ESSAY

The Canadian navy’s hard-time days

Peter C. Newman September 2 1985
ESSAY

The Canadian navy’s hard-time days

Peter C. Newman September 2 1985

The Canadian navy’s hard-time days

ESSAY

Peter C. Newman

The ultimate insult to what was once the world’s third-largest and arguably most effective maritime defence force—the Royal Canadian Navy—came in the shape of a private order, early last year, for four submarines from a shipbuilder at Port Moody, B.C. The quartet of $800,000 boats will have all the underwater features of standard submersibles, such as ballast tanks and battery-driven motors, but they will be used to take shoppers, 24 at a time, on underwater tours of the artificial inland sea that is being added to the gargantuan West Edmonton Mall.

When a shopping centre boasts a larger and more modern fleet of submarines than the nation’s navy—which has only three 1960s-vintage subs—something is seriously out of whack. The governing misconception on which this bizarre juxtaposition is based runs something like this: we live on a huge, self-sufficient and invulnerable subcontinent, we don’t really need to worry about the sea around us and, therefore, don’t really need a navy—except perhaps as a national joke.

It’s a comforting notion for a country in which most citizens live out of sight and sound of the sea, and it’s dead wrong. We may not be a seafaring nation but we are far from self-contained, and anything but landlocked.

Canada is an island very much dependent on seaborne trade. The terminals of our main highways and railway systems run to tidewater. Every day 130 ships enter or sail from Canadian ports; fully 30 per cent of our exports—which account for almost a third of Canada’s gross national product—are carried by ship. Our 64,320-km coastline encloses an economy dependent on trade lifelines flung across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

This week’s naval review on Canada’s west coast, which followed a similar ceremonial assembly in Halifax at the end of June, marked the Royal Canadian Navy’s 75th anniversary. The splendid spectacles served mainly to revive memories of what the RCN had once been and should be again. Now smaller than the British Columbia ferry fleet, our navy is a tattered remnant of the once-proud armada that helped win the Second World War.

The decline from those heady days has been dramatic. All but four destroyers in our current fleet are between 20 and 30 years old, held together by buckets of grey paint and the dedication of

their loyal crews. These Noah’s Arks would not last 10 minutes even in the kind of contained, conventional skirmish that was fought in the Falklands. In fact, three of the destroyers counted as part of our front-line NATO contribu-

tion (the Chaudière, Columbia and St. Croix) literally cannot move; they are permanently tied up at dockside in Halifax and in Esquimalt, B.C., their diminishing silhouettes witness to the fact that they are being cannibalized to keep their sister ships afloat.

It is absurd to set such a fleet, even if its seamen are ranked as the best in NATO, beside the exponential growth of

the Soviet Navy. According to Jane's Fighting Ships (published by our very own Ken Thomson), the Soviet fleet is expanding at the rate of 20 major units a year, including the launch of a new nuclear sub every five weeks. The Soviet

underwater flotilla fits no shopping centre pond. Its pride is the 30,000-ton Typhoon sub, which measures 75 yards longer than the standard Canadian football field. Most threatening to Canada are the Deltas, regularly detected off the east and west coasts. They have the range to pop enough SS-NX-23 missiles into our cities to wipe out urban Canada in one salvo. During one typical year

(1982), Canadian destroyers reported 166 sightings of Soviet submarines off the east coast.

At the other end of the country, we face the most unequal maritime contest. Rear Admiral R.D. Yanow, who heads our Pacific fleet, has bluntly warned: “The main threat to North America is the nuclear ballistic missile-firing submarine. At least three are always within missile range in the Atlantic and two in

the Pacific.” Yanow’s operational flotilla (eight destroyers without a single helicopter, half a dozen patrol boats with no minesweeping gear, one tanker, a research vessel and some small auxiliaries) is responsible for the surveillance of a million square miles of ocean. Our Pacific trade, at 46 million tons of Canadian cargo per year, surpassed transatlantic commerce in 1982; Van-

couver now handles more sea freight than Halifax, Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto combined. It is at this level —protection of trade and maintenance of sovereignty—that a Canadian naval service begins to make sense.

Canada’s navy may not be able to contribute much to any future confrontation between superpowers, but it must at least have a fleet capable of patrolling our own waters. Since HMCS Labrador

was decommissioned on Nov. 22,1957, we have not had a single naval ship with the icebreaking capabilities for venturing north of Sixty. Canada had no say about the recent voyage of the U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage, and no one recognizes our claim to that channel. Only a naval presence could validate it. At the moment, our naval ships can’t even get there.

Another seldom-discussed aspect of potential Canadian naval requirement is terrorism at sea. We have a dozen oil rigs off our east coast which could easily be seized and their crews held for ransom. According to a report by the International Maritime Organization, there have been at least 200 significant incidents of actual, attempted or threatened maritime terrorism since 1945. Only a believable, rapidly actuated naval force could deal with such emergencies in Canadian waters.

In a potential wartime situation one of the most severe threats would come from undersea mines. The Soviet Union is calculated to have a stock of half a million, and as Robert N. Baugniet, president of the Canadian Maritime Defence Association, pointed out recently, “It would take only six mines strategically placed in Canadian waters—or merely the threat of placing them—to seriously disrupt essential elements of our economy.” Canada’s navy has no minesweeping gear at all. A shivering platoon of frogmen is trained to prowl our harbor bottoms with hand-held sonar. That’s rather like defending yourself against a tank with slingshots.

The answer to these and other failings is to persuade the politicians who command Ottawa’s priorities that a national will exists for a stronger navy. Admiral James C. Wood, who heads the Maritime Command in Halifax, is convinced that such a turnabout is taking place. “The capabilities of our maritime defence forces reflect Canadian attitudes,” he says, “and range from modest to magnificent. The factors that have remained constant are the length of our coastline, the vastness of our contiguous ocean areas, the rich resources which exist in those areas and the grave difficulties encountered in maintaining control over those areas in time of war. The variables are, of course, the human and physical resources that Canada provides to ensure the preservation of our maritime sovereignty. I believe we have now moved past the bottom of the curve and are once again on the way up.”

Certainly, something must be done. Those shopping centre subs may be fun to ride, but they will not patrol our fishing limits, enforce sovereignty over our North or defend us against the erratic impulses of terrorists or other enemies. Only a reborn Royal Canadian Navy can do that. It is high time we began to reclaim its heritage, which was celebrated with such proud pomp, if dubious circumstance, this summer.

Peter C. Newman, senior contributing editor of Maclean’s, served as a commander in the Royal Canadian Navy reserve.