A CASE FOR CANADIAN STRATEGIC SEALIFT CAPABILITY

This article is an opinion piece only written by the author.

Dedicated Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) Ships
Canada has the longest coastline on the planet and a proud maritime heritage. However, it is the only G7 country without a true amphibious sealift capability. It has been said that a self-contained sea-based amphibious force is the best kind of fire extinguisher because of its flexibility, reliability, logistics simplicity and relative economy. Amphibious capability is the ability to transport and launch troops and vehicles via ships and aircraft, as well as launching of ground-targeted weapons from sea. An amphibious sealift capability is not something that Canada envisions, but it is something that Canada needs. There are two larger issues: what political, economic, and security interests are Canadian naval forces intended to serve? And what is to be the RCNs distinctive contribution to Canada’s national security in this new century? It is thought that part of the answer will lie with a “true” Canadian Strategic Amphibious Sealift Capability. While the adoption of this capability would certainly enhance the joint interoperability among the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF’s) air, land and sea elements, the greater payoff would be the interoperability Canada will gain with its NATO allies.

There is no doubt that Canada is deep on the front lines of the global war on Coronavirus or COVID-19 with the Delta variant, and no “flattening of the curve” with deaths escalating daily both in Canada and throughout the world. This pandemic crisis could last throughout the rest of 2021/2022 with more waves on the horizon. Recently Prime Minister Trudeau said Quebec had requested the Canadian Forces (CF) send personnel and medical supplies to northern aboriginal communities to assist citizens in isolated and remote regions to manage the COVID-19 outbreak. This virus is beginning to affect ship operations with navies around the world as several Canadian warships have cut their missions short and headed home, while other ships companies, ramping up to deploy, have been quarantined during this crisis.

A credible strategic sealift fleet of Landing Helicopter Dock/Assault (LHD/LHA) vessels for rapid deployment domestically or world-wide with Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) capabilities would be an excellent resource during this pandemic and beyond, and a game changer for Canada. In today’s chaotic COVID-19 world and uncertain security environment, there will be situations which arise at home or globally that will not be conducive to flying in conventional HA/DR forces, so Canada will need this capability more than ever.

Canada would normally send other types of combat ships to strickened COVID-19 areas within Canada. This is at best, token support and while the optics are good, the usefulness of the Halifax class or CSC Type 26 frigate, JSS Protecteur class, Kingston class or Harry DeWolfe AOPS class providing significant medical help is marginal at best. The ships themselves don’t have the capability or resources to provide anything near what is required. Canada cannot wait for decades to have a ship that will provide a significant HA/DR response. Building and providing HA/DR vessels for both domestic and world operations, would provide an opportunity for Canada to show the world that Canada cares. Picture the feelings of relief felt by people standing on Canadian shorelines ravaged by disaster, seeing a huge Canadian HA/DR ship arrive with food, water, clothing, shelter, medical aid and support. Then picture the pride of Canadians knowing that these ships represent Canada with all the medical personnel, facilities and equipment needed for this pandemic. Having an amphibious sealift capability would reduce Canada’s dependency on its allies to move forces and supplies into domestic or foreign areas of operations. Beyond Canada’s shores, the capability to undertake peace operations, including effectively rendering HA/DR, is a critical requirement for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) now and in the future. The RCN would then be well positioned to contribute meaningfully to domestic action ashore and support the sustainment of joint operations from sea, while preserving the ability to defend Canada’s freedom of action through naval operations. The multi-purpose nature and versatility of a fleet with such an HA/DR capability, both independently and as part of a Canadian task force, would allow Canada to deploy credible forces at home and abroad on short notice. An amphibious sealift capability would make Canada a more reliable contributor to national and international operations. Another advantage is the capacity to move and deliver bulk supplies and heavy equipment into areas of HA/DR operations; an extremely costly and limited option when conducted by air, and impossible without functioning airports.

