K. Joseph Spears

The Department of National Defence (DND)’s Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has a key role to play in marine response in Canada. This critical role is often overlooked and not given much weight in ongoing discussions on marine response capabilities. DND is much more than a secondary resource and is a key partner in any marine response. DND has a deep experience and capability in the marine domain both at sea and in the air, and RCN has a long history of working with the Canadian Coast Guard in the Arctic and in marine search and rescue.

RCN’s ability to perform yeoman service has been proven in past marine incidents and in other areas of Canada’s ocean governance. A good example is search and rescue. DND is the lead agency for search and rescue and operates the three Joint Rescue Coordination Centres (JRCCs) in Canada which coordinate marine and aviation search and rescue activities, working with a variety of partners, principally the Canadian Coast Guard. DND does a noteworthy job in an immense search and rescue zone mandated under international law in the Arctic, and in our offshore waters. This work takes place under challenging conditions in remote locations, often without having the benefit of state-of-the-art equipment. For example, our search aircraft do not have the various optical and infrared sensors that the United States Coast Guard and many police forces are equipped with. Such sensors would have proven helpful and might have allowed Royal Canadian Air Force search aircraft tasked with searching for the missing crewmember of RMS Queen Mary 2 off Newfoundland earlier this month to produce a positive outcome.

The skillsets and resource capability of DND and, in particular RCN, with most of its vessels being equipped with a shipborne helicopter, even if these are older than the crew flying them, provide a very powerful capability to an marine response on-scene commander. Recent international examples of assistance include the grounded cruise ship M/V Costa Concordia, and the search for Malaysia Air flight MH 370 that had a very large military marine response component.

RCN provides a solid and constant capability for dealing with a wide range of marine response incidents in its role of defender of the realm, and in its constabulary role in Canadian waters. All Canadian vessels have a secondary role as search and rescue vessels, and RCN vessels are no exception. This is not a new role. In the past, we saw a direct CCG and DND response in the last major tanker oil spill incidents in Canada, the M/V Arrow and M/V Kurdistan.

We recently witnessed RCN’s role in marine response in the March 2015 grounding and subsequent flooding of the engine room of the icebreaker CCG Ann Harvey off the south coast of Newfoundland. The RCN Atlantic Fleet Diving Unit’s highly trained divers and their specialized diving equipment were airlifted to the casualty, while the RCN warship HMCS Charlottetown stood by along with other Canadian Coast Guard vessels as emergency repairs were completed in an exposed anchorage during blizzard conditions. CCG Ann Harvey was then successfully towed to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to undergo more permanent repairs.

During times of shrinking federal budgets, we do not have the luxury of operating a specialist fleet of marine response vessels –instead, we must develop a vessel fleet whose secondary function is to provide adequate response to marine emergencies. We need to think about configuring vessels for multiple purposes. Such vessels would provide RCN with greater flexibility, and would be a force multiplier.

RCN provides a solid and consistent capability for dealing with a wide range of marine response incidents with a variety of skillsets including its warships which are an integral part of this capability. RCN is a key component of the government of Canada’s vessel fleet and arguably needs to be more integrated into marine response exercises and thinking. RCN should not be thought of as merely a secondary partner. Canada needs to consider the idea that all government marine assets need to become components of Canada’s ongoing ocean governance strategy, so that we can do more with less in a time of shrinking budgets.

The recent decommissioning of the 40 year RCN replenishment vessels HMCS Preserver and HMCS Protecteur has had a serious negative impact on Canada’s ability to respond to marine incidents in its coastal waters, independent of the impacts that the unavailability of these vessels will have on RCN’s fighting capability. While the primary function of these RCN replenishment vessels was to refuel and resupply a naval task force at sea far from their homeport, these vessels had many other uses, and were handy to have in Canada’s marine response tool kit. These vessels provided a solid capability and a useful platform with its shipborne helicopters, communications system, medical facilities, accommodation and food service, and supply and refuelling capability. They were also well suited to serve as command vessels. Along much of Canada’s 244,000 km of coastline, there is very little infrastructure, and this vessel capability would be required for a sustained marine response. The importance of these replenishment vessels was highlighted in the 1998 Swiss Air 111 crash off Peggy’s Cove with the use of HMCS Preserver as a command vessel for the underwater recovery as part of the accident investigation led by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

The recent announcement by the government of Canada with respect to Québec’s Davie shipyards Project Resolve to provide a modified container ship to serve as an interim replenishment vessel for the RCN is a good step forward. Project Resolve is an example of alternative service delivery that can provide Canada with a variety of marine capabilities in a cost-effective manner for the RCN and other agencies. While this project is new for Canada, it is not unique to other countries who regularly charter vessels for marine use. While this is seen as a “stopgap measure” until the two new Berlin class resupply vessels are completed in 2022, this project needs to be examined as a model for providing marine capability in a cost effective and creative way.

RCN is a key component of the federal government’s vessel fleet and this marine capability and involvement arguably needs to be more integrated into Canada’s marine response capabilities. Canada’s ongoing ocean governance strategy requires having multiple uses for government marine assets. We a need to consider mixed-use capability for all RCN vessels, existing and planned. The same applies to alternative service delivery for various marine response capabilities. For example, in the Arctic we desperately need a salvage capability. Salvage service in the summer months could be provided by a commercial vessel under charter to the Canadian Coast Guard or RCN, or combination of the two agencies in a cost sharing arrangement. The CCG Ann Harvey incident highlights this requirement. We first have to identify the problem and then examine how we can provide this marine response in a cost-effective manner in the 21st century especially as Canada’s Arctic waters opens up and the AOPS are built. Project Resolve gives back to Canada a robust marine response capability with the provision of a replenishment ship. The grey hulls of Canada’s RCN warships have an important role to play in marine response which cannot be overlooked.

Joe Spears of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group is been involved operational in various types marine response. He is been a participant in Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies’ Maritime Security Conference and was a panelist on the Arctic Marine Response Panel held at the Royal Canadian Navy’s Maritime Warfare Centre at CFB Halifax.