Canada touches the Global Ocean on three coasts giving Canada the world’s longest coastline and extensive territorial waters. For Canada a navy is essential but has often been neglected, misused, and misunderstood. At times a grand, large vessel fleet is imagined but resources are never adequate, other times a specialized alliance driven niche is adopted but again without the needed resources. It is time for Canada to invest in the Royal Canadian Navy as a layered defence with Canada’s allies.
A navy’s most important resource is the sailors, so training, pay and benefits should be a priority to maintain elite levels of talent. Sailors do need vessels to protect Canada at sea of three broad categories; expeditionary vessels, defence vessels, and support vessels. All equipment procured by the RCN should be Arctic capable, rugged, cheap, plentiful, modular, easily maintained or upgraded and get the crew home.
In the past the RCN has been essential to alliances as the fleet escorting convoys, hunting enemy submarines and screening assault fleets. Building large vessels to fill these rolls will severely hinder the effectiveness of the RCN as to few vessels will be available. Large vessels are also vulnerable to volleys of missiles and thus less likely to be risked where needed. The largest combat vessel should be a modular, multi-role frigate class that focuses on lethality beyond the horizon, acting as a fleet flagship, air defence and surface fighting, with additional modules for amphibious assault, sub-hunting as needed. A certain amount of speed should be sacrificed to increase the armament and ammunition capacity of the vessel. Six of these frigates would provide the Navy with flagships for six taskforces.
The bulk of Canada’s expeditionary surface fleet should be based around a modular corvette class. The modules should be anti-submarine, air defence, surface combat, and shore bombardment. These vessels should be small enough and cheap enough to have twenty-four in service with much of the same design used for two armed icebreakers that use the same combat modules. These and the frigates above will only increase the number of combat vessels slightly while, if designed correctly, vastly increase the flexibility and lethality of the fleet.
One last vessel to serve in the expeditionary role for the RCN is a diesel/electric submarine with shallow water, short range cruise/ anti-shipping missile and raiding team capabilities. A dozen such submarines should in fact be the priority vessel for procurement as submarines are stealthy, good intelligence gatherers, and the ocean’s equivalent of insurgents. In the hands of a highly trained crew submarines can destroy far more expensive surface ships such as aircraft carriers, and submarines can deny an enemy their shipping lanes.
For the actual defence of Canadian territorial waters and coasts a combination of high speed, ocean going, torpedo/missile boats and light, agile, yet heavily armed patrol boats would be best. A class of ocean going, armoured, possibly equipped with a tank turret, monitor style vessel should be experimented with as well. The tactics used by the coastal defence flotillas should be hit and run, cut off and swarm, or ambushes. Keeping the vessels small will allow them to be hidden where larger vessels are incapable of going. Having large numbers of boats will also assist in covering more area during Search and Rescue missions.
Other combat boats, barges, landing craft, and boats will be available embedded in Army formations to provide seamless deployment with units already familiar to the Navy’s Army Support Flotillas. All of these vessels should be easily transported by road, rail or air, they should also use components, ammunition, and spare parts already in the Army’s supply chain. These can be loaned to the RCAF should they need boats.
Three destroyer sized, self escorting, fleet support ship should be designed to get to and from the fleet without needing an escorting vessel. This ship should only be tasked with refuelling, resupplying, repairing vessels or components at sea and emergency or evacuation medical services. It should have a limited anti-submarine, anti-shipping and air defence capability, and include hangers for two or more helicopters with supporting workshops. Another small vessel would support oceanic research, dive operations and submarine crew recovery. The normal launches, tugs, training vessels, fire boats and other equipment would be rationalized to reduce costs and increase the fleets effectiveness. The Royal Canadian Navy should invest in some new combat uniforms that are functional, low visibility in their element and durable.
The last set of ships the RCN should acquire are for logistics; a pair of Roll-On-Roll-Off ships with rail equipment ability, a pair of container ships, and a pair of tankers modified to refuel other vessels at sea. Next time global shipping slumps when there are some good ships is when to purchase, then upgrade the naval systems, paint them grey and add some point defences and military sensors. These vessels could be used for training and humanitarian assistance when not needed to move Canadian Forces or Allied equipment.
Currently the Royal Canadian Navy only has two main bases at its disposal, I would propose a third in Aquin, Haiti. This would benefit Canada by providing a facility to assist the southern defence of North America, easily access the Atlantic Ocean or Panama Canal, cut travel times into the Indian Ocean when not using the Suez Canal, and an agreeable winter home for ships that have summered in the Arctic. Hosting this base will provide investment in Haiti’s economy, training for the Haitian military, and extra revenue. Caribbean and African nations could send coastguard and military personnel to Aquin for training or joint exercises and still be in a similar climate to their own. Building a small supporting airbase would be of great benefit for hosting RCAF aircraft and humanitarian aid when another natural disaster strikes the region.