Without sealift amphibious support for the delivery of logistic support to our ground forces, Canada is unable to field any substantial HA/DR rapid response to contingency task forces. Canada must however, have enough naval, air and army personnel to man these amphibious peace-support ships. Recruitment and training of more sailors, airmen and army personnel into the CF will be vital, bringing up strength by at least 4,000 personnel. Hopefully, the Canadian government will learn from the experiences of our allies and recognize the unique abilities of dedicated, multi-role strategic amphibious sealift ships, and the innovative HA/DR missions they could enable Canada to take on, amid a changing geo-strategic environment.

The sad reality of the current COVID-19 pandemic however, may well be that visionary efforts made to implant “effectiveness” within the CF may now be beginning to give way to much of the same old myopic, parochial and service-centric approaches to the nation’s defence strategy that have so often failed Canada in the past. In this context our navy’s long and continuing lack of purpose-built peace support amphibious capability to deliver and support humanitarian forces domestically and in the world’s littoral regions is minimal at best. The stark reality is that the new Protecteur Class AOR’s have only very limited usefulness in supporting even small natural disasters or epidemics. Contrast this with the nation’s amphibious capability that was so effectively demonstrated in 1956 during Operation Rapid Step by Canada’s aircraft carrier, HMCS Magnificent, when it was quickly reconfigured for troop lift and speedily dispatched by then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in response to the United Nations request to send a peace keeping force to Egypt. Sadly such a national capability, was destroyed long ago with the scrapping of our last carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, in 1970. Since then, we have seen the humiliating consequence of leasing civilian cargo ships with the GTS Katie incident even with the gallant efforts by the ships of Atlantic Command to deliver aid to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

With all the advantages that an amphibious sealift capability provides, It is puzzling why Canada has not adopted this capability like so many of its allies. During the House Of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence in 2017, most witnesses proposed that Canada acquire a large helicopter carrying amphibious peace support capability that the RCN could use for HA/DR, peace support and personnel transport at home and abroad. The RCN has been interested in operating such “Peace Support” ships for many years and reiterated its desire to do so in “Leadmark 2050”. There are those who oppose the development of this capability in Canada because it would constitute such a large institutional change. The real reason Canada has not adopted an HA/DR amphibious sealift capability is due to fiscal constraints. A growth in the force, the procurement of ships, connector vessels, amphibious vehicles, aircraft, training, and the research and development for it all, comes with a price-tag which Canada currently cannot afford. An amphibious sealift capability would however, prove to be a sound investment since it is something Canada has used in the past, could have used recently, and will be required to use in future operations. Although the capability is not specifically mentioned in Canada’s latest defence policy, it would certainly enhance Canadian Forces’ abilities to complete missions required by government as laid out in its pages.

Canada shares many of the same international interests as its allies, and regularly participates in international security and relief operations. However, by not having its own sealift capability, Canada is diminishing its political significance on the world stage by limiting military involvement in HA/DR and Maritime operations. Global security is forever-changing, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. One can imagine a myriad of situations where Canada might need to intervene if asked both domestically and globally. This capability would improve national security, interoperability with other government departments (OGD), reduce Canada’s reliance upon other states, and allow the projection of a more robust force globally.

Among the appropriate sealift options, the most practicable are ships specifically designed and purpose-built for HA/DR amphibious operations, possessing a capacity to move forces in their entirety. Amphibious ships provide a secure base for generating local air superiority and local air mobility assets. They may also act as a secure base for an HQ Command, and provide logistics supply facilities. These are flexible, specialized military assets that are highly valued by our allies, and by the international organizations to which we belong. Amphibious assets would be in great demand on all three of our oceans. The list of capabilities amphibious platforms provide ranges from evacuating citizens, to rendering HA/DR assistance with medical and military aid, the tactical recovery of air pilots, to all points in between. Canada’s navy needs to become better equipped for peace-support operations, including a robust command and control HA/DR capability. Such measures will improve the fleet’s agility and capacity to respond to disasters both domestically and abroad.

