From Uncertainty to Maturity (1968-1989)

At the time nobody believed that it would take two decades to implement the new policy, but it did. In June 1968, Pierre Elliott Trudeau became Canada’s fifteenth prime minister, swept in on a wave of public optimism that heralded his rise to power as the dawn of a new era. A need to “do things differently” was a frequent theme of his early speeches, and Canadians seemed to embrace that view. However, the Canadian Navy (now known officially as Maritime Command), was less enthusiastic about some aspects of the new direction, particularly as expressed in Trudeau’s April 1969 speech on defence and foreign policy quoted above, which also contained the seeds of a new era at sea that threatened to undermine its entrenched trans-Atlantic roots:

 We’re beginning to realize now that we’re not a one-ocean country, not an Atlantic country, not even a two-ocean country, an Atlantic and a Pacific. We’re a three-ocean country. We’re beginning to realize that this Pacific seaboard is more important to Canadians than we realized in the past.1

The painting depicts three ships following one another on the wwater, as seen from the perspective of a pilot in his cockpit.

Richard Rudnicki, Persian Gulf War — Enroute, shows HMC Ships Athabaskan, Terra Nova, and Protecteur in a formation scene little changed from 1975.

Feeling politically vulnerable and recently stripped of its individuality on being pressed into the newly unified armed forces, the navy was understandably suspicious of suggestions to change its focus. The Hellyer reforms of the mid-1960s had left it much smaller, through personnel cuts and by not replacing the wartime destroyers and frigates, with the result that Canada’s naval commitment to NATO had been cut in half since 1963. Trudeau’s vision threatened to disrupt the strategic comfort zone provided by NATO. Facing further budget cuts and with no plans for new ships beyond the four Iroquois-class destroyers and two more replenishment support ships, the Canadian Navy was not overly optimistic about its future. This gloomy outlook was not helped by a widely held view within National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) that the navy was the “bad boy in the corner” for opposing some concepts of unification, the loss of the distinct naval identity in particular. Misnamed the “Admirals’ Revolt” by the media, the independent actions of a handful of senior officers were wrongly seen as symbolic of naval attitudes. Not surprisingly, the navy entered the Trudeau era with some trepidation. It would take another 15 years before it fully regained its self-confidence.

The story of the navy’s fortunes from 1968 to the end of the Cold War in 1989, winds its way through a series of political twists and turns in which money, or more precisely the lack of it, plays a major role. Technology also plays its part, particularly so as the navy tried to remain proficient in anti-submarine warfare in a time of fiscal constraint during which new technologies were changing the nature of naval operations around the world. It is a remarkable story of perseverance and faith, particularly faith in a political process that everyone hoped would provide the funds for the much-needed fleet modernization. It took leadership to sustain that faith and give the navy hope that there was actually light at the end of the tunnel. But the politicians did not provide that light immediately; rather, they laboriously studied and restudied defence policy in search of cheaper options.

An “in-house” review of defence policy, that was as much about money as policy, started in the spring of 1968 and brought out all the internal divisions within Cabinet. Although many of the discussions focused on a “non-alignment versus alignment” philosophy for Canadian defence and foreign policy, the debate was really about the cost of NATO and whether Canada should remain part of the Allied military structure. The Department of External Affairs (DEA) was the champion of NATO, not just because of the Canadian role in its birth but because membership in the Alliance was seen as prudent security policy. That view eventually prevailed. Similarly, bilateral continental defence was seen as a fundamental requirement in preserving political and territorial sovereignty.

Four ships travel side by side on the clear blue water.

“Sisters of the Space Age” — a rare shot of the entire Iroquois class at sea in the mid-1970s.

The need to make further cuts in the defence budget became more pressing as the defence review ran its course even as the economy slowed-down. Cabinet’s decision to hold the defence budget at the 1968 level of $1.72 billion put DND in an impossible position: there was not enough money to meet the established commitments. In September 1969, the defence minister, Leo Cadieux, announced the department’s plans for operating within the frozen budget. For the navy, these held no surprises, as the adjustments had all been negotiated beforehand. The carrier HMCS Bonaventure would go, a decision accepted reluctantly by the admirals but in the final analysis it was better to give up the aging carrier with little remaining tactical value to NATO than to surrender a squadron of ASW destroyers that NATO needed badly. The four new Iroquois-class destroyers would still be built and the two replenishment ships, the AORs, would be completed. Three Restigouche- class destroyers would be placed in reserve to provide people for the new destroyers. But the navy had to fight hard to hold the cuts at that level. Further cuts in force levels were seen as an abrogation of defence responsibilities within NATO and in the Pacific that could lead to American forces assuming part or all of the responsibility for those waters.

