In 2010, the 100th anniversary year of the Royal Canadian Navy, a five-ship task group will tour the Great Lakes showing the flag. Other ships and task groups will sail the east and west coasts making the navy as visible as possible to the people who pay for it.
Whether these tours will be a celebration or shrouded in gloom depends very much on decisions about the future of the fleet that should have been made a decade ago and need to be made now.
For the fleet is aging.
Perhaps for that reason, the navy appears to be ramping up its public relations program to get its name and needs out in front of the public at a time when all the military attention is on the army in Afghanistan.
As part of that effort, the navy exposes selected civilians to its way of life by inviting them to join a serving ship at sea during exercises.
In the case of myself and three others, the helicopter frigate HMCS Halifax became home as we watched task group manoeuvring at sea, simulated combat situations involving submarines, surface ships and aircraft, one ship towing another, refueling at sea, gunnery practice, and boarding exercises in a heaving sea (a chore not recommended for people who get dizzy on ladders).
In preparation for the voyage, I re-read The Cruel Sea, one of the finest novels ever written about men in small ships in combat in the modern era.
I also tried to rekindle memories from almost 40 years ago when I was a sailor on an ocean-going merchant vessel that operated out of Gibraltar but flew a Panamanian “flag of convenience” because the rules were fewer and the costs lower.
On Halifax, I discovered a world the same yet much different.
I re-learned skills of my own from Panamanian days like walking on a slanting deck, the wet joy of a salt water toilet (and always securing toilet doors from the outside when you leave), eating in shift, and being eternally grateful seasickness is not something that ever bothered me.
The cruel sea remains: powerful, brooding, white-capped, swell following swell, bright and dark in turn, always potentially dangerous, a vastness upon which ships can toss like wood chips and seem like toys.
Some expressions have survived the years, remarkable considering the 1970s Liberal government’s gutting of the RCN’s old Royal Navy ties.
For example: “Special duty party—close up,” is more-or-less old navy lingo for: “Those on assigned task X get ready.”
Others were new to me, particularly the acronyms connected with combat. A supply ship is an AOR, an ammunition and oil replenishment vessel. A briefing in the operations room was incomprehensible jargon to my ears by the time everyone got through piling CIWS on RAS on VDQ.
Not to mention amazingly clean engine rooms and exercise equipment tucked away here and there.
And I won’t even mention the peculiarity (to an old salty like me) of females being present as part of the crew, or ‘driving’ a ship rather than steering it.
But what was most striking was the purposeful nature of the ship, how everyone had a multitude of chores that varied with the nature of the task being performed, with all of it functioning as an integrated whole to achieve the objective of the moment.
Or, to put it another way, everyone at sea is a sailor, but not everyone is navy.
Being a ‘Panamanian’ sailor was a singular job; being navy is a vocation.
The four basic tasks are the same: working the deck with hoses and lines and steering the ship; or working in supply where you cook or procure victuals or steward, or maintaining either marine systems like propulsion, or non-marine systems like the electrical.
The navy has a fifth chore. It ships are also platforms for combat, and the need for combat skills heightens and adds to all the others.
It isn’t quite The Cruel Sea making of a warrior either. Much remains in the modern navy about leadership and character and the nature of sea-life that hasn’t changed, but the type and intensity of war has changed, and the skills required to sail and fight in an electronic age have escalated dramatically.
Institutions are not made over-night, and the great fear in the navy is that as the current fleet rusts out with age and lack of replacements that the hard-won goal of a successful Seven Seas fleet will be lost (and Canada’s navy is genuinely one of only three such in the world along with the Americans and British).
Most importantly, skills and institutional knowledge that disappear in a year could take 10 years to get back.
There are commentators who shrug and say: who cares? What does it matter if Canada has a Seven Seas navy or even a navy at all? Why not leave it to the Americans, or put all the money into icebreakers to police Arctic sovereignty?
And, truly, it doesn’t matter if one is an isolationist, who thinks Canada is exempt from world trends and events, like a head-in-the-sand ostrich that not only sees no enemies but doesn’t believe in the existence of enemies anymore.
No-one knows the future, or what type of navy would be required to play an appropriate role in the world, but the consensus among the experts is that a properly trained and maintained and up-to-date navy is the ultimate in flexibility.
Take something as mundane as fishery patrols inside Canada’s 200-mile economic exclusion zone as an example of how many roles are being played out even there.
Although civilians have the legal authority to enforce Canadian law against both Canadian and foreign fisheries vessels, it is the navy that has the ships and human skills capable of delivering those civilians to the proper place at the proper time and enforcing the rules and regulations when required. Nothing else does.
Taking care of fisheries officials may sound simple, but it is really an expression of the multiple missions the navy undertakes daily around the world.
To wit: helping fisheries patrol is first-off an exercise in sovereignty, of knowing where our legal and ethical responsibilities begin and end. But it is also an exercise in detection and verification: who’s out there and what are they doing? It is equally an exercise in Maritime Interdiction, no different in the approach and skills required when checking dhows in the Arabian Sea for the presence of known terrorists, or ships off Haiti or in the Adriatic for contraband goods.
The versatile nature of the beast makes a fully functioning warship at sea a truly awesome creature.
That’s why it can play such an important role in deterrence. For instance, no-one ever hears about the standing NATO naval patrols, of which Canada is a key member, because the jobs they do are so successful.
As someone who was in the then-shaky democracy of Estonia in 1992 I know that personally. For the first time, a NATO squadron visited a port (Tallinn) just emerging from the Soviet yoke. The locals were extremely grateful.
A warship means pirates back off. One Canadian frigate still gets a bottle of champagne each Christmas for saving the folks on a catamaran off Africa a few years back.
The navy’s missions, in fact, are almost endless, and include many elements that people rarely think about, such as disaster relief from Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans.
Admittedly, it isn’t easy determining what the navy should look like in the middle of the 21st century. No-one relishes the choices that must be made by the politicians and their military advisors in Ottawa.
But the capabilities required are known, the potential missions are known (most are being done today), so the choices are not impossible.
Nor is the cost prohibitive. Military spending, even after the recent Conservative build-up, stills absorbs a smaller proportion of GDP than it did in the anti-military 1970s.
If the tours of 2010 are to be a celebration rather than a dirge, choices on replacement vessels need to be made now, and done so clearly and decisively.