OTTAWA – For the first time in eight years, Canadian warships are not participating in either of the two NATO naval task forces tasked with patrolling European waters and defending against Russian threats.
The revelation shed light on what experts say are the growing trade-offs Canada must make with its navy, which is struggling with a shrinking fleet of aging ships and a lack of skilled sailors.
Canada has been a constant presence in the Standing NATO Maritime Groups since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, deploying at least one Halifax-class frigate to the North Atlantic or Mediterranean on a rotational basis. .
The federal Liberal government made a point of deploying a second frigate in March as part of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This ship had been scheduled for a deployment of several months in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.
But Defense Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said Canada has no frigate attached to either NATO naval group since HMCS Montreal and HMCS Halifax were returned to their home port last month.
“With the return home of HMCS Montreal and Halifax on July 15, the CAF currently does not have a ship assigned to Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 or 2,” Lamirande said in an email. “This is the first time this has happened since 2014.”
Lamirande linked the decision not to send new frigates to Europe to the deployment of two of those ships in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the maintenance and training needs of the Halifax-class fleet.
Canada has instead deployed two small Kingston-class coastal defense vessels to work with another NATO naval force that focuses on searching for and clearing enemy mines.
Chief of Defense Staff General Wayne Eyre says it will help Canadian sailors gain experience in an important area of naval warfare while demonstrating Canada’s commitment to European security .
But he conceded in an interview with The Canadian Press on Monday, “we are stretched from a resource standpoint. And so we have to make those decisions as to where we invest and when we invest.
He added that he approved of the decision to send two frigates to the Pacific, where tensions between the West and China are increasing, “because we deliberately want to increase our presence in Asia-Pacific, because we are a nation of the Peaceful”.
China last week launched a massive military drill around Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing considers its territory, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. The exercise took place amid growing fears of a possible Chinese invasion.
University of Calgary shipbuilding expert Timothy Choi said the decision to send two frigates to Europe at the same time earlier this year played a significant role in limiting the Atlantic Fleet’s ability to send another short term frigate.
“In my opinion, this does not mean that the availability of ships and crews has deteriorated over the past few years,” he said.
“Rather, they are the unavoidable consequences of forcing a small fleet to concentrate more resources in a shorter amount of time, which results in more time needed to recover.”
But defense analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute predicted that Canada will have to make increasingly difficult compromises about where to send its warships given the size and state of its navy.
While Canada has 12 frigates, Perry said the navy’s maintenance and training needs mean only a handful are available to deploy at any given time. Canada also had three destroyers, but those ships were retired in 2014.
Adding to the difficulty is the increasing age of the frigates, which entered service in the 1990s and are becoming increasingly difficult to repair and maintain, according to senior officers and internal reports.
“These trade-off decisions are going to get harder and harder because, and we’re already experiencing it, the maintenance cycle for such an old ship becomes more intense, more laborious and longer,” Perry said.
Adam MacDonald, a former naval officer now studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the navy and the Canadian Armed Forces would also face increasing pressure to maintain a presence not in Europe, Asia and the the arctic.
“It will be very pressing because there will be demands on all three of these geographies,” MacDonald said. “In addition to everywhere else we operate: the Caribbean, West Africa, South America.”
The federal government is overseeing the construction of a new fleet of warships to replace frigates and destroyers, but the multi-billion dollar project has been plagued by cost overruns and repeated delays.
The navy, like the rest of the army, also faces a severe shortage of personnel.
Meanwhile, MacDonald predicted that the Kingston-class minesweepers will continue to take longer as the Navy faces increasing overseas demands.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 8, 2022.