Happy Birthday, Sea Kings

Ville de Quebec

Canada’s Sea King helicopters mark their fiftieth anniversary today. For the Sea King community, there is much cause for celebration- today marks fifty years of developing and maintaining a remarkable set of skills, both in anti-submarine warfare and in everything that it takes to operate a fairly heavy helicopter from tiny frigate and destroyer decks. On the other hand, the heroism of the last couple of decades has been in keeping the ageing machines airworthy at all amidst a series of accidents. The replacement, notionally Sikorsky’s CH-148 Cyclone, is years late and far from seeing active service.


Leadership Video

Retired US Navy Captain Michael Abrashoff, in his book It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, describes how he got command of a ship which was just about on the verge of mutiny because of its previous commander’s poor leadership. Abrashoff turned this around through a number of means, one of the most important being to reward the crew for good suggestions, a policy which ultimately made the ship the most efficient in the Navy. Beyond that, he gave them a sense of purpose, of importance and responsibility.

In the News

The perhaps inaptly-named Global Force 2012/2013 reports on the operational readiness of a Royal Navy that has been rapidly shedding key elements of its expeditionary capability for several years. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in the state of key Royal Navy capital programs, this is an essential and fairly comprehensive source.

Russia’s massive Eastern exercise concluded last week, the final numbers are out, and a number of key problems ranging from technical difficulties to marksmanship have emerged. Just what the exercise was preparing for remains a mystery.

Indian Think Tank IDSA writes with understandable concern about the rise of both Chinese and Japanese nationalism and its implications for the region.

The US Air Force is diversifying its basing options and increasing its presence around China’s periphery. Given that a RAND Corporation report (later disavowed by the company despite being impeccably reasoned) several years ago showed that the US would lose an air war with China over Taiwan even in perfect conditions, partly due to limited basing options, this is a reasonable move. Japan may also be feeling the heat from a PLAAF that is approaching parity in quality of equipment and already outnumbers the Air Self Defense Force by a considerable margin. On the other hand, the risk of provoking an arms race in a region that has so far avoided anything that could justifiably use that label should be taken seriously.

A prison break in Pakistan frees 248 Taliban– bad news for a country in which some regions are at the mercy of jihadist groups, and a further bad sign for Afghanistan, which waits for the final withdrawals of Western forces with understandable apprehension.

Sequestration, Star Inflation and the Modern Military

While passing a DoD spending bill that would allow the sequestration-beleaguered Pentagon to fund such key programs as ten new Arleigh Burke class destroyers, new Virginia class submarines and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Senate subcommittee sharply limited the money that would put toward ramping up F-35 production in FY 2015. According to the chairman, “Aggressive overlap in designing, testing and procuring this aircraft earlier in its history got us into serious trouble, and this committee is eager to avoid a repeat of these problems.” Wisdom, they say, is a resource that becomes available after you need it.

Sequestration has also apparently given the Senate the gumption to take on some of the more ridiculous manifestations of Pentagon extravagance, in this case, star inflation. “According to a recent analysis, the US military is 30 percent smaller than it was at the end of the Cold War, but it has almost 20 percent more three- and four-star officers,” in the words of the Chairman. Funding for these positions has been reduced by $8 billion.

The Project On Government Oversight published a paper on officer inflation back in 1998 that is still worth the read- because nothing has changed, at least for the better. To quote:
“In 1945, the number of Army generals per active Army division was 14. In 1986, at the height of the Cold War, the army had 24 generals per division. Now, as we face no major threat, there are 30 generals per division. At the end of WWII there were 130 Navy ships per admiral. In 1986, at the height of the Cold War, there were 2.2 ships per admiral. Now, as we face no major threat, there is an average of only 1.6 ships per admiral.”

A more recent (2011) report from POGO highlights that even during the decade of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the percentage increase in enlisted personnel was the smallest of any rank category (under 5%), while 3 and 4 star flag officers experienced a nearly 25% increase.

The costs of star creep continue well beyond the retirement of the officers, as well.

Of course, the United States is not alone in this regard- Canada, with a force smaller than the US Marine Corps, had around one general or admiral per 1000 members as of 2012.

Some of this is understandable- after all, a high-tech, modern military does need more highly skilled people- but if you believe that explains what all those senior officers are doing, I have an island in Indonesia I’d like to sell you.

Neither, as a number of service members have pointed out, does this preponderance of highly-polished brass mean that the military as an institution, is any good at retaining talent.

Why Canada cannot sustain a naval shipbuilding industry

When the Harper government embarked on the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which included 15 surface combatants, support ships and arctic patrol ships, they chose, like so many Canadian and foreign governments before them, to use the procurement for political capital by giving the jobs to Canadian shipyards- the combat ships to Irving Shipbuilding and the non-combat ships to Seaspan Marine.

Canada, like many countries, has a long tradition of using defence procurement programs for pork-barrel politics. Where this involves developing indigenous construction capacity, it can even sound patriotic- on top of job creation, there is an old idea that the ability of a country to make the arms with which it fights is a key element of national security. The only problem is that for a country like Canada, this is an unsustainable and uneconomical aspiration.

