Options for the Strategic Goals of the Royal Canadian Navy

Lieutenant(N) Fred Genest is a Naval Warfare Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy and has deployed operationally in HMCS Charlottetown and HMCS Fredericton.  He is currently completing a Master of Public Administration degree while on staff at the Royal Military College of Canada.  He tweets at @RMCNavyGuy.  This article does not represent the policies or opinions of the Government of Canada or the Royal Canadian Navy.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is in the process of recapitalizing its fleet but has not had a significant debate on its strategic goals in decades.

Date Originally Written:  December 19, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 12, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the senior Canadian political and military leadership.

Background:  Successive governments have asserted that Canada must deploy warships overseas to help maintain international security and stability[1].  Despite the RCN’s fleet recapitalization, there has been no debate about the best way to employ its forces.

Current RCN employment is based on history, Cold War thinking, and national myths. Canada sees itself as “punching above its weight” since the Second World War.  In that war, Canada gave control of its forces to the British and American leaders, with disastrous results at home such as the closure of the St. Lawrence seaway.  During the Cold War, Canadian warships deployed with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Standing Naval Forces; this continues in the 21st century.  In its role as a “junior partner” since World War 2, Canada has followed the British and American lead in security and defence, subordinating its national interest to the alliance’s goals.

Significance:  As a sovereign middle power, Canada can set its own strategic priorities[2].  A commitment-capability gap—insufficient units to accomplish designated tasks—has been identified in the RCN since at least the 1964 White Paper on Defence[3].  The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) saw this as normal at the end of the Cold War[4].  A 2013 report[5] stated that Canada would have difficulty meeting its readiness and force posture requirements until well into the 2020s.  Adjusting the current strategy could help reduce the gap.

Option #1:  Maintain the status quo with a medium global force projection navy[6], constant rotations with NATO, and a worldwide presence.

Risk:  With Option #1 the commitment-capability gap could grow.  The Government of Canada (GoC) intends to be prepared to participate in concurrent operations across multiple theatres[7].  However, readiness goals will not be met until the late 2020s[8], perhaps even until the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project is completed in the 2040s.  Manning is, and will remain, a problem in certain areas like anti-submarine warfare and engineering.

By continuing the historical pattern of letting alliance leaders determine its strategy, Canada is abdicating its responsibility to protect its national interests.

Gain:  There is prestige in being one of the few navies that routinely deploys around the world[9], and RCN ships are recognized by its allies as the “go-to” during operations[10].  Option #1 improves Canada’s standing in the world, especially amongst peer allied nations, and allows Canada to exercise some leadership in international affairs.  This increased leadership role allows Canada to further its interests through diplomacy.

Furthermore, there is a morale-boosting effect in having regular overseas deployments; sailors, like soldiers, are keen to acquire “bits of coloured ribbon.”  In the RCN, this is achieved through overseas operations.  Regular overseas deployments or lack thereof may therefore be a factor in recruitment and retention.

There is also an internal political gain: by highlighting successes abroad, the GoC can raise awareness of the RCN and increase popular support for its foreign policy[11].  This is beneficial to the RCN, as popular support can translate into political pressure to obtain the tools required to achieve its institutional goals.

Option #2:  Downgrade the RCN to a medium regional power projection navy.  Cease overseas deployments except for specific, time-limited United Nations or NATO missions critical for peace or security.

Risk:  No longer routinely deploying internationally would be seen as a loss of prestige, and could lead to a loss of informal diplomatic leadership.

Local operations are often unpopular with sailors, and removing the opportunity to go overseas could lead to a loss of morale, with obvious effects on retention.  Also, one of the main ways Canadian sailors are trained for full-spectrum operations is through workups leading to an overseas deployment, and through multinational exercises while deployed.  Removing those training opportunities could reduce personnel readiness.  Option #2 could also harm the justifications for future, or even current, procurement projects.

Gain:  RCN commitments would be more in line with capabilities.  The GoC’s commitments will continue to be difficult for the RCN to meet in the next decade[12]; reducing the level of commitment would allow the RCN and its allies to plan based on actual capabilities.

Carefully selecting operations as part of Option #2 would also let Canada set its own priorities for its warships.  In recent years, Canadian ships have taken part in operations that were only vaguely related to Canadian interests, such as European Union migrant activities.  Not committing to those operations would free up the RCN to take part in more nationally-relevant operations.

With the CSC, Canada will maintain a full-spectrum capability, and being a medium regional power projection navy does not preclude overseas deployments.  Option #2 would bring Canada in line its European NATO peers, who keep their warships near their own waters, to protect their national interests.

Another challenge for the RCN is its maintenance budget, which is insufficient to meet all requirements. One of the effects is that ships have to swap parts to achieve material readiness and some repairs are left undone due to a lack of parts or available personnel.  Deployments, especially repeated overseas deployments by the same units, are hard on equipment. Reducing the number of overseas deployments under Option #2 would reduce premature failures and maintenance costs.

Other Comments:  Option #2 may not be feasible in the current political climate, but this does not preclude vigorous examination.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf 
— Leadmark 2050 is a document produced by the Royal Canadian Navy to set its long-term vision beyond its five-year strategic plan. It is a follow-up to the 2001 publication, Leadmark 2020.

[2] Lindley-French, J. (2017). Brexit and the Shifting Pillars of NATO. Retrieved from http://www.cgai.ca/brexit_and_the_shifting_pillars_of_nato

[3] Department of National Defence. (1964). White Paper on Defence. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/dn-nd/D3-6-1964-eng.pdf — While it did not call it as such, the concern was evident.
  In Commonwealth countries, White Papers are used to provide information about government policy to parliamentarians and the public.  In Canada, there have been three White Papers on Defence since World War 2: 1964, 1971, and 1994. Major defence policy documents were also released in 1984, 1992 and 2017.

[4] Department of National Defence. (1987). Challenge and commitment : a defence policy for Canada. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/dn-nd/D2-73-1987-eng.pdf

[5] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf 
— This document evaluated the RCN’s performance from 2008 to 2013, particularly the ability to generate and employ naval forces as directed by the GoC.

[6] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf

[7] Department of National Defence. (2017b). Strong Secure Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2017/mdn-dnd/D2-386-2017-eng.pdf

[8] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf

[9] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf

[10] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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