What is the current status of the CSC procurement project?
Lockheed Martin and BAE won the contract last year with a design based on the British Type 26 global combat ship. Our version will be significantly more capable because it will be performing both anti-submarine warfare, which the British version does, as well as robust anti-air warfare, which the British leave to their Type 45 destroyers. When the CSC project began, initially the plan was to equip the Canadian Navy with three air defence destroyers, which would replace the three Iroquois class destroyers that were or would soon be decommissioned. The remaining vessels would have been built as general-purpose frigates that wouldn’t have been as capable in a high-end warfare scenario.
In Canada we have two fleets that can’t be shared, being split between the Atlantic and Pacific. If we have fifteen ships that means eight on one coast and seven on the other. That creates a problem if only three of those are air defence destroyers because one of those coasts is going to have only one destroyer. If that destroyer goes in for its regular maintenance, then that coast is going to have no air defence vessels at all. So, the idea is—build all 15 of these ships to an identical standard in terms of both air defence and anti-submarine warfare so that they’re all interchangeable. If any of become unavailable, then you have other options with the same capability to perform missions across the entire spectrum of naval warfare and maritime security.
CSC is currently in the design phase, which includes reconciling design requirements. We have to integrate Canadian supply chains, meet our ITB (Industrial and Technological Benefits) requirements to ensure that there’s substantial Canadian involvement, and ensure that all these contribute towards a sustainable Canadian shipbuilding industry. The multistage process of the design phase is illustrated by the fact that several key components of the ship’s systems have already been contracted for, such as the primary radar, sonars, and main gun. These show the confidence that the design and procurement teams have in the progress to date on integrating the various requirements into the ship.
What new capabilities will Canada’s frigate replacements have, and what capabilities do they need to operate in an age of climate change and renewed great power competition?
The CSC can be more accurately described as a destroyer replacement, rather than simply a frigate replacement. If it goes according to plan, we’ll be replacing our entire fleet of frigates with capabilities that go beyond what our original destroyers had, in terms of air defence, anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare. The CSCs could potentially have the long-range air defence capabilities that are enabled by the latest radars available, as well as 32 Mark 41 vertical launch system cells (Mk 41 VLS). A few months ago, the Navy finally released details regarding how it wants to fill those vertical launch system cells.
The first of these is the Evolved Sea Sparrow missile (ESSM), which we are using right now in our Halifax class frigates. They’re the standard defensive anti-air missiles used by NATO and other Western/Allied navies, but they’ll be available in much higher numbers because in the Mark 41 system, you can actually fit four of them in a single cell. That is a tremendous increase in self-defence capacity for our Navy vessels. The main new thing these ships will bring to bear in terms of anti-air warfare is that they’ll now be able to use the Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) in the Block IIIC variant, and that’s the newest version of the standard American area air defence missile. We lost that long-range anti-air capability when the Iroquois class was decommissioned, so it’s a pretty important capability to not only bring back but extend to the rest of the fleet in the CSC.
We’ll also be using the British Sea Ceptor missile for the ships’ close-in defence system, which have a range similar to the Evolved Sea Sparrow (ESSM). They can turn very quickly right after launch to meet incoming missiles at a longer range. This provides the ability to shoot down future hypersonic and supersonic cruise missiles, which are becoming all the rage in this age of great power competition. The 24 Sea Ceptors, quad-packed into six cells, are being used in place of traditional gun-based defence systems like the current Phalanx due to the latter’s lack of ability to reliably destroy high-speed targets before their wreckage can cause damage to the ship.
Regarding anti-small boat capabilities, there will be a pair of 30-millimeter guns, just above the hangar to deal with minor small surface threats. There is also a 5”/64 gun on the bow that will be manufactured by Leonardo and can fire rocket-assisted guided shells to provide naval gunfire support. What’s surprising is the provision of Tomahawk cruise missiles—a robust capability and probably somewhat unexpected for most of us who have been watching this not least, because it could be potentially politically sensitive. It’s a fairly offensive weapon and not used purely for defensive purposes (though the latest Tomahawks could certainly be used defensively to destroy ships and shore-based anti-ship missile launchers, or, as we saw in Libya, surface-to-air missiles that might threaten friendly aircraft). As the 1980s protests American cruise missile testing in Canada showed, the potential for public resistance is higher for long-range land-attack weapons than for other weapon types. Regardless, the Mark-41 cells containing the Tomahawks are the full-length version, so they can accommodate future missiles that become developed between now and the time that the ships are retired.
It’s one way of future proofing our frigates in terms of future combat capability. We’re not artificially restraining ourselves to smaller missiles out of a need for cost-savings. Of course, we should view this as more of a wish list. A lot of weapons could fill these missile cells, but it is uncertain whether all these missile types are included in the ammunition portion of the current CSC budget – so far only the SM-2 Blk IIICs are known to have been earmarked at a maximum of $500 million USD for 100 rounds, while a contract for an unspecified number of Sea Ceptors has also been signed. The CSC project is of course a political issue, and we don’t know if future governments would really approve additional weapon purchases, especially the Tomahawk, which Canadians may not be so receptive to in the RCN inventory.
Navies don’t really operate in a wartime situation for most of their life. These weapon fits are great for high-end conflict scenarios and worst-case emergencies, but most of the time, they’ll be engaged in basic maritime security. The Type 26 is equipped with a dedicated mission bay that can be configured to have extra boats to bring supplies to shore, conduct rescue operations, and inspect suspicious vessels, or it can be fitted with containers for medical supplies and various ‘soft security’ capabilities. This is important considering Canada currently has no plans for a dedicated amphibious lift vessel.
