The navy: seeking rejuvenation at 75

Chris Wood July 8 1985

The navy: seeking rejuvenation at 75

Chris Wood July 8 1985

The navy: seeking rejuvenation at 75

Chris Wood

Canada's first venture into maritime defence was inauspicious. Warned in the closing months of the 1870s that hostility between Imperial Russia and Victorian Britain could disrupt the transatlantic grain and lumber trades, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald asked London for a fleet to protect the Atlantic coast. Ottawa’s appeal went unheeded until finally, in 1881, a distracted British Admiralty presented Canada with its first warship, the wood-hulled corvette Charybdis. It was a floating disaster. While anchored at St. John, N.B., it broke loose in a gale and damaged several other ships. Two people fell through the decaying planks of its gangway and drowned. The following year Canada returned the decrepit Charybdis to the Royal Navy. It was another 28 years before Ottawa gathered its nerve again and launched the Royal Canadian Navy in 1910. Now, in the wake of 75th anniversary celebrations in Halifax, Canada’s navy is straining once more to overcome its image as too small, too old and too threadbare.

Even last week’s celebration—in the presence of Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé, the Royal Navy’s Prince Andrew, new brass and old salts—evoked echoes of the Cha-

rybdis and its equally out-of-date successors, the retired British cruisers Niobe and Rainbow,taken under Canadian command in 1910. As the massed naval artillery of 34 warships pounded out a

salute to Commander-in-Chief Sauvé under the first sunny skies in six days in Halifax harbor, the 13 Canadian vessels stood out as comparative museum pieces beside sleekly modern vessels from the navies of 12 allied countries.

As age and attrition reduced the seagoing strength of Canada’s navy by more than half from its 1960 peacetime peak of 62 ships and 20,000 sailors, the parlous condition of the Maritime Command became a perennial lament in the nation—and a complaint among allies. In the Second World War the RCN’s fleet of 450 ships and 95,000 officers and men made Canada the world’s third-mightiest allied sea power after the United States and Britain. Now, old hands complain, the country’s 71,000 km of coastline on three oceans remains as near defenceless as when the Niobe rammed a rock off Cape Sable Island a year after her purchase for $1,075,000, disabling the better half of the two-vessel cruiser fleet for a year.

In a modern war, the navy’s chief, Vice-Admiral James C. Wood, told Maclean’s, the older destroyers that comprise four-fifths of his command would need protection from other navies to survive. A $3.9-billion program will, by 1992, provide six new patrol frigates with electronic armaments for fighting submarines, planes and other ships. But

the program is scaled down from a 1974 proposal to build 24 replacement ships. And even then the navy will be unable to fulfil its commitments to national sovereignty and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by the end of the century. Strategy specialist Edward Luttwak at the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, summed up a widely held view among allies when he praised the navy’s “good quality men,” but added, “Look, there simply is not enough Canadian navy.”

Still, some expert allies hold a more measured opinion. Retired U.S. Rear Adm. Gene LaRocque, director of Washington’s Center for Defense Information, told Maclean’s: “The Canadian navy is a small, elite, extremely capable force. They are effective in antisubmarine warfare and they have been surprisingly innovative. They have, for example, devised a method of pulling helicopters down to the deck of small vessels.” According to LaRocque, Canada was right to “adjust the size of its navy to the size of the population” and to choose to build frigates, rather than submarines (a seven-year, $42.4-million refit of three 1960s-vintage submarines, the Okanagan, Ojibwa and Onondaga, is nearing completion). He added, “In times of peace the frigates can be used to show the Canadian flag around the world, and in times of tension they can escort Canadian or NATO ships.”

Among 51 specific assignments, Maritime Command—including 36 Aurora and Tracker patrol planes and 35 19608era Sea King helicopters—is responsible for defending Canada’s coastline and protecting sovereignty in adjacent economic zones in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic archipelago. It is com-

mitted to assist NATO in defending North Atlantic sea lanes carrying more than half the country’s overseas trade and to provide logistical support to Europe in the event of war. But despite a 20-per-cent budget increase to $1.8 billion this fiscal year, shipbuilding costs have forced reduced ship maintenance, sea time and training hours. Said Lt. Gavin Balfour, 33, a Sea King pilot aboard the frigate HMCS Annapolis: “I do not like the frustration of being behind the curve when it comes to equipment.”

But celebration submerged frustrations last week when NATO’s eight-ship Standing Naval Force Atlantic sailed into Halifax. The squadron of frigates from Belgium, West Germany, Norway, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States finished exercises in the English Channel before joining the naval birthday party. By Friday vessels from France, Italy, Brazil, Sweden and Finland had joined Canadian and NATO ships for a ship-deck review by the Governor General and Prince Andrew, a veteran of naval helicopter action in the 1982 Falklands War.

