Mr. Harperâ€™s isolation could be read indirectly into the reporting of last weekâ€™s phone call between him and U.S. President Barack Obama. Whereas the Canadian â€œreadout,â€ or report, of the conversation made no mention of defence spending, the White House reported that â€œthe President stressed the agreement on increased defence investment in all areas is a top priority at the NATO summit.â€
A â€œtop American priorityâ€ is always to cajole NATO allies into spending more on defence. That priority is certainly not Mr. Harperâ€™s. He has developed an ambivalent and somewhat contradictory attitude toward the military, and it toward him. The Prime Minister and his advisers and the top military brass circle each warily, harbouring their respective reservations about each other.
To put matters aphoristically, Mr. Harperâ€™s government likes the idea of the military more than it likes the military itself.
The idea of the military means history, monuments, medals, ceremonies, parades and repeated rhetorical praise. The military itself means buying equipment, deploying it, dealing with veterans and wrestling with a budget that always seems to go up unless the political masters get tough.
The military has produced some nice headlines to an image-obsessed government, notably from the Afghanistan mission, but it has also delivered headaches and bad headlines, especially over procurement. Delays and problems have beset such purchases as the new generation of fighter aircraft, maritime helicopters, search and rescue aircraft, ships and some smaller gear.
For this government (as for previous ones), the military seems always set on a permanent â€œask,â€ but for the military, this government like previous ones, promises more than it delivers and takes on missions that stretch the militaryâ€™s means of delivery.
That these aging beasts are still flying at all is testament to both the talents of those who have been operating and maintaining the old aircraft, and to the failings of a series of governments that have been unable to replace the tired, often grounded Sea Kings since at least 1986.
The Department of National Defense was supposed to start receiving the first replacement Cyclone helicopters from Sikorsky Aircraft in 2008 but it is still waiting. And those weren’t even the first series of helicopters ordered as replacements.
A year ago, Defence Minister Peter MacKay called the government attempts to replace the Sea Kings “the worst procurement in the history of Canada.”
At the time he seemed to be referring both to the former Liberal governments’ stop-start attempts at acquiring helicopter replacements as well to his own government’s frustrations at re-negotiating an appropriate contract with Sikorsky.
As for the aging Sea Kings, he added: “They’re going to go right out of aviation service and into the museum in Ottawa, and that’s not a joke.”
There is also one other problem to solve.
A decision is needed on whether or not the Coast Guardâ€™s long-planned new polar icebreaker will be built first at the same site.
The icebreaker CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent is set to retire in 2017, and will be replaced by a new Polar class icebreaker CCGS John G. Diefenbaker.
Meanwhile, the two RCN ships the new class will replace just keep getting older.
During their lifetime they have contributed to the 1991 Gulf War and humanitarian aid missions in Florida and the Bahamas, peace-making off Somalia and East Timor and have been poised for the evacuation of non-combatants from Haiti.
The ships are also single-hulled which is in contravention of most international environmental standards and limits the number of ports that will accept them.
The RCN is acutely aware of operational limitations and is busy talking up the project.
National Defence and the Canadian Forces say that the new Berlin-class ships should â€œprovide a home base for maintenance and operation of helicopters, a limited sealift capability, and support to forces deployed ashore.â€
Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, the now-retired commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, told a defence industry conference in Ottawa that the design had been selected â€œfollowing a thorough, third-party-validated process, during which two designs were compared in depth based on capability, cost and risk.â€
Clearly he is a fan but at some stage a keel will need to be laid and works begin. Even the most optimistic naval planner admits Ottawa is still years away from signing a detailed build contract.
Then there is the rest of the RCN fleet.
Canadaâ€™s Iroquois-class destroyers, our principal naval warships, are on average 40 years old. They are due for retirement/replacement.
The Halifax-class frigates are due for retirement/replacement starting in 2025.
Therefore, just to maintain the navy at its present operational capacity, Canada needs to build 15 new warships while completing the support ships and rebuilding the Coast Guardâ€™s fleet of icebreakers at a time when the world is turning its attention to increasing sea traffic through the Northwest Passage.
And of course this is by a military that can not figure out how to procure anything right now and has an aversion to buying off the shelf designs from other navies (although it looks like they did with the JSS vessels). Â Part of the problem is that unlike other militaries that regularly upgrade their equipment, Canadian equipment is kept well past its best before date. Â The military is then forced to go after the cutting edge because it is going to have to last so long.
The office of Defence Minister Peter MacKay requested an investigation by the militaryâ€™s elite investigative arm last year after an Ottawa Citizen journalist published information contained in a press release.
MacKayâ€™s office alleged that the information was the result of a leak, even though Citizen reporter David Pugliese identified on four occasions that the details came from a U.S. Navy news release.
According to documents released under access to information, MacKayâ€™s office requested that the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (NIS), which is called in for serious crimes or sensitive matters, track down how Pugliese obtained information, setting in motion a month-long probe.
Pugliese, the Citizenâ€™s defence reporter, provided details of Canadaâ€™s involvement in RIMPAC, the worldâ€™s largest international maritime exercise, in a May 10, 2012 item on his Defence Watch blog, repeatedly attributing the information to the U.S. Navy.
Despite that, the NIS conducted a thorough â€œinvestigative assessment,â€ including a search of email traffic through DNDâ€™s firewall, in an effort to identify the source of the â€œleakâ€ before concluding that no offence had occurred.
