OTTAWA — For the first time in eight years, Canadian warships are not involved in either of two NATO naval task forces charged with patrolling European waters and defending against Russian threats.
The revelation has cast a spotlight on what experts say are the growing trade-offs that Canada is having to make with its navy, which is struggling with a shrinking fleet of aging ships and a lack of trained sailors.
Canada had been a consistent presence in the Standing NATO Maritime Groups since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, deploying at least one Halifax-class frigate to the North Atlantic or Mediterranean on a rotational basis.
The federal Liberal government made a point of deploying a second frigate in March as part of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That ship had been planned for a months-long deployment in the Indian Ocean and Middle East.
But Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande says Canada does not have any frigates attached to either of the NATO naval groups since HMCS Montreal and HMCS Halifax returned to their home port last month.
“With the return home of HMCS Montreal and Halifax on July 15, the CAF does not currently have a ship tasked to either Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 or 2,” Lamirande said in an email. “This is the first time this has occurred since 2014.”
Lamirande linked the decision not to send any new frigates to Europe to the deployment of two such vessels to the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the Halifax-class fleet’s maintenance and training requirements.
Canada has instead deployed two smaller Kingston-class coastal defence vessels to work with a different NATO naval force that is focused on finding and clearing enemy mines.
Chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said that will help Canadian sailors gain experience in an important area of naval warfare while still showing Canada’s commitment to European security.
But he conceded in an interview with The Canadian Press on Monday, “we are stretched from a resource perspective. And so we've got to make those decisions as to where we invest, and when we invest.”
He added that he approved the decision to send two frigates to the Pacific, where tensions between the West and China are growing, “because we want to deliberately increase our presence in Asia-Pacific, because we are a Pacific nation.”
China last week launched a massive military exercise around Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing considers its territory, after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. The exercise came amid growing fears of a potential Chinese invasion.
University of Calgary shipbuilding expert Timothy Choi said the decision to send two frigates to Europe at the same time earlier this year played a large role in constraining Atlantic Fleet's ability to send another frigate in the short term.
“To my mind, it doesn't mean the availability of the ships and crews have deteriorated over the last few years,” he said.
“Rather it's the unavoidable consequences of forcing a small fleet to concentrate more resources into a smaller time frame which results in more time required to recuperate.”
But defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute predicted Canada will have to make increasingly difficult trade-offs in where to send its warships given the size and state of its navy.
While Canada has 12 frigates, Perry said the navy’s maintenance and training requirements mean only a handful are available to deploy at any given time. Canada used to also have three destroyers, but those vessels were retired in 2014.
Adding to the difficulty is the growing age of the frigates, which entered service in the 1990s and are becoming increasingly more challenging to fix and maintain, according to both senior officers and internal reports.
“Those decisions about trade-offs are going to become increasingly difficult because, and we're already experiencing this, the maintenance cycle on a ship that old is becoming more intense, more labour-intensive and longer,” Perry said.
Adam MacDonald, a former naval officer now studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the navy and Canadian Armed Forces are also expected to face growing pressures to maintain a presence in Europe, Asia and the Arctic.
“It's going to be very pressing because there's going to be demands on all three of those geographic environments,” MacDonald said. “On top of anywhere else we operate: the Caribbean, West Africa, South America.”
The federal government is overseeing construction of a new fleet of warships to replace the frigates and destroyers, but the multibillion-dollar project has been plagued by cost overruns and repeated delays.
The navy, like the rest of the military, is also facing a severe shortage of personnel.
In the meantime, MacDonald predicted the Kingston-class minesweepers will continue to pick up more slack as the navy faces increasing demands overseas.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 8, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press