The Siren Song of Independence

Why Canada doesn’t need a navy that can go it alone

In the summer of 2010, the Canadian government unveiled the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. The NSPS is meant to award shipbuilding contracts worth $33 billion to two Canadian shipyards. To calm the regional politics that often accompany defence procurements, Cabinet ministers delegated the selection of the yards to a committee of senior bureaucrats, and ensured that the names of the competing firms would be kept secret throughout the process. This effort to avoid political interference was widely praised when the results of the competition were announced in the fall of 2011. Although Nova Scotia’s Irving Shipbuilding and British Columbia’s Seaspan Shipyards won out over the Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding, there was remarkably little grumbling. Since then, the Conservative government has vaunted the success of the strategy and its efforts to rebuild the Royal Canadian Navy.

However, an important point about the NSPS has been glossed over: no contracts to build ships have so far been signed. The RCN is still designing the three classes of ships that will be acquired. More importantly, this effort is not going all that smoothly. While naval planners know what capabilities they want their future vessels to possess, the anticipated costs of their proposals have exceeded the amount budgeted to construct the ships. The Joint Support Ship provides the clearest example of this problem. First announced in 2005, the initial request for proposals to build these vessels was cancelled when the industry noted that the value of the contract was insufficient to build three ships that would meet the navy’s specifications. Naval planners have spent four years trying to bring the program within budget, by reducing the number of ships to be built and what they will be able to do. A second class of ship, the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship, appears to be facing similar obstacles. Originally slated for delivery in 2013, construction of these vessels has been pushed back by several years. Naval officers have admitted that it has been difficult keeping the ships’ designs from exceeding budgets.

The RCN will face this same dilemma once design work begins on the third class of ship, the Canadian Surface Combatant. Meant to replace the RCN’s frigates and destroyers, these warships will serve as Canada’s primary naval platform in maritime operations around the world. Canada’s admirals hope to build a minimum of 15 surface combatants, thereby preserving the size of the RCN’s existing fleet of operable warships. Just as significantly, the RCN will insist that these warships be equipped with systems that will allow them to interoperate seamlessly alongside allied fleets, particularly the United States Navy. These technologies will ensure that Canadian warships can continue to be deployed as part of allied naval task groups. Unfortunately, these systems are expensive, as are the weapons, sensors and specialized capabilities that allow RCN vessels to play a noteworthy role in multinational deployments. Unless additional money is set aside for this procurement, the RCN will need to decide how many hulls it should sacrifice in order to preserve the interoperability and combat capabilities of a smaller surface combatant fleet.

Why must the RCN be interoperable with allied navies? The reason is straightforward: Canada’s naval strategy fundamentally depends on it. As Nicholas Tracy highlights in A Two-Edged Sword: The Navy as an Instrument of Canadian Foreign Policy, the Canadian navy’s raison d’être since its inception has been to contribute to collective security and defence efforts alongside larger, more powerful fleets. Defending Canadian coastal waters has always been a secondary consideration, and the development of an independent naval policy has never been seriously considered. Instead, Canadian governments have sought to make valuable and visible contributions to wider efforts, both in peacetime and during war. In so doing, Canada’s political and naval leaders have aimed both to contribute to global security and to gain recognition in foreign capitals.

Tracy’s A Two-Edged Sword is a history of how this thinking has shaped the navy’s place in Canadian international affairs. Leading up to the First World War, parliamentarians debated how Canada could best contribute to an imperial defence strategy led by the British Royal Navy. Although Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals and Robert Borden’s Conservatives were at odds regarding how Canada should assist the Royal Navy, they did not question the underlying logic of buttressing the empire. After the war, William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal Party was wary of investing in the armed forces and anxious that Canada would be forced into another conflict. Yet, when war did come, the senior Dominion dutifully joined the United Kingdom in battling Nazi Germany, and a robust RCN played a vital role in the North Atlantic during the Second World War. When relations with the Soviet Union degenerated into a cold war, Canada became a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a collective defence alliance meant to deter Soviet aggression against Western Europe. Naval cooperation between NATO allies deepened over the course of the Cold War, which saw Canada’s maritime forces growing ever closer to their American counterparts. The full extent of this cohesion became clear at the end of the Cold War. During the 1990s and the decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Canadian frigates and destroyers integrated into U.S. Navy carrier battle groups and even led naval task forces that included American ships. Today’s naval leaders are determined to preserve the RCN’s capacity to mount such operations.

As his title suggests, Tracy is guarded about the consequences of these naval policies. Without taking away from what the navy has accomplished over its one hundred years, he has misgivings about what successive governments have given up in pursuit of allied recognition and operational-level influence. Above all, Tracy worries that Canada sacrificed the ability to define and act according to its own interests in matters of international and maritime security. A singular focus on multinational naval cooperation, he argues, has limited Ottawa’s willingness to make its own judgements. Canada’s deployment of naval forces to assist the international enforcement of sanctions against Iraq following the Persian Gulf War provides an example, one that clearly angers the author. The navy’s participation in these operations was driven by Canada’s commitment to collective security and alliance politics, considerations that blinded Ottawa to the human suffering the sanctions caused. Worse still, Tracy believes that the navy’s enforcement of the sanctions made Canada complicit in the tragedy. A decade later, Canada quietly assisted the American-led war against Iraq by deploying warships to adjacent waters as part of an allied naval task force. The reality of the Canadian navy’s tangential involvement in the war ran counter to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s stated opposition to the invasion. For Tracy, these subtle constraints on Ottawa’s ability to pursue a truly independent foreign policy result from Canada’s traditional approach to military alliances and naval strategy.

