Canada could benefit from expanding its military presence in the Asia-Pacific. As I described in a previous Strategist post, the government faces certain budgetary constraints likely to limit the size of its future naval presence and capacity for maritime diplomacy. Yet such a challenge isn’t insurmountable. To ensure sufficient fleet funding, Canada has the option of placing greater priority on the capital portion of the defence budget—even if it comes at the expense of personnel and operations/maintenance spending.
Such a move would offer Ottawa some leverage to join the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. More importantly, Canada would have a means to help augment America’s naval power in the region, which is expected to be under increasing strain as a result of defence cutbacks—at a time when China is expanding its own naval fleet and showing greater assertiveness in its maritime disputes with its neighbours.
Other like-minded countries have already begun to focus on their own maritime forces. For example, Japan has strengthened its naval fleet with advanced (e.g. air-independent propulsion) submarines, helicopter destroyers, and plans for helicopter carriers, with a keen eye for possible amphibious operations to protect its vulnerable south-western approaches. Australia has also been eager to deploy a more formidable naval presence with its planned acquisition of Aegis destroyers and replacements for its Collins-class submarines. Both platforms are expected to have the high-end command, control, communications, and weapon systems necessary to ensure operational interoperability with the US Pacific Fleet.
Like the Australian navy, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) also has a strong tradition of interoperability with its American counterparts, to the point where Canadian warships can also be seamlessly integrated into US naval task forces (PDF). It would serve the RCN well to ensure that its future naval platforms can continue to be integrated with the US and other regional navies. Much depends on the capabilities offered by these naval platforms, which should be designed to complement America’s efforts at maintaining operational access to the Western Pacific.
The RCN needs to maintain some of its high end maritime war fighting capabilities. Of particular relevance is area air defence (AAD), a capability that should be retained and upgraded on its destroyer replacements—much as Australia has done with upgrades to its Anzac frigates and the Aegis equipped destroyers. Indeed, the United States, Japan, and other allies have become increasingly wary of China’s advanced anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, from shore-based aircraft and missiles to an undersea and surface fleet heavily armed with anti-ship cruise missiles—a concern reportedly also shared by the RCN, at least according to drafts of its unreleased Horizon 2050 naval strategy.
For the RCN to maintain interoperability with its key regional partners, Canada should also ensure that some of its next-generation Canadian Surface Combatants incorporate the Aegis combat system—joining other regional powers including Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the US Navy. Importantly, Aegis can also be upgraded to provide a mid-course and terminal ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability. Both the United States and Japan have proven eager to expand their BMD fleet, due to China’s development of a much feared anti-ship ballistic missile. Other countries may soon follow suit.
An anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability would also be highly valued in a region where many countries are expanding their submarine inventories. Much of the concern is on China’s undersea fleet, as a possible ‘assassin’s mace‘ capable of challenging American and allied sea control in this maritime theatre. For this reason, the US Navy has already been increasing its ASW assets in the region, with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) operating a formidable fleet that specializes in undersea and surface ASW.
The RCN already has a long history of ASW operations. Indeed, with its fleet of Victoria-class submarines, the RCN would be better placed for these missions than in the past, when it largely relied on surface ASW and escort duties. It also provides the natural locus for cooperation with regional navies, like the JMSDF. Of course, ASW isn’t necessarily cheap. Canada would eventually need to replace its fleet of Aurora maritime patrol aircraft and Victoria submarines. But, given the growing demand for ASW, we shouldn’t underplay the benefits that could be accrued by returning to this specialisation.
With such capabilities, the RCN would be well placed to support American and allied efforts to ensure sea control in the Western Pacific. If required, Canada would also be able to join in defensive missions envisioned in the US Air-Sea Battle concept, while avoiding its more offensive plans to disrupt and destroy A2/AD systems at their source.
Yet it would all be for naught if Canada lacks the logistics for sustained operations in the Pacific, therefore raising the issue of operational sustainment. Sadly, little attention has been paid to the future of the RCN’s auxiliary oiler replenishment fleet. Indeed, it’ll now have to settle for the acquisition of only two Joint Supply Ships, thereby increasing the chances that Canadian warships will be unable to be deployed for sustained operations abroad—unless an ally provides at-sea replenishment, which can no longer be guaranteed given the growing demand for such logistics ships.
In such a situation, the RCN might find its emphasis on Pacific operations curtailed, even if it otherwise enjoys high-end capabilities well-suited to that region. But, more importantly, it could also find its historic role as a blue-water fleet possibly endangered. Such an outcome would be doubly unfortunate, and is an important reminder not to ignore the logistical tail.
David S. McDonough is a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science, University of British Colombia and a research fellow in the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Command.