Next year, Canada's navy will celebrate its 100th year of service. That's a great moment in the life of any national institution, but it's even more important considering that the country is barely 43 years older. Looking back, it is noteworthy that Canada's strategic choice at that time remains the same one today. Sir Wilfred Laurier, the prime minister who guided the Naval Service Act to royal assent in 1910, reflected the will of Canada's Parliament in building a national naval service for the country, however modest it was during those early years, rather than contributing directly to the defense of the broader Empire in the form of cruisers for the Royal Navy.1 Today, that choice to pursue a sovereign and independent capacity for action at sea is fully embodied in the Canadian Task Group.
Our Navy Today
Canada's navy—formally known as Maritime Command—is part of a unified and integrated service called the Canadian Forces. Its fleet may not be the largest ever in our history, but it's the most combat-effective one we have ever sailed from our shores. It is more broadly balanced than at any time in my career, crewed by Canadians as dedicated as any who have ever served.
We operate a globally deployable sea-control navy, recognized as one of the world's finest. We routinely operate in some of the most daunting waters on this planet—Canada's three ocean approaches—where we serve as the custodian of our sovereignty. Our navy upholds our prosperity by helping to keep the oceans free for all to use lawfully. It leads international maritime operations abroad, when the government so chooses. Forward-deployed, it works with like-minded allies and defense partners to prevent conflict. Ours is a navy that is benchmarked for combat in capabilities and ethos, "ready, aye ready" to prevail in combat when necessary.
Canada's navy is an outcome of our national interests, as dictated by history and geography: the need to ensure our jurisdictions are upheld in one of the world's largest maritime estates, coupled with our deep and abiding stake in a stable global order, at sea and ashore. This is the navy that Canada needs.
The Canada First Defense Strategy
Last year in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his government's plans for defense, stating: "If you want to be taken seriously in the world, you need the capacity to act. It's that simple." The Canada First Defense Strategy reaffirms three enduring tenets: defend the country, contribute to the defense of North America, and contribute to global security. Our government also made a commitment to the most comprehensive reinvestment in the nation's maritime forces ever, over a 20-year planning and fiscal framework that was unprecedented in Canadian defense planning. The renewal begins in 2010 and will involve:
- Modernization of the 12 Halifax-class frigates
- Replacement of the 2 Protecteur-class auxiliary oilers with new joint support ships
- Procurement of 6 to 8 new Arctic offshore patrol ships
- Replacement of the CH 124 Sea King with 28 Cyclone maritime helicopter
- Modernization of the existing Aurora fleet and its eventual replacement with a new fleet of multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft
- Procurement of 15 Canadian surface combatants, initially to replace the 3 Iroquois-class destroyers and the 12 modernized frigates when the latter reach the end of their service lives.
While our future prospects are bright, a number of challenges lie in the years ahead. The fleet has aged steadily as a result of strategic decisions that have been deferred over the last 15 years. Our navy has grown smaller while the Canadian Forces have expanded—which increases the daily challenge of crewing the fleet. And we remain obscured by maritime blindness from our policy-making communities and the broader public, both of which remain largely unaware of our nation's comprehensive relationship with—and dependence on—the sea.
Strategic Decisions Deferred
During the past 15 years, as the Canadian military's budget and personnel were reduced by a third to bring the country's finances back under control, our navy put to sea—and perfected—the most combat-effective task group that has ever sailed from our shores. This was an institutional tour de force, a sweeping transformation of our business at the waterfront. We evolved in just a few years from a force specializing largely in antisubmarine warfare to a truly general-purpose, combat-effective navy.
At the same time, we fundamentally transformed our naval reserves by providing them exclusive responsibility to generate sailors for the Kingston-class coastal-defense vessels. We became global leaders in maritime domain awareness and pioneered the implementation of interagency Marine Security Operations Centers. We led the way for the Canadian Forces in developing fully joint regional headquarters for domestic and continental operations, resulting from our extensive command-and-control investments in Maritime Forces Atlantic and Pacific.