What Military Shipbuilding Industries Need

Above anything else, a military shipyard needs a steady, predictable stream of orders. Without this assurance of employment, the shipyard will not be able to train new talent or retain experienced workers. It will not remain current in naval design and construction techniques or the state of naval technology more generally. If a country is in the habit of ordering a block of 12-15 ships every two decades, as is the case with Canada, the yard will need foreign orders to sustain itself in the interim. Without that, it will find itself having to completely regenerate its lost expertise every time a new class is ordered. Let’s look at a recent case.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are in the midst of procuring new classes of nuclear-powered attack submarines, but the contrast between the programs could not be greater. While the US Virginia class suffered some initial setbacks, including problems with the program used to design the boat, it has for some time been moving along in a fiscally admirable fashion. The first Block II boat came in months early and $54 million under budget due to new construction techniques and cost-saving measures. But then, Electric Boat, which designed the Virginias, had no chance to lose people- it knew that submarine production would continue after the cancellation of the Seawolf class.

The Astute’s story is very different. Design work ran into major problems and was completed only with the help of Electric Boat. Severe problems, both budgetary and construction-related, have dogged the class. The combination of a reactor intended for the slow and stealthy Vanguard class missile boats and a drive shaft from the old Trafalgar class has left the boat unable to reach its announced 30-knot speed, a severe handicap in certain key roles such as carrier escort. HMS Astute has experienced flooding due to insufficient quality control, worn and unsafely-installed circuitry, and most worryingly, some of its reactor monitoring equipment is itself unsafe due to the use of poor-quality lead.

But all of this is understandable. The United Kingdom had not built a nuclear-powered attack submarine since 1986, and the last Vanguard-class missile sub finished up in 1998.

A Workable Model

The key to a workable procurement model capable of sustaining a national shipbuilding industry is to avoid batch orders. This doesn’t mean that a very high volume of orders is needed, just that the government in question resolve to keep a constant and predictable tempo of orders rather than ordering in batches every fifteen to twenty years. Ideally for a force the size of the RCN, this would mean one surface combatant or one support vessel every 1-2 years.

While this may seem a financially burdensome commitment, there are definite compensating factors. First of all, there is always a platform on the go with a complete complement of technologies. Upgrades, redesigns and even new classes are therefore not starting from scratch, reducing development costs. The yard will be current in design tools, construction methods and safety features. With increased numbers, unit cost will go down as well. The cost of keeping old vessels in service while new units undergo prolonged testing would no longer be an issue, and the cost of fixing design and production problems discovered after launch will go down.

The Royal Navy used just such a procurement practice with their line of postwar frigates. From the Whitby class which began construction in 1951 through to the tremendously adaptable Leander class which concluded production in 1969, there was both regular construction and a clear trajectory of design improvement. Construction was relatively cheap and capabilities were consistently improved throughout the program.

As a more current example, Japan, which owns the finest conventional submarine force in the Pacific, has had a very consistent submarine construction schedule for decades. The design lineage of Japanese submarines goes back to the US Barbel class conventional submarines of the 1950s, but slow and steady improvement on that outline has generated quite impressive platforms. Most recently, the Soryu class is a fully modern Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarine. While the 20-year replacement cycle of Japanese subs may be a trifle brisk, it is also a sign of efficiency.

Canada’s Dilemma

Canadian governments and military planners have not demonstrated anything like the foresight such an approach would require. Canadian governments prefer the one big order which allows them to parcel out substantial contracts to the provinces and talk about their commitment to defence when they are ordering, and then talk about how much they’re saving between orders.

This being the case, what happens to our newly rebuilt shipbuilding industry once it finishes the current orders? It would have to sustain itself on foreign orders for around two decades, or else simply evaporate. The trouble is, the surface combatant and support ship markets are both crowded. Europe alone can offer at least seven different multirole frigate designs that have already seen service with European navies, with others tailored specifically for export.

And Canada’s product will likely have nothing to distinguish it from at least three of these, if we don’t use a European design outright. The Canadian frigate will likely use APAR and Smart-L radars as well as Harpoon, Standard SM-2/6 and Enhanced Sea Sparrow missiles, just like the German, Dutch and Danish ships.

The Problem with Importing Production

The simplest approach to generating a national shipbuilding industry is to buy a design from abroad and have the designing company help you create the capability to build it. Unfortunately, this approach has a very mixed record.

Australia partnered with Sweden to create the Collins class submarine, which, while very effective when it works, has a long history of being plagued by technical problems. To illustrate that the failure lies with the do-it-yourself approach, the Collins’ Swedish-built predecessors the Vastergotland (20 years old) and Sjoorman (40 years old) classes are still serving with very few problems in the Swedish and Singaporean navies.

The counterexample is South Korea, which has generated world-class shipyards using imported designs. However, this was a multistep, sustained process, which built capabilities slowly from less advanced designs through to more advanced, and continues to sustain low-rate warship production.