After much political wrangling, the 1971 Defence White Paper emerged in August and with it came some enlightenment about the future of the operational navy (Maritime Command): the Argus long-range patrol aircraft (LRPA) would be replaced; there would be a modest fleet modernization program; fleet size was set at 24 destroyers (some would be in reserve); and the fleet would become “general purpose” in nature rather than specialized for ASW. As the department and the admirals agreed, the problem lay in making the new model work within the meagre budget, and although the navy’s future still seemed bleak, the NATO and bilateral commitments still had to be met, which meant that the ships had to be kept operationally effective.

Despite the loss of its traditional identity, the navy quickly focused on operations instead of politics. The rationale was twofold: first, the majority of young officers in the fleet did not abandon the navy during the unification crisis — they had too much invested in their naval careers, had acquired family responsibilities, and did not have enough invested in the stock market to contemplate career changes; also, because the navy had been “culled” at the higher ranks through forced manpower reductions and by the early retirements of those who opposed the Hellyer reforms, prospects of better pay for all ranks and better promotion opportunities made conditions of service look much better. Second, the dynamic leadership of Vice-Admiral J.C. “Scruffy” O’Brien, commander of Maritime Command, made people turn their attentions back to the job to be done at sea. O’Brien’s message, delivered in his usual colourful language, was to “Go find the bloody Russian submarines and leave the politics to me!” Wisely, the navy did both.

With O’Brien’s unequivocal encouragement, the Canadian Navy threw itself into ASW operations at a time when the Soviet Navy was expanding its capability and global reach, and in response NATO desperately needed to show competence at sea as a deterrent to Soviet adventurism. The Canadian Navy’s contribution was the commitment of as many ships as possible to NATO exercises and keeping one destroyer in the newly established Standing Naval Force Atlantic (STANAVFORLANT). At the same time, the Americans were asking for greater Canadian naval and maritime air presence in the North American littoral, especially in the Pacific, to offset the U.S. Navy’s commitments to Southeast Asia. In addition, there was Trudeau’s push to assert Canadian sovereignty, especially in the Arctic, which saw ships deploy into northern waters and generally spend more time visiting remote communities on both coasts.

Because of the navy’s focus on operations, its reputation as a first-rate ASW force was maintained, albeit with some technical difficulty. Learning to function without the aircraft carrier in the early 1970s was a challenge but was soon overcome. Sea King ASW helicopters operating from the converted St. Laurent-class destroyers provided close and distant support and increased the fleet’s operational flexibility. The arrival in the early 1970s of the two new replenishment support ships, Protecteur and Preserver, and the four Iroquois-class destroyers, improved the situation enormously. By the end of the 1970s the fleet had evolved into a series of self-contained ASW task groups (still called squadrons at the time) able to function almost anywhere in the world.

Significantly, the navy had started to become uniquely Canadian rather being a quasi- clone of the Royal Navy. The “unified” green uniform, a source of ridicule in NATO where all other navies still wore traditional black or dark blue uniforms, was universally disliked but did not become an obstacle to professional competence. A more traditional uniform eventually returned in the mid-1980s and was sufficiently different from the British uniform to be easily recognizable as distinctly Canadian, and was worn with pride. That the navy was able to transform itself into an independent “national” navy and side-step the potentially self- destructive politics of identity was Scruffy O’Brien’s legacy — a legacy that has not been given adequate credit as one of the Canadian Navy’s more important transformational moments. Without O’Brien’s leadership the navy would not be what it is today and it would not be able to carry out the important role assigned to it in the post–Cold War era.

When O’Brien told the fleet to “go find the bloody Russian submarines” he wasn’t really doing anything more than telling the ships to focus on their primary job. That was what they did in NATO, that was what they did within the bilateral continental defence structure, and that was what they did in home waters when the occasional Soviet submarine ventured in a little close. On paper though, the Canadian Navy had four main functions:

  • conduct surveillance in Canadian and adjoining waters and respond to threatening situations, with priority on foreign submarine and warship activities, which was usually done in conjunction with U.S. forces under the Canada–United States continental defence plans;
  • maintain a visible presence in Canadian waters as a deterrent to criminal and other unfriendly acts and as an expression of sovereignty over those waters;
  • contribute ships to NATO deterrence, including STANAVFORLANT, to contingency operations before an outbreak of hostilities, and to war plans; and
  • support Canadian foreign policy in many ways including making port visits and taking part in United Nations’ peacekeeping operations.
Six ships travel side by side on the water.

