Canada Rebuilds Its Surface Fleet: Off the Shelf or Contributing to Deterrence?


2016-10-17 By Danny Lam

North Korea’s latest nuclear test (Sept. 9, 2016) and their growing thermonuclear and ICBM capable of reaching North America as early as 2020 materially altered many assumptions behind Canadian defense policy.

Emerging threats like ICBMs and strategic cruise missiles tipped with credible thermonuclear warheads will become major threats to Canada by the time Canadian Surface Combatants (CSCs) enter service.    Canada will need ballistic and cruise missile defenses to deter states like North Korea.   Shore based ABM systems will not be sufficient if the threat will evolve into submarine launched missiles.

Likewise, at the low end, anti-access and area denial threats that are cheap and proliferating raise questions as to the cost to defeat them.   Low end threats require renewed attention to low cost, deep magazine counters like lasers that are presently being tested and will probably be required for the CSC fleet as it evolves with new technologies onboard the ships.

The government announced in June, 2016 that their current approach is to buy an “off-the-shelf” design for the Canadian Surface Combatant Program and modify it to save time and money.

Will the existing designs under consideration be capable and upgradeable to deal with threats and mission profiles expected in their lifetime both at the high and low end?

Will these ships be built in such a way that they can accommodate new, lower cost operational concepts which will evolve over the lifetime of the surface combatants?

Critical to an anti-ballistic missile role by 2025 will be tight integration with NORAD systems and sensors applying a combat cloud concept.   This enables many platforms to cue missiles on the CSC with Cooperative Engagement Capability.

On board the CSC, having the space and capability to fit radars optimized for air and missile defense like AN/SPY-6 tightly integrated with Aegis BMD Systems will be necessary.   Similarly, adequate future electrical supply and storage for direct energy weapons and electronic or tron warfare will be a consideration.

Rogue states like North Korea will foreseeably develop the capability simultaneously to fire volleys of missiles, some with dummy warheads and penetration aids to increase the likelihood of their warheads reaching target.   This places a premium on vessels with large Vertical Launch magazines that are compatible with expected upgrades in missiles.

Inventories of missiles are expensive to maintain in peacetime, and subject to wear and aging at sea leading to many vessels sailing with partially filled magazines.   Moreover, inventories of missiles obsolete rapidly and require frequent updates as the threats are better understood.   Hardware updates are difficult to do with deployed missiles.

A critical issue for the CSC candidates will be whether the platform ties Canada to a particular VLS missile supplier and the versatility of the VLS launchers.   The capability of the supplier to supply missiles from inventory as needed, continuously update and upgrade them to deal with the latest threats are a concern. VLS missiles are typically too heavy to be air freighted and need to be transported by sea.   This is a major consideration for wartime resupply.

Replenishment of stores and fuel at sea is a well-practiced routine in NATO navies.   Replenishment or resupply of VLS underway replenishment, on the other hand, is not well developed.   Reloading VLS cells presently require heavy equipment, specialized crews and munition facilities at industrially robust ports.

With a new set of threats facing Canada, solutions to defense loom large. And any investments need to build toward enhanced capabilities; not just check a platform box for the defence force..Credit Image: Bigstock
With a new set of threats facing Canada, solutions to defense loom large. And any investments need to build toward enhanced capabilities; not just check a platform box for the defence force. Credit Image: Bigstock

Underway replenishment of VLS cells is probably not doable in the foreseeable future, but forward VLS reloading with a specialized vessel is practical with existing technologies.   Teamed with the capability for at-sea hardware upgrades of missiles, it is a force multiplier for the CSC fleet.

Will at-sea VLS re-arming figure prominently in the requirements?

Given Canada’s vast territory with few major ports, and extremes of climate, this can potentially become a capability where Canada can excel in.     Canada does not have a program for a specialized vessel with this capability.   Such a vessel, if developed, will likely find a ready market abroad providing that the CSC VLS system is not a niche product.

Finally, there is the question of how Canada would field an anti-ballistic missile deterrent by 2020 and the time when the CSCs are scheduled to come into service.  An interim capability may be required that cannot be met via upgrading the existing Canadian fleet.

Acquiring an interim capability that plug the gap and give more time for technologies to mature and craft a clean-sheet design based on 2018 requirements may be a lower lifecycle cost alternative to the modified “off-the-shelf” option.

Canadians are complacent about threats to the homeland because we have been safely sheltered under the US nuclear umbrella for a half century.

That is no longer the case in the second nuclear age with many new and emerging nuclear weapons powers like North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, etc. that challenge the status quo.

Canadians have to do their part in anti-ballistic missile defense and deterrence and buying the right kind of surface ship can provide a foundation to do so.

That may not be possible in the penny-pinching style dating from the end of the cold war.

It is not about buying an “off-the shelf” ship; it is building a surface combatant that is upgradeable through out its life to contribute to deterrence and defense of Canada.

Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary.