The Future of Canada's Navy

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The Royal Canadian Navy's Iroquois-class destroyer

Maritime power is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Canada. Yet, Canada’s coastline is the longest in the world, amounting to 243,000 kilometres. With access to three oceans – Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific – the world’s waterways are certainly integral to Canadian security. That the Royal Canadian Navy has been neglected in the budgets of successive Canadian governments has played some part in building the perception of the country as a non-actor in maritime affairs.

But the tide may be turning. In October 2011, the Department of Public Works and Government Services made public the details of its National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS). Valued at $33 billion, it is the single largest military procurement in Canadian history. Intended to modernize Canada’s maritime forces, several purchases have already been made. Case in point, two Berlin-class supply ships have been ordered from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems in Germany to replace Canada’s two aging Protecteur-class auxiliary vessels. But the most interesting aspect of the NSPS is the planned acquisition of 23 new combatant vessels through two separate procurement projects: the Arctic Patrol Ship Project and the Single Class Surface Combatant Project.

Prior to the launch of the NSPS and the associated Arctic Patrol Ship Project, rumors circulated that the federal government would seek to purchase six to eight corvettes, modelled on the design of Norway’s Svalbard-class icebreaker, to patrol Canada’s Arctic. Even following the announcement of the Arctic Patrol Ship Project as part of the NSPS in 2011, there was some uncertainty as to just what design would be adopted by the Royal Canadian Navy. There are no hard facts as yet, but the recent announcement that Denmark’s Odense Maritime Technology (OMT) will be responsible for much of the design offers some clues about Canada’s future maritime capabilities.

A Berlin-class replenishment ship operated by the German Navy

OMT has already attracted some controversy for its work to date on the design of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). According to an independent review commissioned by the Department of Public Works, the man hours and cost estimates provided by OMT are “quite generous”. Regardless of whether the costs associated with the project are in fact fair, the review may offer some hints as to the intended capabilities of the AOPS, which are not expected to be fully unveiled until the completion of the first vessels in 2016-2017. Namely, the review draws comparisons between the cost estimates put forward by OMT and Canada’s Irving Shipbuilding Incorporated on the one hand, and the costs associated with the recently completed Alaskan research vessel, Sikuliaq. It is interesting to note that the comparison was made with the Sikuliaq, a civilian research vessel in use by U.S. National Science Foundation, rather than the previously rumoured Svalbard-class icebreaker-turned-corvette.

The Norwegian Coast Guard's Svalbard-class icebreaker

In 2008, Canadian opposition politicians had previously ridiculed the Svalbard-class as a “slushbreaker”, calling on the government to shift funding toward the purchase of additional heavy icebreakers. If the Svalbard qualified as a “slushbreaker”, the Sikuliaq does as well. It may be safe to bet that the AOPS will have a similar level of ability in this regard, working closely with heavy icebreakers as needed, such as the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker purchased under the Polar Class Icebreaker Project and expected for completion in 2017. As such, Canada should enjoy a solid ratio of polar icebreakers to AOPS, deepening cooperation between the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard while at the same time ensuring a good level of ability to respond to potential security challenges in the Arctic.

OMT has not just been hired for the design of the AOPS, however. It has been announced that this Danish firm will also be working on the design of the Single Class Surface Combatant, which is intended to replace both the Royal Canadian Navy’s 12 Halifax-class frigates and three Iroquois-class destroyers, which were supposed to be decommissioned in 2010. Though Irving is collaborating on this project as well, reports indicate that Irving has a team of about a dozen working on the design, while OMT has assigned a staff five times the size. It can be reasonably assumed that whatever the final design of the Single Class Surface Combatant might be, it will be largely determined in Denmark.

The Royal Danish Navy's Iver-Huitfeldt-class frigate

As OMT was involved in its design, some observers predict that the future workhorse of the Royal Canadian Navy will closely resemble the Iver Huitfeldt-class frigate. Three vessels of this class are currently in service with the Royal Danish Navy, all of which began operation in 2012. The Iver Huitfeldt-class has been lauded for its strategic flexibility and for its capacity to operate for extended periods at sea. Given the interest of Canadian military planners in replacing both the current fleet of destroyers and frigates with a single class of vessel, the Iver Huitfeldt could be well-equipped to take on such a role and preserve the Royal Canadian Navy’s capacity to support American and NATO forces on expeditionary operations.

The Canadian government has placed considerable trust in OMT and Irving by assigning these firms responsibility for the design and building of two vital classes of vessels. These vessels will in turn comprise the majority of Canada’s naval forces for decades to come. Reflecting on how high the stakes of these projects are, the role Canada will play in the international community depends in part on whether OMT can deliver something truly impressive.

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