Shift warships from Halifax to CFB Esquimalt, defence analysts urge

OTTAWA — Canada should get out of its Cold War mindset and move the majority of its warships from Halifax to the B.C. coast in response to the Chinese navy’s aggressive military buildup, defence analysts say.

The U.S. government has announced its plan to put 60 per cent of its naval assets on its west coast by 2020 as part of its plan to make the 21st century “America’s Pacific Century” — a term coined by former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

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The Canadian military’s tiny fleet of warships is split up on a 60-40 basis favouring the Atlantic coast, with seven frigates and two destroyers in Halifax compared to five frigates and one destroyer in Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt.

When submarines, maritime patrol and supply vessels are included, there are a total of 18 vessels assigned to Halifax, where approximately 5,000 military and 2,000 civilian personnel are located. That compares with 15 vessels assigned to Esquimalt, where roughly 4,000 military and 2,000 civilian employees are stationed.

Analyst David McDonough said Ottawa should reverse the emphasis, with at least 60 per cent of the frigates and destroyers in B.C.

He also argued that once the submarine fleet is fully operational, two of the three subs in service (one will always be in the Esquimalt drydock undergoing repairs and upgrades) should be based out at Esquimalt.

“Nowadays, the threat on the East Coast is pretty mild, whereas the Pacific is a more dangerous environment,” McDonough, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of B.C.’s political science department, said in an interview.

The U.S., Japan and Australia have all taken steps to expand their military muscle in response to the Chinese military’s naval buildup. Fears of a potential Pacific conflict have been exacerbated by China’s territorial disputes with the Philippines and Japan.

McDonough argued in a blog post last month that Canada could use its Victoria-class diesel submarines to develop an anti-submarine warfare capability in the region, though such a commitment would ultimately require costly purchases of a new fleet of subs and a replacement for the aged Aurora maritime patrol aircraft.

Such a contribution would help the cash-strapped Americans “at a time when China is expanding its own naval fleet and showing greater assertiveness in its maritime disputes with its neighbours,” he wrote.

Canada could pay for higher capital costs by reducing personnel, he argued.

Roger Girouard, a retired rear admiral who now teaches at the Royal Roads University in Colwood, says Canada should seek to become a “Pacific power.”

“Canada should not expect to make windfall profits from the positive outcomes of Asian markets if it is completely unwilling to invest in the security and stability that creates the positive environment for these very markets to flourish,” Girouard wrote in an essay published by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

A shift of assets and employees from Halifax to Esquimalt would face some tough political hurdles that start with Peter MacKay — an ambitious Nova Scotian and by far Atlantic Canada’s most powerful minister — who recently moved from the defence to the justice portfolio.

The Halifax Chronicle Herald noted last week that the Halifax mayor and provincial politicians kicked up a huge fuss four years ago when the navy contemplated, but later abandoned, the notion of moving a single frigate to Esquimalt.

“There’s a certain military tradition in Halifax, so I can imagine they might not be that friendly to the notion of having more warships in Esquimalt than Halifax,” said McDonough.

But he said the “Pacific pivot” won’t result in a serious blow to Halifax’s status as a naval hub, given Canada’s commitment to North Atlantic Treaty Organization operations and exercises. Halifax will also be the base for the Arctic patrol vessels once they are built.

While a spokeswoman for new Defence Minister Rob Nicholson didn’t reply to request for comment Friday, federal officials have argued in the past that it is making a strong effort to respond to the Pacific’s soaring importance.

Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and MacKay, when he headed the department, have taken steps to improve military ties with Asia-Pacific countries in concert with Canada’s successful bid to enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks involving the U.S. and a number of important regional economic players.

And last year, more than 1,400 Canadian military personnel took part in a U.S.-led military exercise that has taken place every two years since 1974. That was a record number, with Canadian officers occupying senior roles for the first time, McDonough noted.

Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, who stepped down in June as head of the Royal Canadian Navy, told a Senate committee last year that Canadian naval forces have been “as present as we could be” in the Asia-Pacific in recent years.

“I believe we have balanced — to the best of our ability — the ships that we have and the sea days that we have with the opportunities to work alongside our allies in the Pacific, in the European NATO area and, of course, in other areas of the world, such as, increasingly in the past 20 years, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, especially in the counter-narcotics mission, and in the Arctic,” he explained.

“It is a question of balancing all of these priorities to get maximum strategic effect for Canada.”

But retired commodore Eric Lerhe, who also favours more forces in the Pacific, told the Chronicle Herald that Canada has put only “token” resources in the Pacific.

“We need something to demonstrate this is real, that this is a credible, long-term, and, I argue, forward-presence contribution.”

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