitarian material, the equipment to embark and ­disembark cargo and transfer cargo at sea, and have the deck space for ship to shore ‘connectors’, the helicopters and landing craft “to project, sustain and support a force ashore, as well as to recover it.”

Mistral class amphibious ship being refueled.

VAdm Maddison’s remarks this spring appear to point in the direction of humanitarian rather than military operations. A military emphasis could have taken Canada into the lesser-known waters of joint operations: training soldiers as marines, maintaining their capability, and equipping them to fight ashore introduces added expense, and new levels of inter-service cooperation.

As Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier was in favour of a “big honkin’ ship” that would carry up to half a dozen heavy lift helicopters and up to 900 soldiers from a standing rapid reaction force. In 2006, under then Commodore Maddison, Canada exercised a combat landing with U.S. Navy and Marine assistance, putting 150 soldiers ashore in North Carolina. It took months of planning, and the support of about 1000 CF members, but it did prove the concept of a Canadian Standing Contingency Force (SCF) was viable. At the time, Maddison said “the SCF concept has a real, integrating power to it. It’s not a maritime force, not a land force. It’s truly a joint force.”

How would Canada pay for a new amphibious ship? “If it is incremental money, fine,” a retired officer said recently, but he advised the navy leadership to be careful. If shipbuilding budgets are fixed or even shrinking, other programs would have to be scaled back or dropped. “Are you going to spend the rest of the navy on it?”

HMCS Athabaskan Crew arrive in Haiti from the USS Fort MacHenry’s landing craft.

The navy will defend the currently planned 15 Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC) as a replacement for the current 3 destroyers and 12 frigates and in turn, the CSCs will need at least two Joint Support Ships (JSS) to achieve their full usefulness. That leaves 6-8 Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) but it is highly unlikely that fleet will be reduced below half a dozen vessels, let alone eliminated. The government’s commitment to the North may simply be too visible for a sharp reverse.

That said, some elements of the current climate may favour an amphibious ship: political optics are favourable because Canadians endorse a military role in humanitarian operations; the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy is undergoing a ‘reset’; and, given the delays in the AOPS program, the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy may be under review as well. Speaking with FrontLine last year, Adm Maddison said he wanted to talk with Army and Air Force Commanders about a joint sea-based humanitarian assistance and disaster response capability for the Canadian Forces. “I think that is a discussion that will perhaps animate the next cycle of the Canada First Defence Strategy as we move forward.”

Addressing the Naval Association of Canada in June, Deputy Commander, RAdm Mark Norman said, “In our view, such a vessel and the joint air-sea-land capabilities that it would have embarked, could be among the most heavily utilized assets in the CF inventory.” With a serious reworking of current programs or fresh money, a new amphibious vessel could become the best platform the Navy ever had.
USS New York (LPD-21), a San Antonio class amphibious transport ship.

Richard Bray is the Senior Writer at FrontLine magazines.
© FrontLine Defence 2012