STANAVFORLANT ships in formation off the Rock of Gibraltar, with the flagship destroyer Iroquois in the centre, February 1979; just to the right (her port side) is the British destroyer HMS Sheffield, which would be lost three years later in the Falklands War.

Those tasks were carried out under two assumptions. First, that ships designed and trained for complex NATO tasks could easily carry out domestic and continental tasks. Second, that other than by a surprise attack any future war would be preceded by a period of tension during which it would be essential to conduct ASW operations in North American waters while implementing contingency plans for the reinforcement of Europe.

Canada’s operational commitment to NATO’s supreme allied commander, Atlantic, (SACLANT) was 16 destroyers in varying degrees of readiness (some immediately, some after 15 days notice, and some after 30 days), three submarines, and an assortment of maritime aircraft. The three replenishment ships were retained under national control, and four destroyers remained under national control in the Pacific for CANUS operations. The Canadian Navy’s “war” tasking thus started long before any formal declaration of a state of emergency or war, and this reality ran contrary to the initial concept for “unified” war planning adopted by NDHQ, where many non-naval staff officers seemed unable to grasp the fundamental principles of Cold War maritime strategy. Senior naval officers frequently had to explain that navies fought a different war initially in serving as “enabling” forces to the roles played later by land and air forces. This lack of understanding was one of the reasons why the navy was seen as an obstacle to the concept of unification.

The Canadian fleet was organized into ASW destroyer squadrons, but because of their lack of adequate air defence the ships were usually integrated individually into larger multinational formations or were joined by a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer to provide that capability. Their task was the protection of shipping, especially the trans-Atlantic reinforcement shipping, which established training requirements within a logical progression of individual, team, ship, and formation exercises. The latter were part of the series of NATO maritime exercises culminating every year in a major “war game” such as Ocean Safari, Teamwork, or Northern Wedding.

A submarine surfaces on the water. Another ship approaches it while a Canadian aircraft flies overhead.

One of O’Brien’s bloody Russian submarines, a Hotel-class SSBN sitting disabled on the surface northeast of Newfoundland, found by an air force Argus, 15 March 1972.

On average, the STANAVFORLANT commitment was filled permanently with one destroyer, there were two or three formation-level NATO exercises a year with ships operating in either squadrons or task groups, and there was one major fleet exercise every two years. The submarines generally supported two NATO exercises a year. With refits, trials, and work-up training requirements, as well as at least one national and one joint Canada– United States or CANUS exercise a year, the Atlantic fleet was at its maximum activity level. The wartime tasks of the Pacific fleet were part of bilateral continental defence plans under which Canada had ASW responsibility for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and much of the Gulf of Alaska. The Pacific fleet exercise schedule was conducted almost entirely within the Canada-United States defence structure with the high point being the biennial Pacific Rim (RIMPAC) exercise. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy had to rely on reserve-manned ships to maintain the long-standing sequence of bilateral naval exercises. This placed an additional burden of the Canadian ships, but one they bore with pride and efficiency.

Catching O’Brien’s “bloody Russian submarines” was a lot easier said than done. Not only were they elusive but the navy also had to hone its ASW skills to give it an even chance. The Soviet Navy was in a period of growth in which their exploitation of new technologies started to erode NATO’s tactical advantage at sea.

In the early 1970s, the combination of declining U.S. naval fleet capability as a result of the Vietnam War and a case of strategic blindness in some European capitals led to the troubling view that NATO could lose control of the Atlantic. The important lesson from the Second World War that you cannot reinforce or recapture Europe without first having control of the Atlantic was temporarily forgotten. This was frightening and so NATO took a series of actions that included a revamping of naval war and contingency plans and a new approach to collective force development.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, as American naval capability in the Atlantic was restored after Vietnam, the Soviet naval role expanded from flank protection to include a defence in depth along the likely U.S. Navy attack routes especially through the Norwegian Sea. The result was a massive Soviet building program of large and very capable ships, several types of submarine, and some highly effective missile-armed fighter bombers. Although the Soviets may have planned to attack NATO reinforcement shipping, that task didn’t have the same strategic priority as defeating the Americans — and thus NATO — in the Norwegian Sea, or, better, stopping them from getting there. As one analyst explained much later, “the Soviet Navy was intended for brief, intense clashes where it could do as much damage as possible, then retreat at flank speed. The Soviet fleet’s main purpose thus was seen as primarily sea denial rather than sea control.”2 Curiously, it took the West quite a long time to figure out the Soviet strategy and to realize that control of the Norwegian Sea was the key to the whole thing. The NATO initiatives required some reorganization of the Canadian fleet in the 1980s and also influenced modernization and ship replacement programs. But until that happened, the Canadian Navy had to make do with the existing fleet.

