For the first time in eight years, Canadian warships are not participating in either of the two NATO naval task forces tasked with patrolling European waters and defending against Russian threats.
The revelation has highlighted what experts say are the growing trade-offs Canada has to make with its navy, which is struggling with a shrinking fleet of aging ships and a lack of trained sailors.
Canada had had a consistent presence in NATO’s Standing Sea 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 sure to deploy a second frigate in March as part of its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That ship had been planned for a months-long deployment to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.
But Defense Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande says Canada has no frigates attached to any 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, CAF does not currently have a ship assigned to NATO Standing Maritime Group 1 or 2,” Lamirande said in an email. “This is the first time this has happened since 2014.”
Lamirande linked the decision not to send new frigates to Europe to the deployment of two of these vessels to the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the maintenance and training requirements of the Halifax-class fleet.
Instead, Canada has deployed two smaller Kingston-class coastal defense ships to work with a different NATO naval force that is focused on finding and clearing enemy mines.
Defense Chief of Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said it will help Canadian sailors gain experience in an important area of naval warfare while showing Canada’s commitment to European security.
But he admitted in an interview with The Canadian Press on Monday, “We’re stretched from a resource perspective. And so we have to make those decisions about where to invest and when to 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-governing island that Beijing considers its territory, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. The exercise came amid growing fears of a possible 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 significant role in limiting the Atlantic Fleet’s ability to send another frigate to short term.
“In my opinion, it does not mean that the availability of ships and crews has deteriorated in recent years,” he said.
“Rather it’s the unavoidable consequences of forcing a small fleet to concentrate more resources in a smaller time frame, resulting in more time needed to recover.”
But defense analyst David Perry of the Canadian Institute of Global Affairs predicted that Canada will have to make increasingly difficult concessions on where to send its warships given the size and status 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 ships were retired in 2014.
Adding to the difficulty is the increasing age of the frigates, which entered service in the 1990s and are becoming increasingly difficult to repair and maintain, according to senior officials and internal reports.
“Those trade-off decisions are going to get harder and harder because, and we’re already experiencing it, the maintenance cycle on a ship this old is getting more intense, more labor intensive and longer,” Perry said.
Adam MacDonald, a former naval officer now studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the Canadian Navy and Armed Forces are also expected to face increasing pressure to maintain a presence in Europe, Asia and the Arctic.
“It’s going to be very pressing because there are going to be lawsuits in all three geographies,” MacDonald said. “As well as everywhere else we operate: the Caribbean, West Africa, South America.”
The federal government is overseeing the construction of a new fleet of warships to replace frigates and destroyers, but the multibillion-dollar project has been plagued by cost overruns and repeated delays.
The navy, like the rest of the armed forces, is also facing severe manpower shortages.
Meanwhile, MacDonald predicted that Kingston-class minesweepers will continue to gain ground as the navy faces increasing demand from overseas.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 8, 2022.