What radar system is being considered for the new frigates? What are the political and military implications?
Lockheed has promised a SPY-7 active electronically scanned array radar (AESA) on board the Canadian Surface Combatant. It’s meant to use the same subarray transmitters that have been installed in the Long-Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) that the Americans are bringing online at Clear Air Force Base in Alaska, and which is used for ballistic missile defence. This tells us a few things—firstly, it’s basically proven to be cold-weather-proof due to LRDR being in Alaska. I’m also told that the sub-arrays have been designed from the very start to be adapted for naval application and thus to some extent already salt water-proof. Secondly, because the hardware is essentially identical, Canada can rest assured that long-term maintenance and support for its radars will exist so long as the Americans continue to rely on the LRDR itself – there is less of a worry that we’re buying a technology that will no longer be supported just a few years after its acquisition.
The SPY-7 technology allows for a smaller antenna than legacy options, while having the same range as the US Navy’s current AEGIS radars on their destroyers and cruisers, but with an increased sensitivity. Canada is going to have a fleet of 15 Aegis frigates, which is something I don’t think anybody would have imagined 10 – 15 years ago. For every single SPY-7 antenna, it’ll be paired with an X-band illumination radar to help direct certain missiles while taking some load off of the main SPY-7 arrays. This is especially useful when there’re more targets that are around and you don’t want to reduce the SPY-7’s volume search capability to focus on directing missiles. Having both the SPY-7 and the X-band radars mean the ships can search, track, and illuminate targets at the same time—none needs to be sacrificed because we have a radar for each one of those things. It’s a pretty robust capability that we’re installing and MDA in Richmond, BC, has an incredibly large role in ensuring this comes to pass as they are on deck to build the X-band illumination radars.
What is the status of the government’s efforts to develop a new icebreaker? Will climate change in the Arctic impact the CCG icebreaker program?
On May 6, 2021, the Trudeau government made the surprising announcement that Canada will now buy two Polar icebreakers. Additionally, instead of building them both in the same yard after a competition, they will each be built at Seaspan Vancouver Shipyards and Davie Shipbuilding in Quebec.
For the last decade or so since the National Shipbuilding Strategy was established, the formal goal was to build only one Polar icebreaker to replace the current heavy icebreaker, CCGS Louis St. Laurent. The corollary implication has thus been that the new Polar would operate similarly to the St. Laurent – that is, for most of the year but not really sailing in the worst winter periods, which would be when it needs to go into maintenance. Having two Polars solves the maintenance issue by allowing one ship to be present while the other is south for maintenance, enabling year-round presence in the Arctic. While winter sea traffic in the Canadian Arctic is nearly non-existent, having the ability to operate north in winter allows important science missions to be carried out that, until now, would not have been possible. Northern communities would also have greater flexibility and reliability for the delivery of their goods and cargo, which may help drive down the currently enormous cost of living.
The fact that one Polar will go to each of the heretofore competing yards was likely for politically expedient reasons. While the government states that building both in the same yard would mean the second ship would take too long to enter service, this ignores that much of modern shipbuilding takes place with significant overlaps between construction schedules. For example, while our Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessels take four to five years from start to finish, they are still being delivered roughly once per year because the yard doesn’t wait until the first vessel is completely done before starting the second. Similarly, if both Polars were built at the same yard, I wouldn’t expect much more than two or three years between the first and second ship, which is within the scheduling uncertainties of having two different shipyards each with their own list of projects and somewhat different construction methods.
Nonetheless, in Canadian procurement, it’s all the steps leading up to construction that’s the major cause of delay: once things get rolling, delays aren’t as significant. So, if ordering from both yards precludes one or the other from trying to protest the award to the other yard or politicians trying to curry favour from one province versus another with associated delays, that would ensure we can proceed to construction as soon as possible. It may not be the most efficient way of building ships, but if it commits the government to actually get them built without even more delays or, worse, cancellations, then I wish them the best.
As for whether climate change will reduce the need for the new icebreakers, I would say no. Polar sea ice is not like ice cubes in a glass of water: they don’t melt uniformly and aren’t made identically. There are parts that are weaker and parts that are tougher. As global warming takes its toll on the ice, the weaker ice melts first, freeing the harder multiyear ice to float along with the currents. Sadly, for Canada, the combination of those currents and the myriad islands that make up our Arctic means that all of the hard ice gets jammed in the Northwest Passages and fjords. So even though the polar sea ice gets weakened every year, Canada still gets stuck with a lot of the worst ice, and heavy icebreakers are still necessary. This contrasts with the Russian side of the Arctic, which has much fewer islands and the currents actually help carry sea ice away from the Northern Sea Route, making it a more realistic shipping route for a greater part of the year.
Timothy Choi is completing his Ph.D. at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies, where his dissertation is entitled, “Maritime Strategies of the North: The Seapower of Smaller Maritime Forces in an Era of Broadened Security.” It asks how the Danish, Norwegian, and Canadian maritime forces developed in response to the adoption and legitimization of the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, and whether smaller forces have generalizable differences in such responses compared to larger ones. This has seen him sailing with Danish and Norwegian patrol vessels to gain deeper insights into the tactical level of peacetime naval activities. He is a former Smith Richardson Predoctoral Fellow at Yale University’s International Security Studies, where he worked with Professor Paul Kennedy, and is also a Research Fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development and a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He serves on the editorial board of and is the photo editor at the Canadian Naval Review, and is currently a consultant on naval affairs for the British American Security Information Council.