In 1968 the Canadian fleet was still relatively modern but was reaching the point where new technologies, including those being integrated into the Soviet fleet, were beginning to add urgency to the need for modernization. Keeping pace with new technologies was a constant Canadian naval problem because of political reluctance to commit the necessary funds to fleet modernization, especially as building new ships was an increasingly expensive undertaking. As a result, the existing ships had to be kept effective by a stream of modernization programs. Continuing the process begun in 1962, when the St. Laurent-class destroyers were converted to carry and support the Sea King ASW helicopter, the fleet was in a near-constant state of modernization under a series of programs such as the DEstroyer Life EXtension Plan (DELEX) and Submarine Operational Update Program (SOUP). Although the four new Iroquois-class destroyers held the promise of remaining technologically current at sea, on their own they were not enough. They lacked an area air defence weapons system to protect a group of ships, though they did have the latest ASW detection, command and control, and propulsion technologies. Despite being designed as flotilla leaders, the destroyers were used initially in much the same piecemeal way that escorts had been used since the Second World War. This was not a Canadian problem; in the 1970s NATO had not yet developed its concepts of operations sufficiently to respond to new Soviet submarine and aircraft tactics, and long-range weapons; as a result, NATO adopted a rather ad hoc response to the Soviet threat. This would change.

The loss of Bonaventure resulted in one technical and two tactical problems. Lack of long-range ASW surveillance formerly provided by the CS2F Trackers was partly solved in the short-term by using “Jezebel” low-frequency acoustic ranging (LOFAR) sonobuoys and fitting the associated AQA-5 signal analysis equipment in the destroyers. Sea Kings were used to drop the buoys but could not monitor them. Long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRPA) provided distant support in North American waters, invariably in response to contacts gained by the undersea passive SOSUS arrays operated jointly by Canada and the United States. Towed passive sonar arrays in ships and submarines were a better solution, but that technology was still in its infancy in the 1970s. Tactical coordination, another important function of the carrier, was handled reasonably well by the destroyers but there was a shortage of experienced “direction” specialists to deal with complex sea-air tactical situations. This was eventually resolved in the 1980s as the autonomous task group concept evolved with a shift to tactical rather than administrative formation staffs. Providing adequate support for deployed Sea Kings proved more difficult. The St. Laurent-class destroyers had a basic first-line maintenance capability but the hanger was too small to do much work and they carried few spare parts. The Iroquois-class destroyers and the new replenishment ships had better facilities but were still short of spares and test equipment. There was no alternative to the carrier for operational flexibility and technical support, but that capability was unaffordable and politically unacceptable. Canadian ingenuity and determination was able to keep the fleet reasonably effective, but it was obvious that the ships were losing the technology race and soon would not be able to keep pace with the NATO allies or the Soviets. New, modern ships were essential if Canada was to remain a credible member of the naval alliance.

Ships decorated with many different flags tied to one another at the pier.

Canadian and allied ships tied up at Canada Place Pier in Vancouver harbour for the navy’s 75th anniversary assembly, 23 August 1985.

The 1971 White Paper called for a comprehensive review of Canada’s future maritime security requirements as a precursor to getting new equipment. This review was started in November 1971 and the results submitted to Cabinet in May 1972 with the recommendation that the Argus LRPA be replaced and that a new shipbuilding program be started. Plans to replace the Argus went ahead relatively quickly while the ship program went through a series of further studies on design options. The first study, completed in late January 1974, looked at four notional designs: a 9,100-tonne surveillance control ship with up to nine helicopters embarked; a 2,275-tonne destroyer in both the general-purpose and ASW roles; a 1,350-tonne corvette/frigate also in general-purpose and ASW roles; and a 360-tonne hydrofoil. A follow-on study done in February and March 1974 looked at the feasibility of undertaking a major capability upgrade on the Mackenzie-class destroyers and considered options for acquiring four more submarines. Neither study made firm recommendations; they merely offered observations about the degree of difficulty and cost-effectiveness of those ideas. A third study, done during August and September 1974, responded to the naval planning staff ’s request to look at three specific design options refined from the earlier studies through a series of departmental meetings and workshops. At that stage it was obvious that a 2,700- to 3,600-tonne vessel alone met Canadian requirements and it soon became clear that a Canadian-designed and built patrol frigate (CPF) based on the operational characteristics and capabilities of the U.S. Navy’s FFG-7 frigate was the best solution.

