A few days ago I commented on the potential to revive the ‘big honkin’ ship‘ proposed a decade-plus in the past by a former Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen (ret’d) Rick Hillier. I said that while I thought the military case for such a ship might be fairly easy to make, the same could not be said for the political case.
One factor that struck me about the proposed (by one Navy.ca member) Izumo class ‘destroyers’ (which are, actually small helicopter carriers) is that they need to have their decks (and hulls?) strengthened to withstand the shocks and heats of vertical landing jets. In other words, they are built to a standard that is applicable to one role (carrying troops and cargo and helicopters) but which is insufficient for another role (jet fighter operations).
Now, I know, for example, that Canada’s little Kingston class Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels, which were built to ‘less’ that full military standards, are “stronger,” against ice, than are the bigger and ‘better’ Halifax class frigates. It’s not that their ‘skin’ is all that much thicker, although it is, it is also that the hull of a large ship is, inherently, more fragile than a hull of a similar thickness of a smaller ship. But, at the same time, small, rather ‘stubby’ ships are always slower than longer, ‘thinner’ ships, even when the long, thin ships are heavily armoured with thick steel hulls. Thus, each hull, each ship, is designed to do certain jobs well and other jobs not so well. Big, long, ships are going to be fast and able to carry lots of fuel to give them long-range and so on. A really big ship, like the Mærsk E-class container ships which, at 1,305 feet in length and displacing over 170,000 tonnes length, can travel halfway around the world at a sustained speed of over 20 knots, can be compared to the USS Gerald R Ford, which is America’s newest ‘supercarrier,’ and is 1,106 feet long and displaces about 100,000 tonnes and, being nuclear powered can stay at sea for months at a time and can cruise at sustained speeds of 25+ knots. A really big ship like the Mærsk E-class can, easily, be converted to carry several large helicopters but it does not become an aircraft carrier just by having a long, flat deck. Canadian companies have proposed to convert a smaller (630 foot, 21,000 tonnes), into a multi-role ship capable of carrying several helicopters and a mix of vehicles, troops and supplies.
I have argued against multi-role ships as being part of a core Royal Canadian Navy capability, perhaps I’m wrong, certainly, some of my friends say I am, and it wouldn’t be the first time, either.
Consider this totally fictional scenario:
- The little, friendly, island nation of Birfada is being threatened by a hostile insurgency that is funded, at least in some part by a major Eurasian power and is directly supported by the government of another small island nation in the same region. For a whole host of not so good reasons the USA has decided that this is not a pressing American problem and the Europeans, including a former colonial power have also decided to sit this crisis out … their diplomatic and military resources are stretched too thin;
- Canada has been a friend to Birfada for many years; Canadians love to vacation there, on its white-sand beaches, and Canadian banks and companies are helping the Birfadians to develop, exploit and market a valuable strategic mineral resource. There are, at any time, several hundred, often, during Canada’s winter months, a few thousand Canadians in Birfada: tourists, expats living in retirement, teachers, aid workers, engineers and businessmen;
- The insurgency is, slowly, approaching the mines and Birfada, finally, asks for Canadian help;
- There are two options ~
- Right now, the Chief of the Defence Staff can advise the prime minister that Canada can send a small (two or three frigates plus Asterix) Naval task group, an equally small Army battle group of about 750 soldiers, including a command and logistic support team, and a ‘six-pack‘ of CF-18 fighter bombers, but it will take weeks, probably more than a month, to mobilize and despatch the troops and, if the insurgents capture the only large international airport then an unopposed deployment will be impossible; but
- The situation would be much different IF Canada had a large, helicopter carrying, multi-tole ship and the trained amphibious units to deploy with it. In this case, the CDS would send a warning message to the forces and the ships and troops would begin, rapidly, to draw equipment, receive a few needed reinforcements and prepare to deploy. The CF-18s would arrive, first, and would be prepared to provide CAP (combat air patrol) flights to help safeguard the Naval task group, especially the ‘big honkin’ ship,‘ which is always a high-value target. The task group would arrive after a few weeks and the small(ish) (say 800 soldiers) battle group would be put ashore to secure the area around the mines and then it would go into the bush, after the Birfadian soldiers have taken up good, secure, defensive positions in the capital and around the airport and the mines, and seeks out and defeat the insurgents, killing a few Eurasian ‘advisors’ in the process; because
- That, projecting power, is what Naval forces and joint forces based around a big ship, do best and that is what a middle power, like Canada, can do if it has the right tools.
One thing that is very clear is that it is not just Chanter Davie, in Quebec, that can and does convert civilian ships to military support vessels. I know that e.g. Irving, on the Atlantic coast, and Seaspan on the Pacific could do about the same thing, probably, also, on time and on budget. I suspect that other Canadian yards, in e.g. the Great Lakes and Newfoundland, could so something similar, too.
- I don’t know if a converted civilian ship can be made into a fully effective warship. I suspect it can be, but I’m very unsure about how cost-effective it might be;
- I don’t know if there are enough problems out there in the world that would ever justify a unilateral Canadian response … but I think there might be;
- I don’t know if the Royal Canadian Navy has the docking facilities on each coast to support such a ship; and
- I don’t know if, in the current, 21st-century socio-political environment, Canadians would ever re-elect a government that decided to build an amphibious capability that would cost tens of billions over the years … I believe they would not. I think such a plan might absent some existential threat to Canada, such as we had in, say, the 1950s and ’60s, be political suicide.