Naval procurement has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. First up is the ongoing legal squabbling over the former number two in the Canadian military, Vice Admiral Mark Norman, who is charged with breach of trust for allegedly leaking cabinet secrets to Quebec’s Davie shipyard. Then, the government is refusing to release a report that would shed light on exactly how far behind schedule the joint support ship and Coast Guard heavy icebreaker procurements are, nor will it provide an updated delivery estimate. Finally, the plan to replace frigates and retired destroyers with a new surface combatant vessel continues to be beset by delays and industry infighting as the bid process drags on and on — with further delays announced by the government recently.
Yet despite such persistent bad news, in March 2018 the Royal Canadian Navy (the navy) achieved a rare procurement success when its new supply ship, MV Asterix, officially entered service under a lease arrangement with the firm Federal Fleet Inc. A commercial ship purchased in 2015 and converted over the following two years, Asterix fulfills a key naval capability lost in 2014 when a fire and, separately, hull fatigue removed from service the decades-old auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) ships HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Provider. These ships, known as oilers, provided the lifeblood of the fleet, carrying the extra fuel, food, spare parts, helicopters and ammunition necessary to extend naval operations away from shore for longer periods at sea. The Protecteur-class AORs also gave limited onshore support to other Canadian Armed Forces units participating in peace support and in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. With the loss of both AORs, the navy needs another ship like Asterix — and fast.
The Protecteur-class oilers had to be retired when their replacements, to be called joint support ships, were scarcely beyond the design stage, much less completed. With delays stretching into the 2020s on the joint-support-ship project, the navy faced the very real possibility of losing its vital replenishment-at-sea skills and naval support capabilities. Oilers borrowed from the Spanish and Chilean navies were only a temporary stopgap. In fact, the need to get an AOR capability was so pressing that Asterix embarked into navy service even before all its interior fittings were completed. The ship has already taken part in military exercises in the North Atlantic, completed a double replenishment-at-sea operation with the US Navy and has now deployed for the West Coast to join in one of the world’s largest multinational naval exercises, RIMPAC.
The rapid pace of Asterix’s deployments has highlighted the navy’s stark need for the ship. But as the sole AOR in the Canadian fleet, the ship faces a clear limitation: it has to service a navy split between two oceans, Atlantic and Pacific, with a long transit voyage in between. While Asterix is taking part in RIMPAC, the East Coast fleet will be beholden to friends and allies for refuelling, or tied to shore on restricted sailings. This presents a problem, as the navy — indeed, the armed forces as a whole — is expected under the Trudeau government’s defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, to be able to “act in multiple theatres simultaneously.” This includes sustaining not just domestic and North American defence but also overseas engagements, for example in support of NATO commitments in eastern Europe, drug interdiction in the Caribbean and antipiracy patrols. Put simply, with only one oiler, the navy cannot independently fulfill all of its assigned duties under the policy. Having only one functioning AOR also raises questions as to the Canadian military’s ability to respond to a humanitarian disaster whether at home or abroad, another tasking emphasized in the policy. While Strong, Secure, Engaged stipulates that “Strong at home” comes first, it is debatable whether the navy could currently meet large-scale humanitarian assistance and disaster relief challenges, in addition to its “normal” operations.
Naval humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities serve both domestic and international functions. Natural disasters in recent years, like the New Brunswick floods this May, highlight the possible roles such a ship can provide. The 2010 landing of Hurricane Igor in Newfoundland saw hundreds of coastal communities lose power and endure days of isolation after road washouts. Under Operation Lama, three ships and a Sea King helicopter were dispatched to assist the hardest-hit communities. The timing and landfall of the hurricane coincided with the seasonal operation of a car ferry that carried troops and vehicles over from CFB Gagetown, New Brunswick, via Nova Scotia. Had the disaster struck in late fall or early winter or with more devastation, the military response would have been even more logistically challenging. With the possibility of earthquakes in British Columbia and more powerful hurricanes on the east coast, the strategic value of having domestic humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities is greater than ever. The 2016 earthquake in New Zealand and the 2017 cyclone in Australia illustrate the value of having humanitarian and-disaster relief capable ships like HMNZS Canterbury and HMAS Choules available for duty on the home front.