The final design and the names of the building yards naturally required political decisions, and not for the first time the political expedient of linking shipyard work to electoral ridings became a factor. Yet, the political decision took longer than expected or desired, and the delay had serious implications on fleet effectiveness. Some of the delay was due to the convoluted bureaucratic process associated with major spending programs, but Canada also faced a financial crisis in the mid-1970s when interest rates rose to frighteningly high levels and all capital spending was put on hold. Managing the defence budget during that period was a nightmare and resulted in a separate series of studies to find ways of meeting the various commitments on a fixed budget.

By early 1974, inflation had turned the country’s financial situation into a crisis from which DND was not exempt. In August 1974 the minister of national defence went to Cabinet to seek advice: the military did not have enough money to maintain the existing level of activity which meant that the new defence policy (issued in 1971) was already out of date. That November, Cabinet directed a Defence Structure Review to look at all possible options for addressing DND’s problem, including changing the NATO commitment, reviewing North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), and re-examining Canadian involvement in strategic ASW. DND’s initial reaction was to search for cost-savings in the usual places — personnel, operations, and maintenance; and capital programs. For the Canadian Navy, this “rationalization” meant a one-third reduction in days at sea which curtailed training cruises and scheduled exercises. Modernization programs were deferred and, in some cases, cancelled. As these and other reductions began to take effect, senior military planners began to vent their frustration over what they now perceived as a systemic problem of chronic under-funding in relation to assigned tasks and commitments. Chief of the Defence Staff, General J.A. Dextraze, dug in his heels and demanded that if the military was to be forced to live within the current unrealistic funding arrangement, then certain capabilities, facilities, and commitments would have to be abandoned. This caught the attention of the politicians, particularly because some believed they had resolved the matter of defence priorities once and for all during the 1969 defence review process and in the 1971 White Paper. The result was a three-phase comprehensive study of the defence situation. The first report, submitted in February 1975, re-examined the various tasks and directed political attention on the issues that determined force structure and related infrastructure. Three of the five foreseen “core” DND tasks concerned the navy and its three-phase tasking of national sovereignty, continental security, and supporting the reinforcement of Europe. One of the side effects of the review was that the navy’s unique role was finally understood and the navy started to gain support around the Cabinet table.

A ship travels across icy waters.

Although obsolete for operational purposes, the Mackenzie class found a new lease on life as the West Coast training squadron, enjoying deployments far and wide, such as this to Glacier Bay, Alaska.

The report on force structure, the second phase, was sent to Cabinet on 10 November 1975 and contained a section on “Maritime Combat Capabilities” that convinced the politicians to move ahead quickly with plans to replace the older destroyers. The problem was that the ship replacement program was trapped in the third phase of the Defence Structure Review process that attempted to develop a costed model for modernizing the forces. The program was also delayed by political wrangling and the never-ending questioning of the basic requirements that allowed for icebreakers and ocean surveillance as well as a couple of personal preferences for ship designs. The idea of a single, unified, government fleet emerged. As a result, the navy was directed to look at the possible advantages of ships more suitable and economical for use as back-up for fisheries enforcement in the longer term.

Eventually, in September 1977, the new ship program began to make political progress when one of the seemingly continual reviews concluded that warships can fulfill all aspects of sovereignty as in present practice but armed patrol vessels cannot fulfill the collective defence role, and to operate efficiently in Canadian waters this vessel would need to be in the 2,700-tonne range. In many respects, this was the breakthrough the navy had been looking for and paved the way for Cabinet approval of the shipbuilding program that December. But because of the political delays and the financial crisis, no progress had been made on routine fleet modernization and replacement, and some of the options already on the table (such as up-grading the Mackenzies) were no longer cost-effective. It was getting to the point where the future combat effectiveness of the fleet depended on getting new frigates, and that until they arrived operational readiness would suffer.

