Maritime Challenges and the Naval Fleets
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 5)

Although the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy had just confirmed the accelerated retirement of 4 of the RCN’s 17 largest ships, with no immediate prospect of replacements, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman seemed remarkably upbeat while attending the 21st International Seapower Symposium (ISS), held biennially at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The theme of the ISS, which drew more than 170 officers and civilians from more than 110 countries, was “global solutions to common maritime challenges.”

Chief of the Naval Staff and RCN Commander since June 2013, Norman told Canadian reporters there was no practical alternative to recommending to the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson, and Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, that both resupply ships, HMCS Protecteur and Preserver, and two of the three remaining destroyers, Algonquin and Iroquois, be retired earlier than planned.

“They’re all, in essence, out of service immediately; none of them will go to sea again,” he asserted during a teleconference in September.

HMCS Iroquois, on which Norman served as an executive officer early in his career, was “furthest down the track” – her scheduled retirement had previously been set for 2015 – but the others are being accelerated due to damage and cost.

Preserver and Protecteur had been scheduled for retirement in 2016 and 2017, respectively. However, recent engineering inspections of Preserver had uncovered corrosion that had degraded its fundamental integrity below acceptable limits. Protecteur’s retirement was moved forward because a fire last February had damaged it beyond affordable repair.

When FrontLine asked whether the ­corrosion in Preserver, which was commissioned in 1970, a year after her sister ship, was worse than what would normally be expected, Norman replied that it was “not an issue, necessarily, of the age of the vessel.” Ongoing structural monitoring had disclosed that the corrosion was “beyond the limits of what we were prepared to deal with.”

Had the RCN opted otherwise, “we would’ve been looking at some very significant repairs, both in time and in money. It just came down to a decision of what makes sense.” He went on to explain that the age of the vessel came into play when considering the following question: “is it a worthwhile return on your investment to expend those kinds of resources, both human and financial, to repair something which ultimately may give very limited utility or reliability out the other end after you spend all that money? That’s ultimately where we ended up.”

HMCS Preserver at sea. (2007 Photo: Cpl Jeff Neron, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Asked then whether the advanced corrosion spoke to poor design or materials at the outset, Norman demurred vigorously. “Oh no! These ships are 45 years old; there’s nothing ‘poor’ about them! This is a credit to the original design, the build, the construction, the maintenance, the support of these vessels. The fact that we were able to field the kind of capabilities that we were, for as long as we did, is an absolute credit to the original built-in-Canada and designed-in-Canada capability that Protecteur and Preserver […] represent.”

There will be a traditional paying-off process, but disposal is up to the Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) and Public Works and Government Services Canada. VAdm Norman expects this will result on an omnibus contract and “once that’s in place, the RCN will transition those ships through a very extensive predisposal and ultimately disposal” process.

“They have all served Canada and the RCN with honour and distinction,” he says. “All of the ships are at or approaching the end of their effective and productive service life and any further expenditure of time or money […] no longer makes sense – either fiscally or operationally. It takes away from vital work we need to do to prepare for our future.”

Part and parcel of that future is that the RCN is in the midst of what he calls the “most intensive and comprehensive period of fleet modernization and renewal in its peacetime history.” That includes the “highly successful” refit of the RCN’s 12 Halifax-class frigates, which first entered service between 1992 and 1996, and the four Victoria-class diesel-electric submarines, as well as two fleets of smaller vessels: 12 Kingston-class coastal defence vessels and 8 Orca-class training vessels.

Further out on the horizon are three new classes under the umbrella of the 2010 National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS). Those include 2 Queenston-class multi-role Joint Support Ships (JSS) first announced in 2004 but fraught with delays, as well as 6-8 Harry DeWolf-class Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) on which the first steel is scheduled to be cut next June. Ultimately, there will be up to 15 Surface Combatant platforms built, which would blend destroyer and frigate capabilities.

Norman concedes that there would be no “instant” savings attributable to the four retirements. Savings would be looked at over the transition period to the new ships and there obviously are costs associated with disposal. “In the near term, we’re talking in the tens of millions of dollars, but that’s about as specific as I want to be.”

What happens to the crews of the ships being retired, some 1,400 personnel overall? Norman says some will be involved immediately in removing stores, and all will be assigned to other priorities to “get us ready for the future fleet.” Keeping them on the payroll is key to delivering the RCN’s new capabilities. “We don’t just walk 300 people off the ship and then put them somewhere else. This will be phased out.” He also points out that this is routine when vessels go in for extended maintenance or refit.

On the reduced overall size of the RCN, Norman says “it’s a question of how we use what we have“ with appropriate fleet management aimed at “excellence at sea.” He admits to challenges, but notes that the RCN is far from alone in this regard and that the focus is on getting to the end of the decade when it can field its new capabilities alongside those already in place.

January 2014 – HMCS Protecteur conducts a Replenishment at Sea with US ships Lake Erie and Cape St. George, during Pacific exercises. (Photo: Sgt Angela Abbey, MARPAC Imaging Services)

He also acknowledged that the reduction in his command “will generate some loss in . . . capacity and capability” but said that “will be partially mitigated in the short- to medium-term as we build towards the future fleet.” And, although they are Royal Canadian Air Force assets, he welcomes “the much needed and most impressive world-class warfare capabilities” of the upgraded Lockheed CP-140 Aurora fixed-wing fleet and the impending acceptance of Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters.