Besides the longstanding US amphibious capability, other allies that are re-investing in this area include the UK, France, Australia, Turkey, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. These ships have capabilities that can be assigned to high-profile domestic humanitarian emergency missions at home or abroad. The fundamental need and task is to provide mobility and support for training, readiness and deployment of Canada’s land-locked army. Unless the maximum of 4 LHD ships is provided for both Atlantic and Pacific (2 per coast) embarkation locations (one of each LHD would normally be in periodic refit or maintenance), the availability for humanitarian and national security missions is by no means assured. Needed are types of ships that can transport security forces and are robust enough to be able to carry and deploy medical units and air detachments. The possible use of naval assets for command and control must be part of any HA/DR package. The Canadian requirement is for a prudent choice of ships, adequately sized with the flexibility and growth potential to meet changing needs over their lives of 40 to 50 years, a period in which Canada’s population, economic power, external interests and defence requirements will grow. These ships should be capable of providing space and infrastructure for field hospitals, other medical support, and for offshore command and control HQs. They must also be broadly balanced, combat-effective, capable of independent action at sea and able to contribute substantially to HA/DR operations ashore.

Operations after Hurricane Irma by the RCN and allied navies have highlighted a pressing need for Canada to consider the acquisition of dedicated ‘peace-support’ ships to meet the unique demands of HA/DR. Specialized naval vessels dedicated to this mission would offer an adaptable solution to address catastrophes worldwide. They would represent a visible symbol of Canada’s commitment to bringing stability to fragile states and help populations to recover from the aftermath of state or global disasters. Such ships would act as a sea-base, with features that include a substantial capacity to move personnel, vehicles, force logistics and humanitarian materiel into theatre. There would be equipment to transfer cargo at sea, and deck space to accommodate and operate medium/heavy-lift aircraft and landing craft. These landing craft would act as the ship-to-shore connectors to project, sustain and support an HA/DR force ashore, and recover it. Recently Canada committed two helicopter squadrons, heavy lift Chinook helicopters and up to 200 support personnel to the Mali Mission. A dedicated strategic sealift capability would have been ideal to provide transport of the entire mission of equipment and personnel. A Canadian LHD could have landed at a coastal African port and then disembark the entire force to the Mali region. Internal space and equipment could be dedicated to a joint operation HQ, act as a floating civil-military coordination centre, as well as substantial medical and dental facilities with accommodations for medical evacuees.

Such vessels would likely be among the most heavily used assets in the Canadian maritime force inventory. They would be capable of anticipatory pre-positioning or rapid deployment, be able to carry large volumes of humanitarian cargo, medical units, emergency vehicles and related supplies. Such peace-support ships would be an ideal platform for Canadian domestic and joint action across a wide range of relatively permissive HA/DR scenarios. Situations where the ships would be used include the evacuation of civilian personnel from zones of medical crisis or conflict, and support medical forces ashore. Moreover, such vessels would likely emerge as the principal Canadian defence diplomacy assets. They could be deployed routinely to regions of domestic and strategic interest to Canada, with a range of personnel and capabilities to strengthen regional strategic partnerships. More broadly, they could conduct goodwill missions with OGDs agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGO).

The planned two Protecteur Class, (HMCS Protecteur & Preserver-based on the German Berlin Class AOR’s) and interim AOR ship MV Matrix, each have a very small measure of this capability but are designed primarily for replacement of the old AOR fleet supply ships in direct support of long-range operations of our future frigates. They are not designed to carry troop formations or medical field hospitals. Subject to availability, they will not eliminate the reliance on chartered sealift when speed of delivery is a key requirement. The deployment of these amphibious assets is totally mission dependent. The force must always be capable of dealing with worst-case scenarios and always have the capability of being augmented and sustained by additional follow-on HA/DR forces. Aviation elements that consist of medium to heavy-lift helicopter assets, air defence and ground attack aircraft either fixed or rotary wing, and all necessary ground support assets, will be a required element of any strategic sealift capability. An on-board service support group will provide the force with mission-essentials such as medical/dental assistance, logistics, supply and maintenance, and forward ship-based operation capabilities.