After two years of drafting, a formal Memorandum to Cabinet to replace the six remaining St. Laurent-class destroyers was presented on 3 November 1977. In a comprehensive annex, the earlier Cabinet direction to look at the advantages of smaller ships for domestic tasks was carefully and fully addressed. The conclusion took account of domestic, NATO, and Canada-United States defence commitments in establishing performance requirements:

The restrictions of sea keeping qualities, and speed preclude the employment of small patrol vessels in the open ocean to meet the full requirement of the protection of sovereignty. While lightly armed patrol vessels can perform in peace the tasks associated with protection of sovereignty and enforcement of regulations, the provisions of ships would be in addition to the requirement for 24 combat capable ships and would not provide a cost effective option.3

On 22 December 1977, Cabinet agreed to a basic fleet size of 24 destroyer-type ships. They also agreed that a 3,600-tonne general-purpose, frigate-type ship best met Canada’s maritime security requirements. But approval was only given for six ships, and so the problem facing the naval staff was to replace the remaining 14 destroyers and the rest of the fleet in due course. Over the next couple of years a complete ship replacement program (SRP) emerged with some very optimistic planning dates.

Program Ship classes to be replaced Start planning Contract definition awarded Building contract Delivery date
CPF/(SRP I) St. Laurent (6) 1976 1979-1980 1981-1982 1985-1986
SRP II Restigouche (3) and Mackenzie (4) 1980 1983 1985 1989-1990
SRP III Improved Restigouche (4), Annapolis (2), and St. Laurent (1) 1983 1986 1988 1992-1996
CASAP Oberon submarines (3) 1985 1988 1990 1995
OSS Provider and Preserver (2) 1989 1992 1994 1998-2002
SRP IV Iroquois (4) 1993 1996 1998 2002-2004

Although the Liberal government stated its intention to build six frigates in December 1977 a contract to build them was not approved until June 1983. The initial concept called for the ships to be built in the 1985–90 timeframe, but the length of time taken up by the bureaucratic process did not allow a ship to be built for delivery in 1985. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the contract got off to a bad start because of the fragile nature of the Canadian shipbuilding industry at the time and the 10-year hiatus in navy ship-building programs. Consequently, there were few yards capable of building warships and some of those were in financial difficulty. There had also been a revolution in naval technology in the last 20 years that saw not only the introduction of new systems and weapons but also extensive changes in the way ships were built. But a core of experience existed, much of it in the Quebec yards that had built the four Iroquois-class destroyers. The frigate program was thus an opportunity for the shipyards to modernize, but it would take a considerable start-up effort to get the program going. This added to the overall cost and gave rise to the notion that Canada would do better by buying warships offshore.

Predictably, the process by which the contract was awarded was complex and intensely political. In wanting to split the contract in an attempt to keep as much of the industry alive as possible, especially in Quebec, the government put itself between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” where the politics of major crown projects were brought into conflict with the business aims of a highly competitive industry. Work was farmed out to get the maximum regional economic benefits and this resulted in a near-disastrous mix of Quebec shipyards trying to work with Saint John Shipbuilding (SJSL), which initially lacked the expertise to manage the overall program. A subsequent consolidation of the Quebec yards helped, but left a polarized dispute between the main players, SJSL as the prime contractor and Marine Industries Limited (MIL) as a sub-contractor for three of the ships. Even the company that was awarded the initial design contract, Versatile Systems Engineering (VSEI), was caught-up in the reorganizations. The program was behind schedule before it even started.

Although SJSL had difficulty getting the program started, they were eventually able to solve the problems with the help of a U.S. shipyard, Bath Iron Works. But a formidable range of obstacles combined to affect an already technically complex program: the economic collapse of the original main sub-contractor (Versatile); the rivalry between shipyards within the frigate program and over other potential government contracts, including the ill-fated SSN project; and political requirements for regional benefits. Under the circumstances it is doubtful if any Canadian yard could have started the project on time.

With the incentive of getting the contract to build the second batch of six frigates and with its own house in order, SJSL naturally wanted to get the program back on track. When SJSL was awarded the second contract in December 1987 without binding requirements for sub-contracting, the way was clear to start addressing construction problems but the relationship between SJSL and MIL had to be resolved first. The matter was eventually taken to court, yet despite the legal action work continued in both yards. As the program continued to slip, SJSL assumed full responsibility for the design, hull construction, and assembly of the frigates and eventually was able to complete the whole 12-ship program on time. Three hulls were built in MIL and nine in SJSL with Paramax supervising the systems integration. Unfortunately, the program’s rough initial start and the subsequent shipyard disputes dampened public enthusiasm for the new ships when, in reality, the program should have been universally seen as a masterpiece of Canadian design and innovation. The new ships would not enter service until the early 1990s and in the meantime, the old ships had to bear the burden of Canada’s naval commitments to NATO and continental defence.

