In an article on the Canadian Global Affairs Institute‘s website Andrea Lane, Deputy Director and Jeffrey F. Collins, a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University make a case for yet another new ship for the Royal Canadian Navy. They suggest that “the RCN should seriously reconsider its procurement priorities. The Navy’s insistence on its traditional tasking and fleet mix makes its out of step with both whole-of-government priorities, and the wishes of the Canadian public. As it stands today, it is doubtful that the original plan, to purchase 15 surface combatants within the planned budget of $27 billion, will come to fruition. Canada does need to replace its 12 Halifax-class frigates at some point by the 2030s; however, in light of fiscal concerns, it would be more prudent for Ottawa to revamp the NSS program with a purchase of 10-12 surface combatants and 2 amphibious ships.” I certainly share some of their worry. I think that the Navy’s Leadmark 2050 strategic planning guide is excellent in concept and I wish the Army and the RCAF, indeed all of the CF, had similar “plans.” I am not even remotely qualified to second guess the admirals and commodores and captains who put Leadmark 2050 together but I suspect that Ms Lane and Mr Collins are wrong when they suggest that the military services should adapt their strategic plans to the whims and fancies of every government. Governments have, as the article notes, the power to abandon concepts, like General Rick Hillier’s “Big Honkin’ Ship,” when budget constraints make that necessary but that doesn’t mean that the original idea was wrong … nor is Leadmark 2050, which “does address the idea of an eventual dual-purpose amphibious ship for Canada.“
OK, which “Big Honkin’ Ship?”
Andrea Lane and Jeffrey Collins cite two examples: HMAS Canberra (left photo) and HMNZS Canterbury (on the right of the page). They assert that the notion of the “Big Honkin’ Ship” and an amphibious task force “encountered staunch opposition from naval officials who view amphibious ships as coming at the expense of surface combatants.” I think it encountered more opposition that just from “naval officials.” I understand that the idea of an amphibious task force would require both the Army and the RCAF to rethink many of their priorities and sacred cows, too.
There is a lot more to having and using an amphibious task force than just loading some troops, trucks, helicopters, supplies and, maybe, even some civilian aid workers onto the ship and sailing off to help people in distress. If that was all that was wanted then, as with the proposed hospital ship, the government should lease such a vessel, with a civilian crew, and put it under the control and management (and budget) of Stéphane Dion’s grandiloquently named Global Affairs Department.
If, on the other hand, Canada wants “amphibious assets [that] are likely to be in great demand on all three oceans in the uncertain future security environment,” then, probably, at least two, more likely three such ships are required in order to have one at a moderate state of readiness at any time, and it is likely that two task forces, each with the “Big Honkin’ Ship” and several escorts and, perhaps, a support ship, too, would be required – above and beyond, say, 10 major surface combatants, six Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships and, say, 10 corvettes. That’s a major, and costly, addition to the RCN. Above that both the Army and the maritime aviation communities would have to be restructured: some infantry battalions would need to be re-equipped and retrained for amphibious operations. And there would need to be many more large helicopters suitable for shipborne use …
… again, more money required for more people to use and maintain much more new, expensive, equipment.
This would, in fact, be a good idea, for a defence force that has a budget that is in excess of 2% of GDP, has about 100,000 uniformed, full time members and is used, regularly, to give weight to an active, principled foreign policy … but this is a Trudeau-Liberal government that wants <1%, even fewer people and mostly French speaking females wearing baby-blue UN berets, so it will be content to let others (like Australia) do the heavy lifting.