Meanwhile, there is the challenge of resupplying the frigates and the remaining destroyer, HMCS Athabaskan (commissioned in 1972), which is now in the Caribbean as part of Op Caribbe against illicit trafficking. As for Canadian frigates, Toronto is in the Black Sea now as part of NATO’S Op Reassurance, having relieved Regina after nine months. In late summer, Shawinigan sailed to latitude 80’30" – which is the furthest North a Canadian naval vessel has ever ventured, according to Norman.

“The RCN is currently investigating options to mitigate the replenish-at-sea capability gap in order to sustain Canadian warships until the arrival of the joint support ships in 2019,” he says. This could involve enhancing existing arrangements with key allies, as well as unspecified “made-in-Canada” solutions, or possibly even converting commercial vessels. In responding to journalists, he did not want to get into “hypotheticals” which are still being analyzed. “We have been looking at this for some time and … there’s a wide range of possible approaches” to meeting the RCN’s needs.

So why, if these other replenishment options existed, were new vessels even necessary in the long term? Norman was unequivocal in describing the JSS as the solution. “There’s no question that we need the capability.” He insists. “What we’re having the conversation about is: what are the potential, viable and most sensible options to mitigate the lack of that capability through … the next several years.”

HMCS Iroquois returned to Halifax in October 2008 after a six-month maritime security operation (along with Calgary and Protecteur) to form the fourth rotation of Operation Altair, Canada’s maritime contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom, the US-led campaign against terrorism. (Photo: Pte Martin Roy, Formation Imaging Services, Halifax, NS)

His speculation about Canada’s allies continuing to fill the operational gap echoes a remark at the ISS by U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, who served two years as a surface warfare officer aboard the cruiser Little Rock in the early 1970s before beginning a legal practice and eventually running for Congress. “No one can do everything we need to do by ourselves,” Mabus said. “We work far better together.”

Norman is “pleased and enthusiastic” about the capabilities the RCN brings to multinational missions. He notes that the first four Halifax-class ships had enhanced command-and-control capability built-in, as well as enhanced radars, sensors and weapons systems, which fits well within U.S. and NATO defence arrangements. Trials with Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships Halifax and Fredericton on the east coast, and Winnipeg and Calgary on the west coast, are going well, he says, and there is no need to accelerate the process.

Asked whether the frigates, notwithstanding their extensive upgrades, can be an effective substitute for destroyers, he says the difference between the two platforms is “very theoretical” and says it is “not particularly useful” to compare the two. “A modern frigate is as capable in most respects, if not more so, than 20-year-old technology in the legacy Iroquois-class,” he explains. “The bottom line is that […] we’re very confident in the capability that we’ve now fielded through the modernized Halifax-class. We’ve seen great results at sea, impressive capabilities that are getting the attention of some of our key allies.” The Halifax-class frigates, with strong RCN leadership, have proven themselves a formidable force over and over again in numerous domestic and international deployments since they entered service approximately 45 years ago.

VAdm Norman says the RCN will remain “in what people will be calling the ‘destroyer business’ because CFDS (the Canada First Defence Strategy) tells us we’re going to be in the destroyer business. It specifically tells us that we’re going to replace the capabilities in both the Iroquois- and Halifax-class with what will be, in essence, a hybrid fleet, if you will, of the two capabilities.” These new hybrids will be the much anticipated Canadian Surface Combatant.

HMCS Algonquin enters Esquimalt harbour following a five-month deployment in 2010. (Photo: Pte Malcolm Byers, MARPAC Imaging Services)

“Defining ships by what you call them […] can become a very difficult conversation to have. It’s all about the capabilities that the ships have, it’s not necessarily about you call them. There are patrol vessels out there in the world that have capabilities greater than 1970s destroyers. Equally, there are destroyers out there that have capabilities well beyond what would have been characterized as a cruiser 10 or 15 years ago. It’s about what it is, what it has, what it can do, and what you do with it,” says Norman. “I accept completely that there is a difference in terms of some of the capabilities with respect to the weapons systems but, at the end of the day, I am entirely confident with the enhanced air defence capability of the modernized frigates – it represents absolute world-class, state-of-the-art capability. Can it reach out as far as the air defence capability of the destroyers? No, it can’t, but that’s not what this is about. This is about ensuring that we have the capabilities we need to move forward and, ultimately, if we find ourselves in a situation where that extended range capability will be required, we’re not going to be going anywhere by ourselves.”

Paying Off a Ship
The traditional “paying off” of a ship can mean many things, beginning with the technical aspects of preparing the ship for its eventual disposal, including de-ammunitioning, de-storing, removal of classified equipment, warehousing, disposal of obsolete inventory, environmental remediation, and contracting for disposal. Ceremonial aspects include the official decommissioning ceremony, and the collection of naval artifacts for future display. The paying off of any warship is an especially poignant event in the history of any navy. HMCS Iroquois was originally scheduled to be withdrawn from service in 2015. This announcement meant that no acceleration of Iroquois’ scheduled retirement was required.

Ken Pole is a contributing editor at FrontLine.
© FrontLine Magazines 2014