As for Canada, the cracks are already starting to show. Canada has already paid $288 million to Irving for design work on an Arctic Patrol Ship- based on a Norwegian design that already exists, and which cost $5 million for Canada to buy and just $100 million for the Norwegians to design and produce. To top it off, the final blueprints will in any case be subcontracted to a Danish company. The tortured and long-running Joint Support Ship program’s problems are also well-known.

According to figures in the Canadian-American Strategic Review, the most economical European frigates, the modular Iver Huitfeld class from Denmark, cost $333 million apiece. The high end of the European market is the German Sachsen class, at $1.12 billion. The Canadian Surface Combatant was initially allotted a $26 billion budget- divided by 15 vessels, that’s already 1.73 billion per copy, and very few naval shipbuilding programs come in under budget.


It is a perfectly reasonable expectation that defence procurement should benefit the national economy. There are, however, alternatives to doing it all ourselves. Canadian companies would certainly contribute to any ships we chose to order, and Canadian expertise in military electronics is of particular value. It is even possible to have some sections of a ship built in Canada and taken abroad for final assembly, or vice-versa. Industrial offset agreements, recouping the cost of procurement through contracts for Canadian companies are also useful, and could even be targeted to the shipbuilding industry.

A targeted rejuvenation of the Canadian shipbuilding industry is actually a very good idea- but this is not what the NSPS is. Canada has significant potential in commercial shipbuilding- but the skills and technologies are only compatible with military shipbuilding to a certain extent.

A future post will examine the alternative designs available, but suffice it to say that purchasing from a foreign yard would almost certainly represent substantial savings to the taxpayer, which could perhaps be invested in more sustainable economic activity. Equally important, it would provide a precedent that says that Canada does not need to recreate its military shipbuilding capacity whenever it wants a new class of vessels.

China: The struggle for coherent leadership (and other news)

Francois Godement’s paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations on the new Chinese party leadership argues that Xi Jinping has accumulated substantial personal power in excess of his predecessors, albeit at the cost of catering to the interests of Party elders. Worth a read for anyone interested in China’s internal politics.

Interestingly, former president Jiang Zemin, widely seen as the leader of the Party’s conservative wing, recently publicly endorsed Xi, a clear call for Party unity that has suggested to some that Xi’s authority is not all that it could be.

It is worth remembering, however, that Hu Jintao’s tenure as president was always limited by the fact that he was a compromise candidate from Jiang’s perspective, with the result that Jiang kept behind-the-scenes control of his faction of the Party. Hu and his premier Wen Jiabao spoke often about Party reform, but never seemed able to accomplish it. Xi, by contrast, was Jiang’s hand-picked successor. Jiang’s pronouncement may be seen as a call for unity around Xi’s energetic if not yet effective approach to tackling Party corruption.

Meanwhile, former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, once at the pinnacle of populist politics, is to face trial on charges of graft and abuse of power.

Vice President Li Yuanchao is headed to Pyongyang to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Korean War. This will likely be one more forlorn call to North Korea to embark on the path of reform and opening- a longstanding Chinese agenda whenever state visits occur between the two countries.

A mass protest was held today outside the Chinese consulate in Manila against Chinese aggression in territorial disputes with the Philippines. The protesters rightly point out that such disputes tarnish China’s image as a benevolent power.

In other news, Defense Industry Daily reports the possibility of a submarine deal between Poland and Germany. Germany may lease two of its U212s to Poland, allowing Poland’s old ex-Norwegian Kobben class subs to retire. If completed, the deal would also provide for a joint submarine operating authority, a sensible move for both Baltic countries. A letter of intent between the two defence ministers also includes cooperation in logistics vessel procurement, good news for Poland’s waning shipbuilding industry.

Transparency Inhibits Defence Procurement Stupidity, and other news

The Canadian Department of National Defence has stopped releasing full Statements of Operational Requirements for ongoing procurement programs. These were formerly made available online. To quote Embassy News, “The move seems to be an expansion of an earlier switch in 2011, when DND refused to release the version of the document detailing requirements for new F-35 fighter jets, claiming it was classified—even though DND’s own website at the time hosted many of those same types of documents for public downloading.”

The stated reason according to a spokesperson is “to ensure that planning projections which may change do not influence the formal acquisition process.” In other words, no one but DND should be allowed to logically evaluate a procurement program according to the requirements laid out by the military. In a country plagued by procurement incompetence, trying to build a military shipbuilding industry from scratch, with helicopters falling out the sky with no replacements in sight, with submarines that still don’t work and a hotly debated fighter acquisition program, it is certainly understandable that whoever is responsible for damaging the defence of Canada on this scale doesn’t want their work evaluated by outside experts who may possibly have a passing familiarity with common sense.

In other news, Poland has just acquired a coastal defence battalion of Norwegian-built NSM anti-ship missiles. The missiles are stealthy and designed to function in crowded littoral conditions.

A Panzerhowitzer 2000 has successfully tested Oto Melara’s 155mm Vulcano guided ammunition on a target 33 kilometres away. The Vulcano family significantly boosts the range and accuracy of ammunition and has both naval and land-based applications.

The F-35 draws criticism once again, this time for the poor gun system on the F-35A and the lack of any guns on the B and C models, as well as a flawed helmet-mounted sight.