Thursday, 10 May 2012


HMCS Ontario 

 The cruiser has a long history. The word itself as a warship designation has been in use for several hundred years, and has had several different meanings. During the age of sail, the term cruiser reflected a type of mission – independent scouting, raiding or commerce protection – fulfilled by a frigate or sloops which were the cruising warships of a fleet.
 From the middle of the 19th century, cruiser came to be a classification for the ships intended for this kind of role, though cruisers came in a wide variety of sizes, from the small protected cruiser to armoured cruisers which were as large (though not as powerful) as a battleship.
 In the later 20th century, the obsolescence of the battleship left the cruiser as the largest and most powerful surface combatant. As new classes of destroyers were developed they were often larger and more powerful than cruiser classes, which they replaced in most navies.
 The modern frigate was originally designed and built as anti-submarine escort in the Second World War. As warships evolved, destroyers grew in size, complexity and cost to become command and control vessels which often specialized in anti-air warfare. Frigates in turn changed and replaced destroyers as general purpose warships.
 After the Second World War, Canada’s navy concentrated on anti-submarine warfare. It was easy for planners to imagine a replay of World War Two with the large Soviet submarine force taking the place of German U-boats in a new battle of the Atlantic. Whether this scenario ever would have played out in the event of war is still a matter for conjecture, what is known is that the US Navy eventually rejected this formula and embarked on a more aggressive strategy. Rather then focusing on a defensive naval war which involved the support of ground forces they determined that in the event of war they would attack targets in the Soviet Union. The plan was to take their large Aircraft Carriers far north to the edges of the Soviet empire and attack Russian targets with carrier launched aircraft. If nothing else it would force the Soviet Navy to confront western naval forces directly.
 With little or no public discussion of this new strategy Canada signed on and our new generation of warships were designed and built with these tactics in mind. While a previous generation of frigates had been built as anti-submarine platforms the new class of Halifax class frigates were much larger general purpose vessels designed to accompany U.S. battle groups into the northern Atlantic in the teeth of the Soviet Navy. Needless to say the trade-off for ships of greater size and cost was to have fewer ships.
 At the end of the cold war Canada found itself with a navy made up of just twelve large frigates and four updated destroyers. A steadily diminishing number of aging support ships was also available. As the destroyers, now configured for command and control and armed for task force anti-aircraft protection, and the support ships aged they were not replaced and we now have only two of each occasionally available for service. At the time our  naval policy was to be able to provide a task force, nominally a destroyer, two frigates and a support ship, able to respond to international crises that the government of the day designated as being worthy of our interest. This policy evolved with little public discussion of alternatives and seemed largely built around ships that were available.
  In response to the changes in our post 9/11 world and perhaps in recognition of our inability to reliably provide destroyers and support ships for task forces this policy has evolved. In the 21st century Canada is using the ships we designate as frigates for the traditional cruiser mission of independent scouting, raiding and commerce protection. Sailing singly and working with allied navies we maintain a cruiser, I mean frigate, on station in various world hotspots and places of interest.
 The government has announced that it plans to build at least fifteen new warships and two support ships. It would seem that as in the past naval policy will be dictated by means available and that means available will be dictated by policies that the public has no knowledge of. Before new ships are built we should first have a public discussion about what kind of Navy Canada wants and needs. Only after our needs and goals and the funds available have been determined, will it be practical to build the ships necessary to achieve our ends.