Citizen editor-in-chief Gerry Nott said the conduct of the NIS â€œwould be humorous if it wasnâ€™t outrageous. For investigators to be tied up chasing a phantom leak of publicly available information speaks to both paranoia and incompetence.â€™
Not only was the information “leaked” by the U.S. Navy in a press release, it wasn’t confidential.
Oâ€™Brien also reported that Touchette was â€œaware there was no security classification or designation of the information and as such there was likely no offence present.â€
The following day, Oâ€™Brien interviewed Brigadier-General Sylvain Bedard, DNDâ€™s director general of public affairs, who also told him there was likely no criminal or National Defence Act offence applicable in the case.
It gets better.
But the NIS wasnâ€™t finished with the file quite yet. Three months later, on Sept. 11, 2012, Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Frei, the new commanding officer of NIS, briefed Bedard and two senior officials from MacKayâ€™s office â€” Paxton and John MacDonell, MacKayâ€™s chief of staff â€” on the results of the investigative assessment.
Frei summarized the results in a letter, saying documents provided by Touchetteâ€™s officials â€” including Puglieseâ€™s blog item â€” â€œclearly identify his source of information â€¦ as a United States Third Fleet news release.â€ Pugliese, he said, â€œhad ample information from which to extract and produce his subsequent news article.
â€œThe only information that could be deemed to have been leaked is the fact that the Government of Canadaâ€™s news release had not yet been authorized for release,â€ Frei wrote.
Well like a lot of things in life, we will just blame the United States Third FleetÂ (which has 5 aircraft carrier groups under it’s command!). Â In defence of Peter McKay, every military has stories like this and I am sure they come from over zealous political staffers that want to please the boss. Â Still i find it funny that this ‘investigation’ would not die. Â It really does make McKay look both bad and paranoid.
Regardless of whether we end up with one ship, or eight, these ships are wrong for Canada. They are being built so the Canadian Navy can patrol our Arctic waters. The Navy hasnâ€™t patrolled our Arctic waters for more than half a century, and with good reason: There is no military threat there. Sovereignty issues will be decided by international organizations and negotiations. Nobody is going to start a war in the Arctic.
The Canadian Coast Guard patrols our Arctic waters with icebreakers that are in dire need of replacing. The patrol vessels wonâ€™t be able to break anything more than summer ice. They will be useless in the Arctic in the winter, so they will be shipped to Canadaâ€™s East and West Coasts, where they wonâ€™t be able to do much more good, because they will be slower than most fishing vessels, will have guns that will be too small for full-scale combat and will have no mine-sweeping capacity.
Which brings us to the many ships the Canadian Navy actually needs: minesweepers, destroyers and frigates. The navy is staggering along with two antique destroyers, 12 frigates passing their mid-lives and, at last count, one fully operational submarine. Navy documents show that even this tiny fleet will be diminished over the next decade. Many frigates are unavailable during refit and the destroyers will become so old that maintenance costs will become prohibitive.
This probably won’t change many minds in Ottawa but it is nice that we have some senators like Colin Kenny holding the government to account on policy issues.
Canadaâ€™s navy isnâ€™t exactly a juggernaut. According to Michael Hennessy, a professor of naval history at the Royal Military College in Kingston, the Canadian navy has 33 commissioned vessels but only 14 fighting ships.
â€œThe ships Canada sent during the first Gulf War were immediately relegated to patrolling as far away from Iraq as possible so they didnâ€™t get in harmâ€™s way,â€ he said. â€œThey are old.â€
In 2008, the government promised to invest $490 billion in new equipment and upgrades, including new icebreakers and Arctic patrol ships.
Two years later, plans were announced to replace aging Canadian navy and coast guard vessels â€” including nine new ships at a cost of $194 million.
Hennessy said itâ€™s unclear when new navy and coast guard vessels might be ready because formal contracts and design plans have not been finalized.
It is possible the new ships could be replaced by cheaper radar installations or a program that would give Canada underwater listening capabilities.
Still, the Canadian government appears determined to have an on-the-water presence in the North, particularly when countries are redefining international borders.
We are more or less saved by our logistics ships
By the 1980s, a decade after the decommissioning of HMCS Bonaventure, the last of Canadaâ€™s three aircraft carriers, Canadaâ€™s navy was in shambles. During a naval review for the defence minister in 1983, more than half the ships on display broke down.
â€œGoing to sea in wartime would be suicidal,â€ said a Canadian admiral, according to the Wall Street Journal.
While the Canadian navy has been pared to about 9,000 personnel, down from 90,000 in the 1960s, several analysts said it is still valued by its allies.
â€œThe Canadian navy is one of only a handful that can really operate around the globe,â€ Zimmerman said. â€œWe have these logistical supply ships which are incredibly old but allow us to operate anywhere. We can deploy off the coast of Sudan in support of anti-terrorist operations, off the coast of Pakistan to help with disaster relief or off the coast of Libya if need be.â€
That being said, both the British and US Navies are going through a tough time as well. At least we arenâ€™t alone in being shadows of our former selves. That being said, the Harper plan to rebuild it will pay off and letâ€™s be honest, there isnâ€™t the kind of threats that exist right now that require a strong Canadian naval presence.