Writing at Information Dissemination 'Lazarus' notes that when rising warship prices at the beginning of the twentieth century threatened the Royal Navies' budgets they responded by opting for "quality over quantity and produced fewer, but larger and more powerful warships as the means to reduce the budget and increase combat capability."
Whether planned or not that is what seems to be happening to the Royal Canadian Navy. As the price of individual warships has gone up, and budgets have declined in real terms, the result has been to acquire fewer ships.
The question that goes unasked is, was this the right strategy for the Royal Navy, and by extension the RCN, to pursue? Confronted with the growth of the German High Seas fleet the Royal Navy chose to concentrate on a relatively few powerful ships designed to meet and defeat the German force. This meant that the smaller ships, the often derided ‘gunboats’, on foreign stations such as Esquimalt and Halifax were recalled and paid off. Although not appreciated as being such at the time, it was the beginning of the end of Empire.
Another effect of this strategy was that as the number of ships became smaller so the importance of these ships became greater as did the consequences of design choices.
For example, some of those powerful new ships designed by Admiral Fisher combined the functions of the battleship and the armored cruiser to form a new kind of hybrid, the battlecruiser. They were designed to have the speed and range to overhaul and destroy surface raiders as well as the firepower and advanced fire control needed to engage any opponent at long range.
They were not designed to stand in the line of battle with the purpose built battleships, but that is exactly where they found themselves at the battle of Jutland. The results were predictable and the battlecruisers as a class suffered the greatest proportion of losses.
These losses had even greater consequence given the lack of ships available to replace them. Both German and British Navy strategy was sometimes dictated by the fear of losing ships. At Jutland Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet faced a capable enemy with ships and men equal to his own. He could not afford to take risks in pursuit of a “decisive” victory because he commanded Britain’s only modern battle fleet.
Writing in The Strategist Andrew Davies has pointed out that several hundred years ago ships described as frigates were “capable of sustained and independent cruising operations. They were heavily tasked for trade protection and trade attack—one of the reasons there was a shortage for fleet reconnaissance. The ability to sustain independent operations later came to define the ‘cruiser’—which is what many of today’s ‘frigates’ actually are.” Davies makes the case that today’s frigates and destroyers are, in form and function, actually cruisers, that is to say, large vessels capable of prolonged independent action.
It has been decided through a process not clear to anyone that Canada needs to have a navy that consists of fifteen of these ‘cruisers’. Even the number of ships, fifteen, seems to be arbitrary. The thinking seems to be something like “we had four air defence destroyers, the 280’s and twelve Halifax class frigates, but we found out we could get by with just three destroyers so let’s call it fifteen”.
It has now been decided that all these ships are to be built to common design. It is believed, in the face of no evidence at all, that this will lower the cost of the ships. What has not been considered are the costs that will accrue if this fleet of similar ships should contain a flaw in either design or purpose.
The National Shipbuilding Strategy is designed to develop a “sustainable, long-term shipbuilding plan that benefits Canadians and the Canadian marine industry”. The hope is that it will bring predictability to federal vessel procurement and to eliminate the boom and bust cycles of vessel procurement that have characterized Canadian shipbuilding in the past.
These are worthwhile goals; it remains to be seen if they can be achieved. What seems more likely is that federal vessel procurement will maintain its status as a political football, at the expense of predictability and sustainability. Even more likely is that the charade of political deniability which surrounds the program will continue as a substitute for real discussion as to just what kind of Navy Canada needs.
The Ship is an "Electronic" Being
Maths swayed the Battle of Jutland – and helped Britain keep control of the seas
The expanding of the shrew
CRUISERS & GUNBOATS
National Shipbuilding Strategy