The Tory government in Ottawa may have restored 'Royal' to the Royal Canadian Navy, in recognition of its proud heritage, but sadly they've done little else to support our once significant navy.
Yes Canada's navy has been in terminal decline since Trudeau Sr's years. Starting with the demoralizing Unification of the armed forces in 1968, the mothballing and eventual sell off (just two years after an expensive refit) of the aircraft carrier Bonaventure, the scrapping of a cutting edge Canadian built hydrofoil, to the purchase of the (supposedly) bargain basement Upholder subs, which have proven to be anything but a bargain, the Liberal Party has long had a hand in sinking the Royal Canadian Navy.
However with the election in 2006 of a new Conservative government (not Joe Clarke's NDP in disguise PCs) there was the promise of restored prestige and capability to Canada's armed forces with the navy receiving (having borne most of the previous generations' cuts) the majority of restored spending in the form of advanced new ships.
Back in the 1980s Brian Mulroney's defence minister Perrin Beatty proposed a fleet of nuclear submarines to finally give Canada an arctic capable ship, but that was seen (not without some merit) as a tad bit of overkill, not to mention our American allies vehemently opposed it. So years later the Conservative government under Harper proposed three heavy ice-breakers and up to eight ice strengthened arctic patrol vessels for the navy.
Now almost a decade since floating the proposal of an arctic fleet of ships for Canada how far along are we in advancing that vision? Irving shipyard in Halifax has (supposedly) begun cutting steel for the first arctic patrol vessel this past summer.
The ship is to be based on a Norwegian coast guard patrol vessel, the Svalbard, except while costing five times more than the original Svalbard, Canada's arctic patrol vessels will have less ice breaking capability.
The proposed heavy ice-breakers were reduced from three to one to being scrapped all together. Not too mention the cost of the arctic patrol vessels (based on cost overruns already incurred) will mean the final cost of each will be ten to 20 times that of the ship they're modelled on (and, remember, for that astronomically high cost we actually get less capable ships). The arctic patrol vessels have been reduced to five and likely we'll be lucky to see more than two launched.
Then there's the proposed Single Class Surface Combatant Project. This is to be a ship that will replace our four destroyers (now all scrapped) and 12 frigates. Originally slated to be a 15 ship procurement (to replace 16 ships) it is now reduced to 12 because, yup, massive cost overruns. So it's safe to say that by the time the project runs its course around 2035 we'll have (maybe) eight massively expensive ships that will be completely inadequate in meeting the needs of the navy.
Again the single class surface combatant is based on an existing class of ship, Denmark's very capable (and very inexpensive) Iver Huitfeld class, itself based on their Absalon support ships.
This begs the question, as with the arctic patrol vessels, why not have Danish shipyards build it (or Norwegian shipyards build the arctic patrol vessels)?
The answer of course is votes, give Irving Shipyards the contract and the Conservatives can hopefully pick up a seat (or at least hang onto their existing seats) in Nova Scotia. But some of the assembly and certainly the ongoing maintenance of all of the proposed ships would have provided plenty of jobs without spending $26 billion and giving the billionaire Irving family a gift of $3 billion in profit (curtesy the Canadian taxpayer).
To put the high cost (and waste) of naval procurement in perspective, the $3.9 billion mid-life extension of our current fleet of 12 Halifax frigates could have purchased 10 brand new Iver Huitfeld frigates, or a mix of those and the Absalon (say eight of the former and two of the latter). That would have given the Royal Canadian Navy a fleet of state of the art ships with the flexibility to participate in a variety of missions with allies or undertake solo missions. The Absalon's can be reconfigured for different missions and the technology of both class of ships allows for fewer crew. Mission flexibility and low crew and maintenance demands - sounds like a good match for Canada, no? For another $2 billion or so we could have 16 of those ships and have completely replaced our aging navy with a savings of $20 billion.
Sure, but why be logical when we can waste billions on nothing.
Just like the EH101 helicopter fiasco. A purchase of 40 of the much needed maritime helicopters to replace the sixties era Sea Kings, cancelled by the Chretien Liberal government, has led to a 20 year plus multi-billion dollar boondoggle search for a maritime helicopter (an integral part of the Halifax frigates).
Just four years after cancelling the EH101 the Liberals bought 15 scaled down versions called the Cormorant for search and rescue duty. But in order to save face they refused to back down on the EH101 cancellation even as the aging Sea Kings crashed and their cancellation cost $500 million in penalty fees.
Once Chretien retired incoming prime minister Paul Martin tried to rectify the EH101 fiasco by ordering 28 (down from the regional 40) 148-Cyclones, an unbuilt, untried military helicopter. The Halifax frigates were built with the EH101 in mind, but again why be sensible? The first Cyclones were to have been delivered in 2008, seven years later a fully functioning version has yet to be delivered (six scaled down versions were delivered this summer for training aircrews).
The Harper government could have acted, with delay after delay, they could have turned around and simply bought the helicopter that should have been delivered 20 years ago, the EH101.
Then there's the Berlin/Queenston class supply ships. Our existing 50 year-old supply ships, the Protecteur and the Provider, have finally given up the ghost. However years before they were humiliatingly towed back into port by the U.S and British navies, plans for their replacement were in the works. Based, yet again on an existing design, the German built Berlin class, the Queenston class ships were to be built by Seaspan shipyards in North Vancouver beginning in 2016. Despite the already years long delay in their procurement Seaspan still doesn't have a contract to proceed with their construction. If they do, the first (of two) ships won't be ready (at best) till 2022 (which means 2025, maybe). And of course they will be at least ten times more expensive than the German ships on which they are based.
There are no plans to replace the four Upholder/Victoria class submarines. The government has announced recently (with a straight face no less) that the chronically failing subs that leave much to be desired under the best of circumstances, will be given a $2 billion mid-life extension. What could possibly be the reasoning for this!? Instead of throwing good money after bad (to date $2 billion to get three of the four subs operational... sort of) when we could simply buy a fleet of up to six French, German or Swedish subs that could stay submerged for weeks, not hours, and so give us the capability to travel under arctic ice, among other abilities.
The Joint Support Ship (not to be confused with the Berlin/Queenston supply ship) based on the British/Australian Bay class ships, was once on the Conservatives list of upgrades for the navy, but of course that idea too has effectively been scrapped. Although at one point in recent years we could have purchased one of the Bay class ships originally intended for Australia for about $200 million, a bargain when you consider it takes domestic shipbuilding 20 years and $2.5 billion to build one frigate. We very likely could have made a deal with the U.K for their one remaining ship of this class and instantly added immense prestige and capability to the Royal Canadian Navy.
It's hard to decide what's worse, the Liberals save a penny today, spend a dollar tomorrow approach to Naval procurement or the Conservative's awarding of lavish spending contracts on big business friends that in the end deliver little to meet the needs of Canada's defense and the hardworking men and women of the Royal Canadian Navy.
It would seem, and there's little to suggest this outcome will change, that by the middle of the next decade a country with the largest coast line in the world and a top ten global GDP, will have a navy with less capability than New Zealand or Bangladesh (navies which we are on par with now... just).
We'll have, two arctic patrol vessels, possibly one supply vessel, four very expensive and inoperable submarines and 10 unarmed, and rapidly aging Kingston coastal patrol vessels. Maybe six to eight of the Halifax frigates will remain in commission, stretching their lifespan out to 2050. So 26 to 27 ships, half of which will be obsolete, for the second largest country in the world. Sorry, there's only one word for it, pathetic. Governments of all stripes have depleted our navy almost to the point of no return and struck a blow against Canada worse than any enemy could have.