Thursday, July 21, 2011

Without a navy, Canada won't matter

Canada's coastlines are the longest in the world. Canada's economy relies on safe passage for our exports, and Canada's allies depend on our support at sea. Canada has a big stake in the Pacific Ocean, where the new studs of the political world are starting to flex their naval power. All of which makes one wonder about the indifference with which the Harper government is treating Canada's navy -the abandoned child of the Canadian Forces.

The government is committed to F-35 jet fighters for the air force. It has taken a number of measures to replenish the army, which has captured a lot of attention during our mission to landlocked Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the navy continues to rust out. There is now little hope of plugging what are fast becoming huge gaps in Canada's capacity to defend our interests off our coasts and on the high seas.

Here's one example. When naval formations go to sea, they need destroyers to supply air defence in case of an attack on frigates and other ships. Only destroyers can supply this defence as well as play a leadership role (command and control) in missions involving more than one ship. Without destroyers, a country's fleet becomes much more vulnerable.

The process to replace Canada's four destroyers should have begun long ago. One -the Huron -has already rusted out and was retired from the fleet in 2005. Canada needs at least two new destroyers on each coast to ensure that one is always available. This should be an urgent issue, but it is met with silence.

Instead the government has prioritized the procurement of six to eight Arctic coastal patrol vessels which can only operate in northern waters for four months a year -the last thing the navy or anyone else needs. With only feeble icebreaking capacity and low speed (only enough to keep up with most fishing trawlers), these ships will be expensive and ineffectual window-dressing for Arctic sovereignty claims that will be sorted out in the courts, not in battle.

There has been no recent action on the much-ballyhooed Joint Supply Ships that are supposed to replace Canada's aged refuelling vessels and provide support for army deployments around the world. We need four of them -again, two on each coast. The government originally promised three, then balked at the cost last summer and said two should do. Wrong. That will mean a void on one coast or the other during refits. This can't be avoided or denied by the government, so they just don't talk about it.

Meanwhile, our coasts are vulnerable to visiting freighters planting mines in our waters and then disappearing over the horizon. Imagine a ship from a hostile force dropping mines in the West coast waters off Prince Rupert and Vancouver -mines that won't surface and activate until six months after the ship that laid them has disappeared. Not only does Canada not have sufficient surveillance capacity to determine who laid the mines, we don't have the capacity to sweep those mines away. These delayedaction mines are a legitimate threat -one we're not paying attention to.

The government seems to have convinced itself that Canada doesn't really need a navy -a stunning thought given all those coastlines and our proximity to the Pacific theatre, likely to become the world's next military hot spot. Navies transport armies and provide invaluable logistical and firepower support for ground troops in conflicts in countries with coastlines -which means just about everywhere but Afghanistan. Indeed, the mere presence of naval vessels off a country's coast can pre-empt land battles that place troops in great danger.

Navies intercept threats before they get to our coasts. Navies counter piracy. They provide emergency assistance in places like Haiti. Navies help countries like Canada pull their weight in alliances with countries we are going to need if our international interests are threatened.

Countries with navies matter. Countries without them matter mostly to themselves. Canada is never going to rule the world. But while defending itself it can help keep the world from falling apart. Without a navy, we can't pull our weight on the global stage. If the government wants Canada to matter, it needs to take the navy seriously.