We sustained an unparalleled tempo of forward deployment throughout this period, including an extraordinary and sustained commitment to the international campaign against terrorism. During this time, we were assigned leadership responsibilities for an entire maritime theater of operations. We took the concept of interoperability to an entirely new level, regularly integrating our Halifax-class frigates into the U.S. Navy's carrier and expeditionary striking groups.
One naval historian who has studied this era closely has called it our navy's "golden age."2 But doing these things also consumed the lion's share of the navy's intellectual talent, time, and energy.
Over those same 15 years, government and industry essentially got out of the business of building warships. Decisions to reinvest in the maritime forces were repeatedly deferred. We saw evidence of this atrophy in the difficulties that were encountered last year in two of the government's major maritime procurements: the navy's joint support ship and the Canadian Coast Guard's mid-shore patrol vessel.3
These difficulties reminded us that building warships is not just about cutting steel. Shipbuilding is one of Canada's most complex, large-scale, public-private enterprises. It requires ongoing investment in people who understand the art and science of designing and constructing the most complex machines on the planet, as well delivering them on time and budget.
One encouraging development is that a fundamental reevaluation of how Canada builds warships is now under way. A national shipbuilding-procurement strategy should soon emerge, one that frees us of the cycle of boom or bust in which our navy has been trapped since the 1950s.
The Way Ahead—Roundly
Having focused with great success on operations at the tactical and operational levels during the past 15 years, we must now rebuild our capacities for force development and force generation at the strategic level. Getting our navy back into balance will not be easy. Indeed, doing so is likely to touch on every aspect of the service, including how we organize, equip, and train to fight. It will involve everything from changes in our most basic readiness and sustainment practices to changes in formation, fleet, and supporting base organizations.
And we must move fast. The work of renewing the fleet gets fully under way in 2010. We must also proceed carefully, or we will not be able to meet our principal strategic challenges of the coming decade.
These challenges stem mostly from the need to manage a highly compressed and comprehensive transition from today's fleet to the one the Canada First Defense Strategy will deliver. First is the need to identify qualified people for a number of large capital projects that will be running more or less continuously and concurrently for much of the next decade. Many of these people will need to be drawn from the navy's waterfront organizations that serve to get the fleet to sea and keep it there.
Second will be the crucial requirement over this extended period to maintain the seagoing and warfighting skills of an entire generation of sailors—from ordinary seamen to fleet commanders—with fewer platforms available for training.
Finally will be the need to manage the strategic risks associated with a smaller fleet, to sustain some degree of forward deployment in support of national interests, maintain credible response options for domestic and international operations, and bridge potential gaps in fleet capabilities if capital projects are delayed.
Canadians generally admire their military, but most have neither an understanding of their nation's comprehensive relationship with the sea nor a sense of how the work of their navy relates directly to their daily lives. This is because Canada is a big country, and most citizens live well away from the coasts. They tend to see their prosperity in terms of our cross-border trading relationship with the United States, rather than as part of an increasingly globalized world economy that depends on maritime commerce.
As the smallest of the three services, the navy has the smallest "natural constituency" of Canadians who depend on it for employment or whose families count a sailor among them. Most Canadians find it hard to visualize life at sea, and many of our policy makers are unaware of what is meant by the "silent service." The expression alludes to the nature of maritime power itself, in the way it creates the conditions for strategic success for those who wield it. Alfred Thayer Mahan caught the essence of the term when he wrote of the strategic impact of the Royal Navy during the wars of the French Revolution: "Those far distant, storm-tossed ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world."4
Navies, with their high capital cost, are literal expressions of sustained national will and ambition. In concrete terms, they signal the role that a state wishes to play in the world. Ultimately this is a question, in our democracy, for the Canadian people to decide. But we in uniform have a fundamental obligation to ensure that public discourse is informed by an awareness of what we do, and that our policy-makers fully grasp the options a navy provides them in defending the nation's interests.