In making this argument, Tracy is not pushing for a more pacifistic Canada or an end to a globally deployable RCN. On the contrary, he believes in the effectiveness of “gunboat diplomacy” and in the importance of operating within a multilateral framework. But he does suggest that governments should pursue maritime strategies that place the protection and promotion of Canada’s particular interests above trying to gain kudos or influence allies, a goal that has never really been achieved, at least not at the political level. In this sense, his perspective is decidedly nationalist, a viewpoint that is rarely articulated within the Canadian defence community these days. Typically, the Canadian defence debate pits those who wish to see the military focus on domestic and peace-support operations against those who emphasize the importance of maintaining combat-capable forces that can function with other NATO militaries across the spectrum of conflict. Tracy’s work reads as a lament for a third option, for a view that has never been seriously considered: using the Canadian military to stake out a more independent and strategically minded position in global affairs.

Why has this alternative been ignored? Why not leverage the armed forces in the pursuit of a carefully devised Canadian grand strategy? The answer was provided by defence scientist R.J. Sutherland: “while it would be highly advantageous to discover a strategic rationale which would impart to Canada’s defence programmes a wholly Canadian character, such a rationale does not exist and one cannot be invented.”

Although one can always imagine scenarios where the Canadian military might shape events overseas, it is harder to contemplate situations where the Canadian government would be seeking outcomes that would be markedly different from what its major allies would be trying to achieve themselves. Accordingly, cooperating with like-minded partners appears, and has always appeared, as the smarter and more effective approach. Indeed, even in cases where Canadian and allied interests might diverge, it is unlikely that larger powers would allow Canada’s preferences to trump their own. It is difficult to grasp what Canada would gain from entering into such confrontations in the first place.

There are other arguments in favour of a greater investment in an independent military capability, and in the navy in particular. As Arctic waters become increasingly navigable, the Canadian government may be compelled to further strengthen the RCN’s ability to operate in the Far North. This is one region where Canada may need to mount a muscular defence of its sovereignty and economic interest. Yet, here again, Canada would be wiser, both financially and strategically, to defend the Arctic in tandem with allies. Unsurprisingly, the Canadian government has in fact been quietly moving in this direction.

In the end, the best case for a more independently minded Canadian defence policy and naval strategy is that it would boost national self-respect. Canada could avoid being dragged into foreign entanglements and contentious military operations if Ottawa was less concerned with impressing its partners and if the Canadian Forces were deployed with greater circumspection. Canadians might also feel a greater sense of pride if their land, air and naval forces were not as dependent on allies during major operations and could undertake prolonged, large-scale missions overseas on their own. There is also evidence that Canadians want their military to be able to independently defend Canada’s sovereignty, particularly in the Arctic.

This, it seems, is what Tracy is really getting at when he outlines the consequences of Canada’s traditional, alliance-based naval strategy. He wants Canada to show greater confidence and self-assurance in its foreign and security policies. According to the author, though, the achievement of this higher level of autonomy requires intellectual development and institutional reform, not necessarily a better-funded navy. This conclusion is wanting. However well refined Canadian naval strategizing becomes, the RCN’s ability to serve as an instrument of an assertive, self-reliant foreign policy will depend on a willingness to invest in additional naval platforms and capabilities.

But how much more are Canadians willing to spend on the navy in exchange for more self-respect in international security affairs? The answer is not much. Apart from Louis St. Laurent’s Cabinet, no Canadian government has been willing to spend considerable amounts on the armed forces in peacetime. The threats to Canada and North America did not require it, and there were more pressing priorities to address than building a strong military. Although governments worried about international peace and security, these concerns could be dealt with through collective defence alliances. In fact, increasing allied cooperation and interoperability has been seen as an efficient way for member states to achieve common goals. Simply put, deploying with allies gives Canada a global presence on the cheap.

This is arguably the reason why today’s Canadian military leadership will likely emphasize acquiring warships with high-end technologies and capabilities, even at the cost of building fewer hulls. While RCN admirals may wish that the government was willing to invest in a greater number of ships and a more capable fleet, they know it will not happen. Their only real choice is between a fleet tailored to domestic missions alone or one that is equally designed to integrate and interoperate with allied navies on operations overseas. In the same way, if there is a trade-off to be made between having a larger fleet that can make only limited contributions to allied naval task forces versus a smaller fleet that is able to perform notable roles in multinational operations, the latter option will probably prevail. For medium-sized countries such as Canada, experience has shown that the quality of one’s forces matters more than their quantity when trying to shape alliance decision making.

It is unclear when the first of the RCN’s new ships will be built. At this point, the shipbuilding procurement process is geared primarily to industry’s priorities, not to equipping the navy. Yet when the RCN’s next generation of warships is eventually christened, however few in number those vessels may be, they will be deployed on allied operations in various parts of the world, in keeping with Canada’s long-standing approach to naval strategy. Tracy’s A Two-Edged Sword reminds us of the risks and rewards that they will bring with them as they cast off.