COLUMN | The Royal Canadian Navy: an evolving force [Naval Gazing]

COLUMN | The Royal Canadian Navy: an evolving force [Naval Gazing]

The Artic and Offshore Patrol Ship HMCS Harry DeWolf (Photo: Canadian Armed Forces/Corporal David Veldman)

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is a modestly sized but very active force. Ottawa is keen for Canada’s Armed Forces to be involved in international operations, so the RCN regularly deploys warships in support of NATO and other multinational commitments, including anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations. Very recently, the Canadian frigate Vancouver and the US destroyer Higgins took part in a joint Freedom of Navigation Operation in the Taiwan Strait.

The last 20 years have seen the RCN suffer badly from bad procurement decisions and inadequate funding, but the service is now recovering a lot of lost ground.

Other RCN roles in support of national interests include surveillance of Canada’s 599,000-square-kilometre exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and, of increasing importance, the potentially resource-rich Canadian Arctic. In order to carry out these roles, the RCN maintains a quite well-balanced force of surface warships and submarines, although the fleet’s focus and its budget together combine to ensure that it lacks both amphibious warfare vessels and dedicated aviation support platforms.

Powerful new frigates on the horizon

The Halifax-class frigate HMCS Vancouver and the US Navy aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis underway (Photo: US Navy/Photographer’s Mate Airman Tina R. Lamb)

Workhorses of the RCN are the 12 frigates of the Halifax-class, which date from the 1980s. Armament of these 5,000-tonne, gas turbine/diesel engine-powered vessels includes Harpoon anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCM), Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), torpedoes, and a 57-milimetre gun. They can also each operate a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter for anti-submarine and surface warfare tasks.

The RCN’s capabilities are due to be dramatically enhanced by the construction of up to 15 Type 26 frigates by Nova Scotia-based Irving Shipbuilding with Lockheed Martin Canada as the prime contractor. These heavily-armed, 7,800-tonne ships are being constructed as part of a tripartite (Australia, Canada, UK) programme.

Photo: BAE Systems/Stephen McHugh

Their impressive planned weapons fit should enable the RCN to take a key role in the international response to maritime security problems. Armament will include Naval Strike Missile ASCMs, Sea Ceptor SAMs, Tomahawk land attack missiles, torpedoes, and a 127-milimetre gun. Advanced search and targeting radars and sonars will also be fitted.

A Cyclone helicopter will be carried, and a power train of GE electric motors, Rolls-Royce gas turbines, and MTU diesel engines will enable a speed of 27 knots.

RCN near-water operations are carried out by the multi-role Kingston-class coastal defence vessels, which are crewed by a combination of regular and reserve personnel. These craft can be configured for mine warfare, diving, and security patrol missions.

Reviving replenishment-at-sea capability

The RCN’s long standing shortage of replenishment-at-sea (RAS) vessels has been temporarily assuaged by the commissioning of the converted civilian tanker Asterix. This vessel, which is unarmed and manned by a mixed RCN and civilian crew, is just a stop-gap measure, however.

Due in service by 2025 is Protecteur, the first of two newbuild support ships. These 20,000-tonne ships will be powered by twin MTU diesel engines, enabling a speed of 20 knots. They will each carry two Cyclone helicopters and will be armed with two Phalanx close-in weapon systems.

New emphasis on Canadian Arctic security

The ordering of six Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) of the Harry DeWolf-class marked Canada’s increased emphasis upon the security of the nation’s Arctic waters. Three of these vessels have already been completed. They feature ice-strengthened hulls, diesel-electric propulsion, and an armament consisting of a 25-millimetre gun and two 12.7-millimetre machine guns. A large flight deck and hangar enable operations by helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Sub surface fleet due for replacement

The Victoria-class submarine HMCS Windsor (Photo: Canadian Armed Forces/Alan Rowlands)

Canada’s underwater force consists of four ex-British Victoria-class (formerly Upholder-class) diesel-electric attack submarines. These are used extensively for discreet surveillance of Canada’s EEZ, but have proved expensive to maintain and are approaching obsolescence.

The Canadian government has therefore commissioned a study of how they can be replaced. Options being considered range from nuclear-powered boats to large unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

The RCN has a reputation both for innovation, such as the pioneering operation of large anti-submarine helicopters from frigates, and for punching above its weight. The current upgrading of its inventory should ensure that the service continues to be an effective player on the maritime security scene.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.