Global System in the Emerging Maritime Century
It is evident from the headlines we read daily that the world's deepest problems will not soon be resolved. Nor will the uncertainty and volatility that characterize global politics soon disappear. But in the face of all the change that surrounds us, it is critical to remember what has not changed in this turbulent world:
- More than 90 percent of the world's trade travels by sea.
- The oceans are free for all states to use, without infringing on any other's sovereignty.
- The power of the United States and its principal maritime allies and partners, including Canada, is still preeminent at sea, with all the strategic freedom that this entails.
Sir Walter Raleigh, in a rougher but more eloquent age, summarized his world as follows: "Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself." Today's global system has evolved markedly from that of Sir Walter's day, but the succession of the world's principal maritime and economic powers over the centuries reminds us of the deep, reciprocal, enduring links between sea power and the global economic, legal, and political system of the day. Simply put, while armies and air forces operate in the global system, navies are part of the system itself.
The Arctic: Parable for Coming Change
The increasing importance of ocean politics represents another and equally far-reaching trend that will increasingly shape this century. The maritime domain has changed more in the past 30 to 40 years than in the previous 300 to 400, as codified in the Third Convention of the Law of the Sea. Moreover, it continues to evolve. A majority of the world's commercially exploitable ocean resources has been enclosed by coastal states, and a greater portion will become enclosed under article 76 of the Treaty, as coastal states strive to meet their ever-growing resource demands.5 At the same time, coastal states are making increasingly pronounced psychological investments in their maritime estates, specifically those relating to national identity and sovereignty.6
We may be seeing the shape of things to come in the Arctic, where the closely coupled relationship between climate change and ever-rising global demands for energy and other resources is most plainly evident. This region is being propelled toward the center of global affairs, as the five Arctic coastal states establish their claims to the vast energy and mineral reserves that have been already discovered, or are believed to lie, in the Arctic Basin and its periphery. Climate change and improvements in extraction technologies are likely to make these resources commercially exploitable much sooner than was thought possible only a few years ago. All of this is likely to drive more change in the Arctic in the coming two to three decades than has occurred since Europeans arrived in Greenland.
But the situation in the Arctic is not unique. It serves as but one example of the types of changes this century may witness as globally united forces alter the defense and security environment in ways that may be difficult to imagine today. Even far inland, in places such as Darfur, the effects of these changes are likely to be most intense precisely among those peoples and states that are least able to deal with them. But most of the world's population is concentrated in the littorals, and this is where our navies must be prepared to operate.
Complexity, Competition, and Conflict
As this century advances, I envisage a global maritime domain of great strategic complexity and growing strategic competition, with a latent but ever-present potential for conflict among states. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Indo-Pacific, a vast region of the globe where ocean politics already occupies center stage.7
China acknowledged this fundamental strategic reality earlier this year. During its celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army Navy, it confirmed that its principal security challenges and vulnerabilities came from the sea, rather than the land, requiring a navy explicitly aligned with its growing global maritime interests. This is a remarkable shift in perspective for a state whose strategic thinking for millennia has been dominated by the need to consolidate its continental frontiers from threats originating in the Eurasian landmass.
China's relationship with the West, especially the United States, will influence profoundly the course of the first half of the 21st century. Clearly, at the heart of that relationship are issues relating to sea power and the global system. What does this all mean for Canadian sea power in the 21st century? I see the following as our navy's essential and enduring tasks:
- Defend Canada's sovereign rights and interests as one of the world's leading and largest coastal states
- Work with the world's other maritime powers and coastal states to ensure the ocean commons remain regulated
- Contribute to the stability of the emerging global system
In other words, the most important roles for Canada's navy for the foreseeable future are essentially strategic, rather than tactical or operational—where Canada's maritime power is used as much to prevent conflict as to be ready to prevail in combat.8
The "Greater Commons"
In its opening paragraphs, the latest U.S. maritime strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, states: "Our nation's interests are best served by fostering a peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance." It seems natural that seagoing professionals have arrived at this conclusion. As noted British defense academic Geoffrey Till pointed out recently in the Naval War College Review: "Seapower is at the heart of the globalization process in a way that land and air power are not."9
The Cooperative Strategy takes this key insight further than any of its predecessor documents, by establishing a greatly expanded construct for the constabulary and diplomatic uses of sea power. It elevates humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as core missions for the three U.S. sea services, on a par with deterrence, power projection, and sea control.
