Pickup trucks or an 18-wheeler?

An old adage advises caution when moving things of value: “Don’t put all of your eggs into one basket.” This ancient saying is only useful if you have the conceptual equivalent of more than one egg and more than one basket. In modern Canadian agriculture the ubiquitous pickup truck is the utility hauler for small loads and a wide variety of tasks. Most farms have more than one, and a lot of non-rural folk find them useful too. There are, of course, other vehicles associated with farming, but only a very few have the need or means for the biggest of the long-haul trucks, the 18-wheeler.

Local producers use small or medium sized vehicles to bring goods to a central ­distribution point where they feed into a spoke-and-wheel road transportation system, or a feeder-line and main-line rail system; this is clearly the most financially efficient system for smaller organizations. It is a real stretch for small operators of any sort to get into the heavy, long-haul transportation business. Fleet size has to be carefully matched to demand; capacity that goes unused is a cost that can break a business. Most logistical planning is based on a fairly simple aim: Get the right amount of commodity to the right place at the right time. That kind of efficiency usually results in profit. The problem with having only one means of conveyance is that while the amount delivered might be perfect (full capacity), it will be very difficult to get it all to the right place and at the right time. If the capacity exceeds supply, it will be wasteful: if the delivered amount exceeds demand, the result is the same. If calamity occurs, it will be a disaster.

The army-dominated leadership of the Canadian Forces still appears to be pressing for the “Big Honkin’ Ship” – the amphibious ship that former Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier espoused.

Problems with the American mid-sized San Antonio-class landing ships (24,900 t.) soured most analysts, but the new idea going around seems to be that the French Mistral-class amphibious assault, command and force projection ship (21,300 t.) is a better option. A recent decision by Russia to buy four of these ships has brought a lot of attention onto them and diverted it away from purchasing Bay-class auxiliary landing ships (16,200 t.) available from the United Kingdom. One issue dogging the option, however, is the obvious public relations challenge of purchasing more used equipment from the British Navy. Meanwhile, the bargain-hunting Australians have purchased one of the Bay-class ships.

Representatives of both the Mistral and Bay classes have been recent visitors in Halifax and they both fit comfortably into the naval dockyard – the hypothetical equivalent of the Canadian farmyard. The real question about which might be the best fit for Canada relates to the primary function of these long-haul transports.

The French design has progressed from the previous Foudre-class ships which were built with amphibious capability as a primary characteristic. The main requirement for the new Mistral-class design was for a multipurpose ship that would also include amphibious capability – the key driver being flexibility/versatility. For instance, the helicopter deck and the hangar deck can be used for loading vehicles, containers or any cargo. The large hospital area can be extended by directly connecting dedicated “medical” containers installed in the helicopter hangar. By installing classrooms and theatres in the command HQ area (which is equipped with modular partition walls), one of these vessels is currently used six months per year by the French Navy for training at sea of new naval officers.

The British ships are primarily cargo movers with a secondary ability to conduct amphibious landing of people, vehicles and materiel in an administrative manner, rather than a military tactical one. Likewise, the military character of Mistral means she has more aviation support and sustainment capabilities. The Bay-class ships have a flight deck, but little else for air operations. The multi-purpose nature of the French amphibious ship’s design requires more space to support these functions and results in greater length, beam and draught than the British ships. It should be noted that the mainly logistical character of the Bay-class ships, of course, requires a much smaller crew size (60 vs. 160) than the multi-purpose nature of the Mistral-class ships. By comparison, the amphibious San Antonio requires a crew of 360.

The “positively puny” logistical capacity of the Canadian navy during the disaster relief effort to Haiti, as Brian Stewart, Distinguished Senior Fellow with the University of Toronto’s Monk Centre, characterized it, resulted in some good initial triage work but little in the way of sustained effort or significant results. If the government is interested in acquiring an amphibious ship to improve the national ability to respond in disaster relief or humanitarian assistance operations, then logistical capacity should take precedence over military characteristics. If there is a higher requirement to conduct joint military operations from the sea, then military characteristics should take precedence over logistical capacity. The problem is that the military requirement has not been stated. In contrast, the logistical requirement has been clearly demonstrated.

In the absence of a direct military threat, is it logical that an unsubstantiated military requirement to counter an unidentified military threat can dictate the capability requirements of the navy?

None of this gets around the all-eggs in one basket problem. For a medium-sized country with a rather small navy, it seems that a few pickup-style cargo carriers would be a better place to start than either of the two heavy-haulers. The Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships proposed for the navy are intended to have some modest cargo capacity and be equipped with a landing craft. In the Haitian case, an AOPS arriving a few days after the destroyer and frigate could have brought the power tools, generators and building materials needed to enable the manpower available in the warships. The utility landing craft, so essential to operations in the Arctic, would have complimented the incredible value of the Sea King helicopter. It could even have brought a second aircraft, or a larger one, more than doubling the airlift capacity. After unloading its three or four containers and other reserve spaces, the AOPS becomes the utility pickup truck, running to the local supply point and creating a forward spoke and wheel supply operation to the operating sites. A second AOPS or, better yet, a Joint Support Ship or a fleet replenishment ship adds robustness and flexibility to the supply system. There would be no need for first responders to cease operations and go off-station for resupply or other administrative needs.

Building a logical and efficient logistical system that would enable sea-based humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations should be based on some simple systemic principles. Naval responsiveness is one of its greatest attributes. Having a ship sitting and waiting to either load or unload while urgent demand goes unsatisfied is a major error. Having first response capacity that is rendered ineffective due to logistical shortcomings is another. The way to be good at anything is have a clear idea of what needs to be done, know what we have to do it with, and understand how to go about making that happen efficiently. That is the heart of good logistical planning. Eggs, anyone?
Ken Hansen is a Resident Research Fellow with the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University and a member of the Science Advisory Committee for Maritime Security at the Halifax Marine Research Institute.
© FrontLine Defence 2011