Amphibious ships would provide the RCN with the ability to perform a ‘peacetime helping role’ for which the Canadian public has an expressed appetite. When humanitarian disasters such as medical crises or natural disasters strike at home or overseas, one of the most prominent responses the government of Canada can deploy are the ships, aircraft and naval personnel of the RCN. Ships and their crew provide self-sustaining, self-contained humanitarian assistance, as sailors can live aboard and be fed from their ship’s galleys, without straining local resources. Onsite, these ships could aid in the evacuation of residents and tourists, hospital units for a substantial COVID-19 response, repair infrastructure and provide supplies to stranded citizens. Having such dedicated amphibious sealift resources would better equip the RCN to provide humanitarian aid, respond to natural disasters (especially in more remote stretches of coastline), engage in search-and-rescue operations and participate in United Nations peacekeeping missions. As platforms from which the full range of helicopter and fixed wing operations can be conducted, if necessary, amphibious ships of the LHA/LHD type would provide an important part of the necessary fleet balance and flexibility needed to meet government mandates for Canada’s domestic or global mission requirements.

Dedicated HA/DR Ship Options
Most contemporary amphibious assault vessels are conceived with built-in aviation facilities, as well as a stern well-dock for operating much faster ship-to-shore connectors. Major amphibious vessels can act as command ships, with facilities for an embarked staff and large communication suites as well as robust command-and-control systems. The HA/DR role is of particular importance. Amphibious vessels offer a unique and often critical capability, able to transfer large amounts of medical supplies and/or engineering and rescue equipment even without the availability of harbour facilities. This has made these ships attractive to navies that would otherwise never contemplate the possibility of amphibious operations in the traditional meaning of the term. Most of Canada’s allies have placed great emphasis on dedicated amphibious sealift capabilities. There are several ships that would make excellent options. Any one of these LHA’s/LHD’s would be substantial flag ships for the RCN and a game changer for Canada.

First, is the Spanish Juan Carlos-class, a 27,500 ton 230.8m (758ft) “multi-purpose” LHD that has four decks, a dock and garage for heavy cargo, a habitability deck, a hangar and light cargo garage and a flight deck with a 12° sky-jump. This LHD runs on combined diesel-electric and gas turbine (CODELOG) propulsion systems with sustained speeds of 21 knots. A multi-purpose vessel that can be used for aircraft support as well as amphibious HA/DR operations. The Australian navy has acquired two Juan Carlos (Canberra-class) LHDs – HMAS Canberra and Adelaide –now operational in their navy. Australia’s HA/DR response is centered on this helicopter dual-purpose platform, which carries four landing craft, 100 vehicles, six to 10 helicopters and over 1,000 troops (short term). In early 2016, HMAS Canberra responded to a typhoon in Fiji with over 100 tonnes of humanitarian supplies, full medical suites and a complement of several hundred engineers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers, all of whom were able to access even the most remote areas in the Fijian archipelago using the ships helicopters and landing craft. A fleet of 4 Juan Carlos class LHDs would be a great asset for Canada.

The next option would be the Italian Trieste Class LHD. The first of its class, the Trieste is some 33,000 tons, 245m (803ft) long, with a maximum speed of 25+ knots. Laid down in July 2017, launched in 2019 and expected to be commissioned in 2022. It is equipped with two Rolls Royce gas mt30 turbine engines (CODELOG) models with improved weight/power ratio efficiency. It can accommodate 1,064 personnel (crew and battalion strength). It has a range of 7,000 nautical miles (nm) and can sail over 30 days without storing. This class has similar characteristics to the Juan Carlos but is able to carry more aircraft and humanitarian relief equipment. A minimum fleet of 3 Trieste class LHDs would be a game changer for Canada.