On the international level, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities are more than just disaster response; they also are a proactive means of dealing with disasters before they happen. The United States has used a number of its vessels in this role, including expeditionary fast transport ships like USNS Brunswick and dedicated hospital ships like USNS Mercy. The navies of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific countries support a forward engagement humanitarian assistance mission called Pacific Partnership every year; it provides health care and trains regional partners for coordinated disaster response. Canadian sailors and personnel sometimes take part, but Canadian ships do not. This mission is exactly the sort of thing that Asterix and other potential humanitarian assistance and disaster relief assets could participate in, if Canada chooses to become more active in this role.
Proactive humanitarian assistance and disaster relief represents a potentially rich opportunity for furthering Canada’s foreign policy interests, especially in light of the global political uncertainty generated by the Trump presidency. Countries in South America, the Caribbean and Asia are looking for reliable, stalwart allies, and Canada could well step into the breach left by the US, which is increasingly distracted and focused on national security. Such a role for Canada is not fantastical; indeed, the navy’s own policy framework, Leadmark 2050, has called for “the acquisition of a dedicated peace-support ship to meet the unique demands of HA/DR.” Such a vessel would become one of the “most heavily used assets” and “the principal Canadian Armed Forces defence diplomacy asset.” Currently, the navy practises defence diplomacy in port visits interspersed throughout more mission-focused deployments; having a dedicated humanitarian assistance and disaster relief ship or, at the very least, a sister ship to Asterix available for use in proactive humanitarian engagement when it is not busy as an oiler would allow the navy to be used directly as a whole-of-government asset, representing Canada’s diplomatic, trade and regional development agencies to the wider world.
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Asterix, even more than its Protecteur-class predecessors, is the ideal humanitarian assistance and disaster relief platform from which to launch and sustain humanitarian aid operations in coastal regions, where 40 percent of the world’s population lives. Once fully finished, the ship will have a fully fitted hospital, a dental clinic and an emergency dormitory capable of holding up to 350 evacuees. The galleys can even cook 500 meals an hour if necessary. Navy ships like Asterix are self-contained in the event of a disaster, because their sailors live and eat on board, removing the necessity to first construct housing and kitchens for service members sent to help. While heavy airlift is faster to the scene of a disaster, nothing beats a large ship for medium-term disaster assistance, especially when, like Asterix, its company can include a helicopter and air detachment.
This brings us to an important conclusion: Canada needs more capability than Asterix can provide by itself. Currently, the interim AOR is being kept busy fulfilling its vital fuelling and replenishment role for the navy. At a minimum, a three-coast navy would have at least two AOR ships. Three would allow the navy — and Canada — to commit to a long-sought humanitarian role, one called for in the Strong, Secure, Engaged policy, and it ought not to come at the expense of standard naval readiness. The joint support ship project is an untold number of years behind schedule, and even on completion, it will supply the navy with only two ships. Canada needs the capability now, not in 10 years’ time.
Given the success of the Asterix procurement, the Trudeau government should take steps to acquire another interim AOR, ideally using the same modified off-the-shelf method as for Asterix, to ensure prompt delivery. Both AORs should eventually be transitioned from interim to permanent, augmenting the navy’s support ship fleet from two to four. Building on the success of Asterix would also keep jobs and knowledge in Canada, and they would likely be at Quebec’s Davie shipyard, which has not yet received any contracts under the National Shipbuilding Strategy. If Canada is intent on building ships at home for the foreseeable future, ensuring the sustainability of the industry across the country should be a priority, to encourage competition and reduce the hold that individual companies have on the government purse.
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