One of my old friends, commenting to another equally old friend on social media, said this: “Surely, the PM and his government must see the obvious — that as the oceans warm and the ice melts the Northwest Passage becomes navigable year round. He’s been sounding off about climate change ad nauseum so that would seem to be understood by him. As a teacher he must also know that European colonial powers sought a shortcut between east and west but were deterred by ice. That’s changed, which he acknowledges, and Canada’s claim of the.increasingly ice free Northwest Passage as sovereign territory is under threat. Absent Canada’s willingness, and any capability, to enforce it’s claim, Canada surrenders any legitimate right to ownership of the Northwest Passage and the resources in the territory it abuts. That a maritime nation bordered by three oceans needs a blue-water navy is axiomatic. And once the PM acknowledges that the Northwest Passage is about to become Canada’s Suez Canal he must recognize that it, too, needs to be protected and defended by the Royal Canadian Navy. But the navy can only do that if it has ships and sailors. If Canada doesn’t expend the effort to protect its shores and assert its claims someone else will.” Sound pretty sensible, doesn’t it? Climate change will, very possibly, open the Northwest Passage; it Canada cannot patrol and police those waters then others will exploit them; it’s the Navy’s job to patrol and police our waters … I have argued that the “constabulary fleet” that should do that ought not to be in the Navy, but that’s a different issue … for now.
I remain concerned that this government is disinterested in our national sovereignty … my fear is that it’s one of those issues that does not intrude into the Butts, Trudeau, Telford collective consciousness. I am guessing that while they are a brilliant campaign team (at least Gerald Butts and Katie Telford are brilliant and Justin Trudeau is telegenic and charming) they neither know nor care much about the nuts, guts and feathers of governing a modern, G7 nation. I am especially concerned that the team has a very narrow, quite progressive focus in which things like trade, commerce, foreign and defence policy and national sovereignty and security don’t matter.
Way back when ~ I’m working from memory and I’m happy to have these numbers corrected ~ the Royal Canadian Navy said, in a document called “Leadmark,” if my memory serves, that, in addition to infrastructure (headquarters, schools, dockyards, etc) it needed:
- A fleet with global “reach” which meant more than a dozen “major combatants” (destroyers and frigates) plus four support ships so that, at any time, it could have one combat ready task group in each of any two of the world’s oceans;
- A coastal (three coasts) patrol fleet consisting of a mix of submarines and another dozen “minor combatants” (corvettes and mine hunters);
- Organic air elements for those fleets;
- Auxiliary and training vessels.
Circumstances changed over time but the Paul Martin government finally committed to new helicopters for the fleet and thanks to his decision and to the perseverance of the Harper government they are, finally, entering service, only 25 years after Jean Chrétien abruptly cancelled the Mulroney government’s signed contracts for (then) new shipborne helicopters.
Circumstances continued to change and the focus of Arctic sovereignty changed, under Prime Minister Harper from air independent propulsion type submarines and electronic patrolling and listening under the polar icepack to a fleet of Arctic [and] Offshore Patrol Ships and a new Arctic base at Nanisivik.
Circumstances changed further in the 2000s and Prime Minister Harper directed his attention away from spending more national defence and towards balancing the budget. In the process he created a bureaucratic “tiger team” to come up with a plan to revitalize the moribund Canadian shipbuilding industry and build some new ships for the government ~ Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Navy. But the money to be spent was, intentionally, kept low ~ too low, and both the bureaucrats and, I am pretty sure, Conservative ministers knew that.
What we have, now, is:
- Some new helicopters ✓;
- One new support ship ~ which may end up having cost a distinguished career Navy officer his career ✓;
- A few new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships under construction ~ but fewer than the eight the Navy said it needed ✓;
- A few new Coast Guard ships under construction ✓;
- Plans to build two new support ships ✓;
- Plans to build some (an undetermined number) of new “major surface combatants” ✓;
- Vague (but, as far as I know, unfunded) plans to “life extend” the handy little Kingston class of coastal defence vessels ✓;
- A plan to build a real icebreaker ✓;
- Three old but working submarines but no plans, as far as I know, to replace them ✓; and
- Adequate infrastructure, albeit the HQs are too large and too encrusted in high ranking, gold braided officers and pretty good training and auxiliary vessels ✓.
What we, Canadians, do not have is a properly funded plan to build the real Navy that the country with the world’s longest coastline, that borders three oceans, needs and deserves.
Since I am pretty sure that, absent some catastrophic events, Prime Minister Trudeau has no interest in warships (or the Coast Guard) I can be fairly confident that while new ships will be built they will be too few in number for the jobs that need doing.
There are no votes in promising to rebuild the military. The Liberals will ignore it and the Conservatives would be wise to not make it much of a campaign issue … Canadians, an overwhelming majority of Canadians just don’t care. But the Conservatives need to get some first rate naval and shipbuilding people into a room and decide, for themselves, what the real costs are for what the Royal Canadian Navy really needs.
That need is a wholly political decision ~ military and strategic policy advice matters but, in the end, it is a political (treasury bench) decision, never a military one.) The number needs to be agreed and understood by the Conservative Party, by a (near, I hope) future Conservative cabinet and by the Privy Council Office. It doesn’t need to be bandied about ~ it will frighten Canadians back into the arms of the pacifist Liberals, but it does need to be understood. Ditto, by the way for the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces. That political decision is important, and so are many others, and we, Canadian voters, are the ones ~ the only ones ~ who get to decide if the right decisions are are made.
Maybe we cannot, in 2019 or even in 2023, afford our naval and military needs. I have little doubt that the first priority of a new, responsible government must be to reverse the incredibly reckless fiscal course that the Trudeau regime has set for Canada, a course that condemns us and our children and grandchildren to paying off deficits until the mid 2040s, at least. That will need to be done without slashing and burning the social safety net or ignoring our carbon reduction goals; there may not be much left for national defence.