In France, they have been building ships ideally suited to Canadian peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. There are two Canada could probably take delivery of in 2015 and 2016, an astonishingly short procurement timeframe for major military equipment. And the price could be a bargain. It’s an opportunity, though, that the Canadian government may be in the process of passing up.
The ships in question are Mistral-class support ships being built by the French manufacturer DCNS. To date, DCNS has built five of the ships, three for the French navy and two more for the Russian navy. One of the ships being built for Russia is ready for delivery; the other has just been put in the water at Saint-Nazaire. But the French government has been holding up delivery in retaliation for Moscow’s occupation of Crimea and aggressive action against eastern Ukraine. If Paris holds to its position, the French stand to lose a sale valued at €1.2 billion (or about Cdn$1.82 billion) and to pay large penalties. It’s a difficult situation for anyone to be in, but it is hard to envisage the French allowing delivery of the ships any time soon — especially when the Russians have named the second ship Sevastopol, the home port in Crimea of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
There’s an opportunity here for Canada to help France and itself by buying the two ships. The Vimy Report has it on good authority the Canadian government has in fact considered doing so and that there have been discussions between Canadians and French about it, both before and during the recent visit of French President François Hollande. The latest information, however, suggests Ottawa may have decided not to proceed. If so, Canada will be passing up an opportunity to acquire exactly the kind of ships the Chretien, Martin and Harper governments have all agreed Canada needs.
What’s so great about these ships? The Mistrals are not fighting ships but military-purpose support vessels designed to direct and assist operations ashore, whether military or humanitarian. The French call them “bâtiments de projection et de commandement”. The ships are large and fast, and can carry a military command headquarters, between 450 and 900 troops depending on the duration, dozens of heavy trucks, armoured vehicles and tanks, and provisions to sustain an operation on land. Ideal for small-scale emergency self-sustained military deployments.
The ships are also superb for humanitarian work like disaster relief and rescuing civilians from war zones. The ships can carry six helicopters on deck and 16 more in a hangar below, along with four landing craft, key to delivering supplies and evacuating refugees. The ships can also carry a full medical facility (NATO Role 3) with 70 beds, ICU wards, and advanced diagnostic facilities, equivalent to the kind of modern hospital one would find in a European or North American city of 25,000.
Because of its modular design, the Mistrals can be configured to serve particular purposes at particular times. In July 2006, in the midst of the civil war raging in Lebanon, the very first Mistral was dispatched to deliver several tons (450 pallets) of supplies to the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces there – and to evacuate thousands of French (and Australian) nationals from Beirut. At the height of the evacuation, there were 2200 people on board. Not only were they secure but they were provided with sleeping facilities, washrooms, meals (6600 in 24 hours), and medical care until they could be safely landed. In contrast, Canada was only able to evacuate its citizens in small lots, crammed onto chartered yachts like the aged Blue Dawn with few facilities and no medical assistance. Ironically, Ottawa had turned down an offer from French president Jacques Chirac to help Canadians leave Lebanon.
When the Senate committee on foreign affairs reviewed what had happened in Lebanon, it drew attention to how weak Canada’s response had been compared to that of the US, UK and France. Relying on chartering commercial transport, especially when other countries were competing for the same scarce resources, was not exactly “prudent”, the committee concluded. Canada might be a smaller country with fewer standing military capabilities, but the government needed to look at augmenting its capacity for evacuations overseas.
Canada has taken much pride in its record of peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. But it has been very, very slow to keep up with the state of the art. So when the government has called on the military to urgently despatch forces to troubled parts of the world, the Canadian Armed Forces’ response has usually been ad hoc. The forces’ ability to react has improved immeasurably as a result of its experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it continues to lack essential equipment like the right kind of ships and sufficient numbers of helicopters. As the current commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, Vice Admiral Mark Norman, said in 2012 (when he was still deputy commander),
While we’re very proud of what we have accomplished in the past, it was achieved largely through improvisation. Operations conducted over the past several years, from East Timor in 1999 to Haiti in 2010, underscored a need for the Canadian Forces to consider acquisition of a dedicated platform to support operations from the sea. Even in relatively permissive environments, such operations will typically unfold in manifestly chaotic conditions. In such circumstances, nothing can match the flexibility, adaptability, logistics capacity and strategic effect of a purpose-built amphibious vessel to render assistance.
When Canada first established its reputation as an international peacekeeper, it had the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent to transport its peacekeeping troops to the Middle East. The tragedy today is that official thinking about acquiring new large ships for peacekeeping and humanitarian work began 20 years ago and has hardly advanced a nautical mile – though it is still official policy.
In 1994, the Defence White Paper of the incoming Chretien government flagged the need for a plan to replace the navy’s two replenishment vessels, HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver, while simultaneously ensuring Canada had “sufficient capability to sealift troops, equipment and supplies for multilateral operations.” When the plan was first developed, it provided for three to four ships which could both re-fuel other vessels at sea and provide sealift and support ashore for military forces. In other words, the ships would serve both as standard auxiliary oiler replenishment ships (AORs) for the navy and as joint support ships (JSSs) for all three services.
The plan made good sense, and its essential elements were endorsed by both the Martin and Harper governments which followed. But years of political dithering and hunting for economies have since scaled the plan all the way back to two AORs. Earlier this year, it was announced that both HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver have had to be retired because of engine room fires and corrosion. This has left the navy without any AORs at all and no firm date for when construction on new ones might begin – and it has once again left unfulfilled Canadians’ desire to acquire the means for Canada to return to being a world-class provider of peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.
Meanwhile, there are two Mistrals in the doldrums. If the government is worried about the cost of acquiring them, maybe it should do what the Australians did a few years ago – buy an oil tanker from the Hyundai Mipo Dockyard (which builds 70 ships a year) to fuel the six frigates and three submarines it has at sea and put the $2.6 billion it has budgeted for new support ships into acquiring the kind Canadians have wanted for 20 years.
Impossible? No more so than Canada finally deciding it wasn’t going to settle for leasing Russian or Ukrainian aircraft to move its military equipment or relief supplies to places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Haiti. In July 2006, the same month as the Lebanon evacuations, the government issued a notice that it intended to purchase four large Boeing C-17 transports and it took delivery of the first one almost exactly a year later.
In an April 2014 editorial for the Canadian American Strategic Review, Steve Daly has suggested two names for the Canadian Mistrals: HMCS Juno Beach and HMCS Vimy Ridge.