By the early 1980s the Canadian Navy’s role had evolved into a series of largely interrelated and more clearly defined “home” and “away” tasks that, although still NATO-centric, began to acknowledge the emerging importance of the Pacific, foreseen by Trudeau. Fleet operations were largely driven by the need to train to undertake three main tasks:

  • Provide a destroyer continuously with the Standing Naval Force Atlantic and provide a commodore to serve as the STANAVFORLANT commander within a rotation with other Alliance navies, which happened about every five years.
  • Provide three or four destroyers and a logistics support vessel to the family of SACLANT Maritime Contingency Force (Atlantic) plans that ranged from conducting deterrence operations, to protecting reinforcement shipping, to supporting amphibious operations, to keeping Soviet naval units under surveillance.
  • Conduct ASW operations in North American waters with U.S. naval forces to seek out Soviet ballistic missile submarines and other submarines deployed into those waters ahead of an aggressive political move; in this the naval response to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis remained an entirely credible scenario.

An additional task of protecting the Canadian Air-Sea Transportable (CAST) Brigade Group was included, but this was controversial within NATO and was dropped from the national contingency tasks in the late 1980s. While not greatly different to the roles of a decade earlier, there was a more precise operational requirement that made force planning and exercise scheduling much easier.

In 1979 SACLANT started a study to develop a new concept of maritime operations, CONMAROPS. That document provided the link between the largely symbolic Standing Naval Force, the family of maritime contingency plans that were intended to be activated in the early phases of a deepening crisis, and actual war fighting. One of the study objectives was to achieve a better integration of national forces into a multinational concept. This was difficult; the NATO naval family had a tendency to be a community of communities rather than a single community with single purpose. The framework for the new concept was influenced by studies recently conducted by the Americans, particularly Sea War 85. CONMAROPS became the means whereby the NATO navies could be integrated into a single and effective force.

In 1984, Commander SACLANT, Admiral Wesley MacDonald, came to Ottawa and briefed Canadian parliamentarians on the new concepts for the NATO war at sea, including the requirement for Canadian area air defence systems and the need for a Canadian task group system. To some this might seem an outrageous attempt by an American to influence Canadian politics; in reality, there was nothing odd about a NATO supreme commander, regardless of nationality, briefing politicians of any member state of the alliance on the roles their forces would play in wartime. More to the point, Canadian officers serving on the SACLANT staff had developed the new concept in large part. The concept itself was complex in calling for a mixture of ships formed as a task group with its own combined command and control capability, local area air defence, and sophisticated ASW systems with a lot of integral air support in the form of embarked helicopters and its own underway logistic support. The model of the Dutch Task Group was used as the NATO standard and it was on this that the Canadian model was structured with only minor changes. Variant one was for the western Atlantic (WESTLANT) with a lower requirement for air defence than the eastern Atlantic (EASTLANT) variant. What this meant for Canada was that the time had come to “fish or cut bait” and initiate the various programs needed to make the task group an operational reality.

Indeed, shortly after the SACLANT briefing, the minister of national defence introduced the 1984–85 defence estimate to Parliament with a pertinent statement on force structure: “the Maritime Force Structure is being developed around the operational concept of balanced, self-supporting national task groups, each with an appropriate mix of vehicles for the tasks assigned.” NATO force goals for 1987–92 called for three Canadian task groups to be available by 1987 and a fourth by 1992. From that point it was up to the Canadian Navy to produce that capability; initially using the existing ships but with obvious reliance on the new frigates in the longer-term.

The new Canadian fleet model of autonomous task groups with blended warfighting capabilities required a major change in the way ships were assigned to tasks and exercises. Even though the new task group model of a modernized Iroquois-class destroyer with two to four frigates and an AOR would not be operational until at least the mid-1990s, the navy started making organizational changes some 10 years ahead of that date. Besides the equipment changes, plans were made to reorganize the fleet structure and end the long-standing concept of keeping ships in squadrons on the basis of equipment type. Changes were announced in July 1986 with the establishment of an operational task group on each coast and a parallel support group responsible for all refits, trials, and work-up training needed to prepare ships for duty in the task group. One year later, HMCS Huron went to the West Coast in exchange for Gatineau, and a helicopter support facility was established on the Pacific. Annapolis and Terra Nova subsequently exchanged coasts in late 1989 to complete the reorganization.

