The Mark News | 11.18.10
By Alan W. Dowd 

The Arctic’s frozen waterways are thawing, pirates are preying on vital sea lanes, rogue states are shipping WMD technology, China is beginning to deploy its navy overseas, and terrorists have proven their capacity to carry out deadly seaborne attacks. In short, now is no time for the Western allies to mothball their navies. But sadly, that appears to be what’s happening. 

Britain is slashing defense spending by eight percent. As a result, Britain will delay needed upgrades to its nuclear-submarine fleet, speed up the decommissioning of an aircraft carrier and share an aircraft carrier with France. 

Likewise, Italy is planning 10 percent cuts across the board, resulting in the cancellation of new warships. 

Even the U.S. Navy is shrinking. The U.S. deployed466 ships in 1992, 316 in 2001 and just 287 today. And now, Washington is backing away from a plan to build the fleet back up to 313 ships by the middle of the next decade. Instead, the Pentagon plans on deploying 301 ships—by 2040. 

As for Canada, its navy numbers just 33 ships. That’s a tiny fleet for a maritime nation with a huge coastline, vast trade linkages and important global commitments—especially in light of the fact that 13 of those ships are out of service for refurbishing, as a recent Globe and Mail report detailed. Moreover, three Canadian destroyers are on track to be retired, and plans to replenish Canada’s suddenly-essential fleet of Arctic vessels are being scaled back due to budget constraints, according to the Globe and Mail’s analysis.  

It’s no wonder that the Canadian Navy’s global role, like the Canadian military’s role in general, is ebbing, and has been since the end of the Cold War. 

This isn’t to suggest that Canada’s navy does not contribute in important ways to international security—more on that in a moment—or that Canada is any different than other members of the Western alliance system. In fact, Canada’s investment in defense is very much in line with most of its NATO allies. For example, a recent NATO analysis found that only five members of the alliance mustered the will to meet NATO’s set standard of investing two percent of GDP on defense. While the U.S. invests around four percent of its GDP on defense—a GDP that is enormous compared to the rest of the alliance—Canada (1.3 percent), Germany (1.3 percent), Italy (1.3 percent) and Spain (1.2 percent), among others, have fallen well below the two percent target. 

To be sure, defense spending has increased in recent years under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. However, Canada still ranks just 126th in the world in defense spending as a share of GDP.  

As the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” 

Canada was once a central player in the military arena. As former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney observed, “If people want to know how Canada paid for its seat in Europe, they should check out the graves in Belgium and France.” Indeed, by the end of World War II, Canada deployed some 332 ships, one of the largest navies on earth. Canada dispatched troops to defend Korea at the beginning of the Cold War and to liberate Kuwait at the end. 

However, Canada’s contribution to allied security dwindled so much in the post-Cold War period that the Canadian Embassy actually bought space on billboards in Washington, D.C., to publicize Canada’s contributions in Afghanistan. And with nearly 3,000 troops engaged in the battle for Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces are indeed bearing a heavy load, accounting for seven percent of the non-U.S. forces deployed. 

What we need to understand is that keeping the high seas secure is just as important as bringing security to Afghanistan. As Vice Admiral Dean McFadden of the Canadian Navy observes, “A regulated ocean—oceans that are free for all to use lawfully—is as fundamental to our way of life as any of the other pillars of the international system.” 

That’s because 90 percent of global trade, equaling more than $14 trillion, travels by sea. In other words, the oceans are fields of global commerce. Hence, just as there is a need for police within nations to protect life and property, there is a need to protect and police the oceans, as McFadden suggests. From the dangerous waters of the Horn of Africa to the choke points of the Persian Gulf to the flashpoints of the South China Sea to the new transit routes opening up in the Arctic, it is Western naval power, by and large, that protects the world’s oceans. And that costs money. 

“Canada should be doing more, especially in the Arctic,” says Eric Wertheim, editor of The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. “The good news is that it’s still very early in the Arctic game. There’s still time.” Time to invest in the naval assets needed to protect the world’s vital waterways. 

Some wonder if it is in the economic interest of taxpayers to invest in defense. “Doesn’t defense just divert resources from the private sector and from worthy social programs?” the argument goes. 

We might find part of the answer from no less an authority on economic behavior than Adam Smith, who noted that “the first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force.” Smith asserted that “a wealthy nation is of all nations the most likely to be attacked.” Thus, he concluded that the state must provide “a well-regulated standing army”—and navy for that matter. 

Much has changed since the 18th century, to be sure, but in a very real sense, Smith was providing an illustration of how the developed world must respond to, and prepare for, the threats around it. The United States and Canada, as leaders of the developed world, simply have to invest in defense to protect their interests and expand the zone peace and prosperity. 

Toward that end, Canada has, in recent years, contributed naval assets to the fight against al Qaeda in and around the Arabian Sea. The Canadian Navy answered when Haiti cried out for help and aided in the East Timor humanitarian effort. Canada supports the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led effort enfolding some 90 nations and their naval forces aimed at intercepting weapons of mass destruction and their precursors while in transit. And Canadian ships have participated in Operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s counter-piracy mission off the Somali coast. 

But there’s only so much 33 ships can do. As Wertheim observes, “Canada has capable naval forces, just not enough of them.”