Surface Combatants
Feb 15, 2016

How Many, and What Capabilities?

There has been significant recent media coverage about the renewal of Canada’s Surface Combatant fleet and what number of ships and the capabilities they should have. In its Speech from the Throne, the Government announced that an open and transparent defence review will be undertaken and should answer the fundamental question “What does the Government expect of its Navy”. Along with an approved program budget, the answer to numbers and capabilities will be determined.

Spanish combat ship Blas de Lezo and Portuguese multi-purpose ship Dom Francisco de Almeida sail with Canadian ship Winnipeg (foreground) during Operation Reassurance as part of Canada’s commitment to NATO assurance measures in Central and Eastern Europe.

Canada has three coasts, and having naval capability in the Atlantic and Pacific that can deploy to the Arctic along with some support facilities would meet a bare minimum sovereignty capability. The Arctic requirement will soon be met by the new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships which are focused upon Canadian sovereignty.

The Liberal Platform stated: “These investments will ensure that the Royal Canadian Navy is able to operate as a true blue-water maritime force”. This means the ability to operate not only in our sovereign waters but throughout the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean with a capability to deal with more than constabulary threats.

The question then, is whether the Government wishes to maintain a naval role in contributing to global peace and security; a capability that has been used consistently over the past few decades by both Liberal and Conservative Governments. Based upon the Liberal Platform, it would seem highly likely that the Government would want the ability to make a significant contribution internationally.

Minimum Requirements
To calculate minimum ship numbers, there are two important contextual concepts that need to be understood.

First, to have a fully trained and ready ship/crew available for immediate tasking realistically requires a minimum of four ships/crews. The reasons, while complex, have been proven time and again. Anything less will either badly erode the institution (the Navy) or will result in not being able to meet assigned commitments.

Second, in terms of international naval operations, it is generally accepted that a nation providing one warship will have limited ability to lead/influence. If a nation provides more than one, it has frequent opportunity to lead, and much greater ability to influence mission objectives. The RCN has shown over recent decades that it is not only capable but is a preferred Alliance and Coalition leader.

The calculation then becomes: one Surface Combatant ready in the Atlantic and a second in the Pacific, plus a minimum of one Surface Combatant available for international tasking but realistically two to allow greater influence and to be able to simultaneously deal with major events in differing geographic areas. This result is a minimum of three – but more realistically four – Surface Combatants available on an ongoing basis. Based upon the 1:4 ratio this means the Surface Combatant fleet size must be between 12 and 16. Anything below these numbers will result in Canada’s ability to play any rapid and long term international role is severely impacted and could also potentially result in a loss of operational capability in either the broader Atlantic or Pacific.

Why this Capability?
These ships will be the only surface class that will be able to deal with more than rudimentary constabulary threats. This means they must be of sufficient size, sea worthiness, combat capability and endurance to deal both with sophisticated threats within our sovereign waters and throughout the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.

The increase in capability required to seamlessly work with our allies is not large, but would translate into more than a self defence capability – to include the ability to command an Alliance or Coalition task force. These latter capabilities need only be fitted in three or four of the total ships.

Based on the Liberal Platform’s stated desire to contribute in a meaningful way internationally, the minimum Surface Combatant fleet size is clearly between 12 and 16; anything less would not meet Government commitments and would be a major reduction in Canadian naval capability.

Vice-Admirals Gary Garnett and Ron Buck both served as Commander of Canada’s Navy and as Vice Chief of Defence Staff before retiring from the Canadian Armed Forces.