The Cooperative Strategy invites us to think about maritime diplomacy and strategic engagement along much broader lines than we ever have before. Indeed, we're already seeing maritime diplomacy being recalibrated toward entire populations rather than only leaders. Even though the latter will continue to be important, there is a growing recognition of the critical role populations will play in the emerging global system: on the one hand, where they work toward the gradual enrichment of all nations and peoples; on the other, the much darker alternative where, as victims, they conspire against it.
Accordingly, the great common for the world's navies in this maritime century is not just the oceanic one to which Alfred Thayer Mahan referred, but rather Geoffrey Till's "greater common" of the world's peoples.10
Clearly, operations in the "greater commons" are not solely the work of the world's navies. They require concerted international cooperation that brings together all elements of like-minded states' diplomatic, military, and economic power, to the extent permitted by their capacities and national interests. However, there is much the world's navies can do in creating the pillars of trust and understanding among nations on which the larger effort may stand. In the end, this may not be sufficient to prevent future conflict among states. Nevertheless, it remains essential—as does this: our preparedness to work collaboratively and collectively toward a world as we would have it become, rather than to accept it as it is.
1. For good overviews of the birth of Canada's navy, see Marc Milner's "It Began with Fish and Ships: Navy, Part 1," at http://www.legionmagazine.com/en/index.php/2004/01/it-began-with-fish-and-ships/; and Richard Gimblett's "The Many Origins of the RCN." at http://naval.review.cfps.dal.ca/archive/1131599-7568616/vol1num1.pdf.
2. Richard Gimblett, Operation APOLLO: The Golden Age of the Canadian Navy in the War Against Terrorism (Ottawa: Magic Light Publishing, 2004), 37, 160.
3. Bids submitted for the two projects were deemed "non-compliant" against the Request for Proposals, as they exceeded costs the Crown had established. This caused the government to terminate the procurement processes at that stage. National Defense has been working toward a revised plan for the Joint Support Ship that will be ready soon for the government's consideration
4. Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Seapower Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1892).
5. Coastal states may claim the exclusive rights to seabed resources beyond the 200-nautical-mile Economic Exclusion Zone, according to geological criteria established in Article 76 of the Treaty that describe the concept of an extended legal continental shelf.
6. Ken Booth, Law, Force and Diplomacy at Sea (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985) remains one of the best treatments of this subject. See pp. 137-43, 153-164, 199-217.
7. Robert Kaplan has written two interesting recent pieces on this theme. See "Centre Stage for the 21st Century: Rivalry in the Indian Ocean," at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/64832/robert-d-kaplan/center-stage-for-the-21st-century; and "The Revenge of Geography," at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php-story_id=4862.
8. See George Friedman's "The Limitations and Necessity of Naval Power;" at http://www.stratfor.com/limitations_and_necessity_naval_power. A longer-term perspective, extending the argument from the 1815 Congress of Vienna to the present, can be found in Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).
9. Geoffrey Till, "New Directions in Maritime Strategy? Implications for the U.S. Navy," Naval War College Review (Autumn 2007): 30. Readers will note my indebtedness to the themes that Till develops in this article and a subsequent piece titled "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: A View from Outside," Naval War College Review (Spring 2008): 25-38. Both documents are available at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/press/review/review.aspx.
10. Till, "New Directions in Maritime Strategy?" and "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower."