NSPS from a Mahanian Perspective

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th century American geo-political strategist, theorized that for a country to be a maritime nation, it needed to have specific and unique characteristics, namely: to be either an island or like an island for ease of defense; to have a long coastline; access to seas from interior via rivers and bays; and have numerous and deep harbours; a portion of the population engaged in sea-going occupations or suited to them; a citizenry that has a strong leaning towards commerce and business; and a government faithful to the will of the people, that can provide intelligent direction, promote the growth and strength of sea-going commerce and build a strong navy.

In May 2012, the Prime Minister stated that “Canada is a maritime nation, a mari­time nation with trade, commerce and interests around the world. Surrounded as we are by three oceans, it can truly be said that Canada and its economy float on salt water. Such a nation must have a navy. A navy that serves, a navy that protects, a navy that will, if circumstances demand, place its ships and their personnel in situations of imminent danger, for the sake of the country they have sworn to defend.”

Reminiscent of Mahan, the Prime Minister was speaking about a modern nation with unique characteristics. The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) follows Mahans’ advice “… to build a strong navy”.

On 12 February 2013, as the government formally received a report prepared by a panel of experts chaired by Tom Jenkins, Special Advisor to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, Minister Ambrose, commented that “the Harper Government is committed to ­supporting Canadian jobs and industry by maximizing military procurement,” Although not specifically about shipbuilding, the Jenkins Report, “Canada First: Leveraging Defence Procurement Through Key Industrial Capabilities”, further supports the Mahanian principles by advising the government to develop a defence industrial strategy for Canada to invest in Canada – precisely what Mahan advocated for the US.

January 2013 – Members of HMCS Regina secure lines as the ship prepares to dock in Mumbai, India, during Operation Artemis(Photo: Cpl Rick Ayer, Formation Imaging Services, Nova Scotia)

The NSPS is that single Canadian defence-related policy and investment programme that has the potential to exploit our national characteristics as a maritime nation, as envisaged by Mahan, while investing in Canada for Canadians. The NSPS therefore is a modern nation-building strategy as ambitious as the Trans Canada Highway or the St Lawrence Seaway. Grasping the potential and the opportunity presented by the NSPS will require, in Mahan’s’ words, a government that can “promote growth and strength of sea-going commerce and build a strong navy.”

Although NSPS is still young, it is enlightening to compare the outcomes between the USA and Canada. By ­following Mahan’s principles, the USA developed into an economically strong and prosperous maritime nation. For Canada, at least at this point in time, the fruits of our government’s ­maritime strategic initiative, recent minor contract announcements notwithstanding, seem to be increased ­government process with plenty of circular consultation; an apparently absolute aversion to risk; and indeed, no steel yet being cut for the navy or coast guard. Not quite the outcomes postulated by Mahan or envisioned by our government.

The tangible gem of this potentially great nation-building endeavour is the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC), worth more than $26B. That project alone has the potential to employ thousands of Canadians, to design, build and sustain these ships throughout their service to Canada. This will be the single biggest shipbuilding investment in Canada, short of wartime efforts. It is, perhaps, what the Prime ­Minister envisaged when he spoke of our nation understanding the value of our oceans, the necessity of ensuring the freedom of the seas, and the necessity of building and sustaining our fleet while building the high quality national industrial base to sustain the effort beyond what was considered in the NSPS. Sadly, we must remember Canada’s current reality: theocratic hubris, process and risk aversion!

It is disappointing that pundits who have commented on the NSPS and the Jenkins Report have not grasped what I believe are the fundamental strategic underpinnings of these initiatives and, as a result, seem to be, perhaps unwittingly, questioning Canada’s ability to succeed. This mindset, coupled with Canada’s procurement reality of superfluous process and risk-aversive roadblocks creates an environment that is counter to the principles of building a true national capability. Other maritime nations seem to understand this basic principle of Mahan; imagine, if you will, a Canadian design or major combat system in a French or British warship. It will never happen because of the protective policies of those governments.

For NSPS to succeed, Canada needs to invest in Canada. Yes, there are Industrial and Regional Benefits (IRBs) that obligate foreign companies to invest in Canada, but IRBs are not what Mahan had in mind to “promote the growth and strength of sea-going commerce and build a strong navy.” He advocated, as has Jenkins, an industrial strategy to create and support a Canadian naval and maritime industrial base. Thus, notwithstanding IRBs, we must recognize that for NSPS to be a success, we need a strategic plan to ensure effective investment in the Canadian industrial base. However, we must realize that the NSPS is only a starting point. It is a strategic decision that will create the wherewithal to build, deliver and sustain Canada’s federal fleets.

It is worth noting that Canada can build ships. Our current HALIFAX Class fleet of frigates, designed and built in Canada, are among the most integrated and capable in the world. Moreover, ton-for-ton they also provided the government the best value when compared to other nation’s offerings.

National strategic Initiatives such as the NSPS, and reports such as the Jenkins report, do not create a detailed roadmap to the future and although they are part of a discussion, they are not a final answer. They are based on national strategic considerations for the benefit of Canada.

Recognizing the importance to their national security and national economies, many nations have protective defence and security industrial policies. Canada needs to take a similar approach for her own national security and economic interests. But to do so, the government and the bureaucracy must not be side-tracked by commentators warning about a fictional “military-industrial complex” or the false allure of foreign off-the shelf cheap acquisitions or a process-driven, easy way out.

To reap the investment intended by NSPS in securing our place as a prosperous maritime nation, Canada’s leaders will have to take the risks needed to succeed, and to create relationships that will enable success. Canada must also trust that her people have the initiative, the entrepreneurial capacity and the wherewithal to fulfill the Prime Minister’s words; if we do not, we, as a nation, fail.

A graduate of the US Naval War College,  Ian Parker retired after 37 years in the Canadian Navy. Since retirement, he has worked as a defence and strategic analyst.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2013