Bridging the technology gap between the aging fleet of the 1970s and the modernized CPF/Tribal (Iroquois class) task group was done systematically. Under DELEX, the existing “steam” destroyers were given new radars and sonars along with new electronic-warfare and communications equipment; more important, they were given the ADLIPS automated datalink and plotting system. These upgrades allowed the ships to integrate into NATO formations and carry out a useful ASW role, although still with a greater vulnerability to air attack than ideal. What the program did was to restore faith in a reasonable search and intercept capability for the helicopter-destroyer ASW team. Towed array systems were still under trial, but would be operational before much more time passed. The submarine operational upgrade program (SOUP), comprising new sonars, periscopes, communications, and fire-control systems, and fitting of tubes for the Mk 48 torpedo, converted the three aging Oberons back into operational submarines and allowed them to be assigned to NATO for use in the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, U.K.) gap barrier, intended to stop Soviet submarines from threatening Atlantic shipping routes. These improvements were, in fact, very necessary appeasements to SACLANT to convince him that the Canadian Navy was not about to default on its commitments to collective defence by not having combat capable ships and submarines.

Some work still had to be done. For instance: the Iroquois-class destroyers had to be modernized to undertake the task group leader role and provide the local area air defence capability. The replenishment ships were getting older and would need replacement, Provider especially, and the Sea King helicopters also needed replacing. The new frigates were designed as multi-purpose vessels but they had yet to prove themselves operationally. Overall, it was a very sound plan that would provide Canada with a modern, combat-capable, general-purpose navy.

However, there would be a couple more political hurdles to clear. The Trudeau government had been defeated in June 1984 by Brian Mulroney’s conservatives who came to power promising yet another defence review. The Canadian Navy saw no need for another review as increased capital spending would have solved most of the immediate problems, but the new government decided to make it a little more complex. While they took their time writing a new white paper, which was largely a public relations exercise, two maritime issues dominated the discussions: sovereignty and submarines. The former largely was triggered by the summer 1985 Arctic cruise of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea and the latter by suggestions that the replacements for the aging Oberons should be nuclear-powered to provide greater endurance.

The 1987 Defence White Paper linked the two issues and proposed that Canada acquire a fleet of 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines to protect Canadian sovereignty, especially in the Arctic. This was much easier said than done. To begin, there was the enormous problem of whether to build them in Canada or to buy them offshore, which engaged both the British and the French in making proposals for the necessary technology transfers; predictably, Canada-Europe engineering consortia quickly emerged. But there was considerable opposition to the plan from a variety of sources. The Americans saw absolutely no need for such a capability and were quite prepared to address the political issue of the right of transit through the Northwest Passage. Political and public opposition to the nuclear-powered submarines was intense, with many fearing that Canada was making a great mistake and sliding down the path to becoming a nuclear power — confusing, conveniently, nuclear propulsion with nuclear weapons. The navy signed on to the new idea and naively exchanged eight frigates from the long-term plan for the 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines.

Strategically and tactically the concept made sense, but throughout the public and private discussions to refine the project, program costs were not developed accurately, especially those to create the necessary infrastructure. It was no surprise when the program was cancelled in the April 1989 budget; the financial costs of backing off were small, and a potentially destructive political confrontation was avoided. The impact on the navy, however, was considerable: the loss of eight frigates from the overall modernization program, not to mention the additional delay in seeking a conventional submarine replacement, meant that the ability to deploy three autonomous task groups, let alone a fourth, had just vanished. The navy would have to be a two task group fleet with the possibility of providing a third group only on mobilization for a major crisis.

The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 symbolically ended the 40-year Cold War. O’Brien’s “bloody Russian submarines” no longer presented a threat to North American or European security. Almost coincidentally, by that time the Canadian Navy had largely made the transition from a specialized ASW force that would have been assigned piece-meal to NATO in various formations, to a concept of national task groups assigned specific tasks. The very complex period from the uncertainty of 1968, when politics threatened to tear the navy apart, to the dawn of a new era of international uncertainty in November 1989 was one in which the Canadian Navy matured into a truly national entity. In view of the almost continual political opposition to naval modernization through those two decades, the transformation is the more remarkable. Had O’Brien not encouraged the fleet to “Go find the bloody Russian submarines and leave the politics to me!” that maturing process might have been very much more difficult.


Author: Peter T. Haydon

1 P.E.Trudeau,“The Relation of Defence Policy to Foreign Policy,” Statements and Speeches, 12 April 1969 (69/8).

2 Marshall Lee Miller, “Soviet Military Development,” Armed Forces Journal International (April 1987), 36.

3 Memorandum to Cabinet, Maritime Surface Ship Requirements, 3 November 1977 (PCO).

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