The third option is the USS America Class, a 45,000 ton 257m (844ft) LHD. It has two gas turbines with two shafts, able to generate 70,000 HP with two diesel generators of 5,000 HP for auxiliary propulsion giving the ship a sustained speed of 22+kts. It is able to carry several VSTOL A/C (F35B Lightning II) and MV 22 Osprey, with various helicopters. It can carry a Battalion/Brigade strength of Army personnel, two landing craft air cushioned (LCACs) and one utility landing craft. A minimum of 2 America class LHAs would be required.

The final option is the French built Mistral Class, a 21,300 ton (full load), 199m (652ft) LHD. It has a crew of 160 sailors. It carries up to four landing craft, 59 vehicles, 16 heavy lift or 35 light helicopters, and has a personnel capacity of 900 for short durations. It has three diesel and one auxiliary diesel alternator with two Azimuth thrusters of 7mw each with two five-bladed propellers giving it a top speed of 18.8 knots. There are three of this class now operational in the French Navy with a further two ships having already been sold to the Egyptian Navy. A minimum of 4 of this class would be another game changer for Canada.

All have exceptional command and control capabilities. Both Juan Carlos and Trieste Classes are fitted with four Landing Craft Mechanized (LCMs) with room for 46 Leopard II tanks per ship. All Classes can carry updated LAV IIIs along with support vehicles. The Juan Carlos, Trieste and America Classes carry as a minimum, at least 10-12 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, Griffin helicopters and/or up to 15 attack or reconnaissance helicopters and 24 fixed-wing aircraft. They all have substantial triage hospitals with operating rooms and space for at least 100+ patients along with x-ray, MRI and dental facilities. These HA/DR vessels are able to carry 144+ large containers. Any of these ship classes would give Canada the potent amphibious sealift HA/DR capability it has been sorely missing and give the Canadian government the flexibility and agility to respond quickly to any HA/DR crises at home or abroad. These ships (with the exception of the America Class) could be built here in Canada with technical assistance from Spain, Italy or France, with contracts awarded to the best bidding Canadian shipyard.

Conclusion
There is no denying the current Defence Department fiscal constraints, however many of Canada’s allies agree that a strategic amphibious sealift HA/DR capability brings with it enhanced flexibility to conduct military, peace keeping and HA/DR operations. Most NATO Allies already spend at least 2% of their GDP on Defence. Australia is gearing up this year to surpass the 2% threshold for their Defence needs. The Canadian government believes that “being back” as our Prime Minister has said, within the NATO umbrella, means Canada will be participating in UN peacekeeping and peace support operations in a much more meaningful way. Acquiring a strategic Canadian amphibious sealift HA/DR capability would be essential to this policy. Canada must step up to the plate and give our Navy the tools to accomplish the government’s peace support and peace keeping HA/DR missions required by all Canadians.

If Canada were to spend at least 2% of its GDP on defence, this amphibious sealift capability would not only be possible, but most of these “Peace Support” HA/DR ships could easily be built here in Canada from existing ship designs already under construction world-wide. There would be no negative effects on Canada’s defence needs in the future, or on Canada’s economy. The ability to quickly deploy military and/or medical forces abroad with speed over great distances, has considerable appeal to a country that wishes to renew its NATO presence. Canadian strategic amphibious sealift thinking must be re-examined IOT best achieve Canada’s future domestic and global HA/DR requirements. The time for such a re-examination is now. So long as the government of the day, and CF leadership, remain willing to accept that our nation’s future strategic, political and military options will not be unnecessarily reduced by the absence of a credible militarily amphibious sealift capability, Canada will never live up to its full potential as an influential global middle power. It is time for our government to clearly state its intentions and quickly start the process to field a Canadian amphibious sealift HR/DR capability. To try to accomplish this under current fiscal constraints, would be difficult at best unless an increase in Defence spending is realized soon.
 

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