In reviewing the ships in Halifax harbor, the royal visitor witnessed age beside youth. The 28-year-old steam-driven Canadian destroyer HMCS Margaree carried only an antique 3.50-calibre twin-gun mount. The swift Dutch frigate Pieter Floresz, commissioned less than three years ago, bristled with anti-

aircraft and antimissile armaments, electronic radar jammers and devices to eject clouds of metal chaff designed to confuse attacking guided missiles. West Germany, Italy and France also sent computerized representatives from their fleets, all commissioned since 1982. The newest Canadian vessel at anchor, HMCS Algonquin, entered service in 1973. Two-thirds of the Canadian navy’s ships

date from the 1950s and 1960s.

Ottawa will spend $19 million this year out of a total projected $186 million earmarked to modernize the country’s 16 oldest warships by 1987, installing new electronics and weaponry. A further $17.4 million has been invested on “contract definition” for updating four younger Tribal class destroyers with, among other gear, better anti-aircraft

and antimissile defences. Even after the refits, most of Canada’s ships will fall short of standards set elsewhere in the NATO fleet. As Maritime Cmdr. Wood noted, “You can only put so much new wine back into an old bottle.”

The cost of relying on warships that have outlived their designed lifespans was dramatically illustrated early last month. The 21 year-old HMCS Nipigon

chugged into Halifax harbor with the steel and aluminum deck of her operations room split by a 40-foot-long crack. Metal rivets holding the deck together, weakened by time, had given way during exercises off Bermuda. Only six months earlier the ship had left drydock following a $16-million stem-to-gudgeon refit. The ship was hastily scratched from last week’s assembly so that repairs could be made in time to send her to sea again with NATO’s Atlantic squadron in August.

It wasn’t the first time the navy has suffered acute embarrassment over equipment problems:

• Tests as far back as 1971 showed that the navy’s polyester uniforms could catch fire in some shipboard conditions. The uniforms were not replaced until this year’s return to traditional darkblue bell-bottomed dress.

• In the fall of 1981 the Soviet Union sent a task group of brand-new Krivakclass guided missile detroyers and a Kara-class guided missile cruiser within 60 miles of Vancouver Island. The 26year-old Canadian destroyer sent out from Esquimalt to shadow the Soviets carried no defences against missile attack.

• In November, 1981, all 16 of the navy’s older steam-driven destroyers on both coasts were ordered confined to port because some had cracks in their boilers.

• In June, 1983, the navy’s 35 Sea King antisubmarine helicopters were ground-

ed for replacement of cracked engine mounts.

• The same month, Maritime Command’s Commodore Hugh MacNeil confirmed that obsolete communication equipment on some Canadian destroyers rendered the ships unable to share tactical data with other NATO vessels.

• In September, 1984, Commodore John Harwood acknowledged that Cana-

da has no capacity to clear mines from its principal naval base. Said Harwood: “If someone were to mine Halifax harbor, it would seal off the port.”

While less dramatic than equipment failures or fuel shortages, the navy also suffers manpower problems in both its regular and reserve forces. Staff shortages have caused a lack of watch replacements for technical specialists on some vessels. In testimony this spring before the senate subcommittee on foreign affairs and defence, retired rear admiral Michael Martin said, “Crews must work harder because they’re working on rotten old equipment.” As well, although the navy has identified between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs it says must be assigned to primary naval reserve personnel in the event of war, Parliament has authorized it to recruit only 3,250 reservists. Asks naval reserve director Capt. David Pollard: “How do you organize and train 3,250 people to fill 8,000 billets?”

Almost one-third of the naval reservists is women, but the navy officially discourages the notion of integrating female sailors into full duty at sea. Female crew members have served at sea as deckhands, supply and galley staff on the auxiliary diving support ship HMCS Cormorant, making up about one-fifth of the crew of 70. But Maritime Command does not train women for five socalled hard sea trades—bosun, radio operator, signaller, radar plotter and diver. The Canadian Human Rights Commission criticized the military’s arguments for excluding women from combat roles as “speculative and unpersuasive.” But said Pollard: “It is a political decision. If the government says we should let women be slaughtered in war, then we will put them in positions where they can be slaughtered.” Added Maritime Command’s Wood: “I personally would not want my wife or daughter in that business.” Defence Minister Erik Nielsen said last month that the full integration of women in the armed forces is “premature.” For Sheila Finestone, Liberal member of Parliament for the Montreal riding of Mount Royal, the navy’s attitude is out of date. Said Finestone: “It is a management problem with leadership that is stuck in a mental time warp.”

But for the Canadian navy—the feature in a military tattoo spectacle that tours 11 cities this summer and the host of another assembly of ships off Vancouver and Victoria at the end of August—the more urgent priority in its 75th birthday year is to free itself from the becalming albatross of antique equipment and to leave the Charybdis image in its wake.

Ken MacQueen

William Lowther in

David North