A "generational challenge" in naval readiness
Angus Topshee, the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, on thin crews and late boats
That was a hell of a video that Vice Admiral Angus Topshee, the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, put on Youtube this week. Topshee depicts a Navy in a “critical state,” facing “very serious challenges right now that could mean we fail to meet our force posture and readiness commitments in 2024 and beyond.”
The Navy’s not alone — the Air Force and Army are “confronted with similar challenges,” Topshee says in the video. The biggest challenge is that the Navy’s getting smaller, about 14% smaller today than in 2014. The West Coast fleet is “beset with a shortage of qualified techs” and the fleet can only deploy one of its three offshore patrol vessels at a time. The Halifax-class frigates that form the basis of Canada’s oceangoing capability will need to keep floating for 15 more years, even though they should already have been retired. All of the 12 frigates: Topshee’s political masters have made so many commitments there’s no margin for a reduction in the Halifax-class fleet.
Here’s the video:
To borrow a naval term, it’s quite a broadside. So I emailed Topshee on Wednesday and asked for an interview. He wrote back promptly and we were on the phone within hours. Here’s our interview in Q&A format, edited for length.
PW: Are you in the habit of putting out videos that are this stark in their diagnosis? If I went back, would I find one of these every year?
AT: No, there was a unique combination of circumstances that led to video being produced. The promise I made when I took command of the Navy is that we have to be honest. Things are the way they are. They're not necessarily the way we want them to be. And we've got to be very honest about that difference. And so I've tried to be frank, and we try and rebuild trust. And to be completely honest, we went through a cultural crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces. And my feeling is that if you want people to trust you, then you have to be completely open, transparent and honest with them. That's the approach I've taken throughout my tenure in command of the Navy
PW: Is the fact that this video’s on YouTube a reflection of any difficulty you're having getting heard internally?
AT: No. I've shared my assessments with the leadership of the Department, up to and including this minister and the previous Minister. I feel I'm being heard and respected. This was more about, we wanted to put the message out internally. Unfortunately, there's some very specific IT challenges around how we disseminate internal messages. And so [Youtube] was the channel we used.
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PW: You begin by saying, ‘There are very serious challenges right now that mean we could fail to meet our force posture and readiness commitments in 2024 and beyond.’ Is that a statement you could have made any year in the past five years? Or is that a new level of concern?
AT: We've always been on a bit of a glide slope downwards, because we haven't hit recruiting targets for more than the past 10 years. So this has been a steadily growing personnel shortage. It was exacerbated and accelerated by the pandemic. And then coming out of the pandemic, with the very low unemployment rate in Canada and job market that seems to have flipped on its head, in many respects, we're reflecting the marine industry across Canada. So it's not just us. The Coast Guard, shipbuilding, ship maintaining, all of the marine industries are seeing the same shortages of personnel. When I look at navies around the world, the French Navy seems to be doing okay, but otherwise, all of my counterparts report exactly the same problems in terms of attracting [recruits]. Things are coming to a head. And while we are meeting all of our requirements and commitments, and it's my intention to do so next year, I'm being honest about the fact that if a couple of things break badly, we may not be able to do so.
PW: So this is an HR problem — not that dissimilar from what governments are facing in recruiting nurses or teachers?
AT: No, I mean, I would argue that we need to undertake a complete reevaluation, reconsideration of our human resources model. I want us to examine all of the occupations that make up the Navy, how we break out those functions between the different trades within the Navy, both officer and enlisted, how we then turn those trades into an establishment and how we make sure that that establishment is assigned to ships so that we're always producing the number of sailors that we need to go to sea. We need to make sure our training system is is as efficient as possible so that we're not wasting anyone's time. Sailors need to train at sea. Well, you can learn some stuff in the classroom, but the bulk of experience for sailors is built at sea. So as the number of opportunities to go to sea diminishes — because of the the number of ships that are operating at the moment — I want to take full advantage of every one of those days.
PW: You say you are unlikely to hit your targets this year for effective strength.
AT: Projecting ahead, it's not looking good for this year. And we can't afford to miss it next year. Now, part of that is intake. Part of that is also taking the people who are on what we call the basic training list — so they've been enrolled into the Canadian Forces, but they've not yet reached what we call “occupational functional point” — we can accelerate that process. In fact, the Navy is the slowest of all three services to get from recruit to occupational functional point. We can control that. That's part of this work we need to do to reshape our HR. In fact I’m in Calgary right now meeting with all of the Navy's leadership, talking about exactly those things. How are we going to make sure that we do this work, so that I get more people contributing to operating the Navy as opposed to training?
PW: It's slower to train up recruits in the Navy, because you have to put them on a ship, and that has logistical implications? Whereas in the army, I could take them to an open field?
AT: The commander of the army is going to hate me for saying this, but it’s always been easier to raise an army than to generate a navy or build an air force. Fundamentally, the basic core tasks of an infantry soldier really come down to those individual capabilities that can be trained relatively quickly. Now, actually commanding and controlling and employing that army is a fantastically complicated thing. But it starts with the infantry soldier: relatively easy to build. The training required to generate a sailor is pretty significant. The Mar-Techs that I talked about? [In the video, Topshee says the navy has been losing a highly-trained marine technician every two days.] You know, we're talking five to 10 years to get to the level of training and experience that they require. So that's why, you know, we need to make some immediate changes to stabilize ourselves. To grow back to health is going to take time. If we don't change the system, it will take virtually forever to get back. So we need to make changes to allow us to accelerate how quickly we can do this. Because the honest truth is that while we're short sailors at the moment, we would probably actually need more sailors to meet the needs of the future fleet that we're building right now
PW: On the West Coast, you say you are having to prioritize the Halifax class [the big ocean-going frigates that form the Navy’s backbone] at the expense of the Kingston class [smaller ships primarily for coastal service and patrol].
AT: Historically, the West Coast has always had greater personnel generation problems. Partly because there's a there's a smaller personnel footprint over there. So when you're short a number of sailors you feel it more acutely, because the denominator is smaller. So yes, that's the coast where we've felt the pressures most acutely. We're seeing similar pressures building on the East Coast, but we have not been forced to make any changes. So what we've done is we've made sure that we can continue to operate our frigates, because right now the West Coast is deploying two frigates, Ottawa and Vancouver, in the Indo-Pacific alongside Asterix [a supply ship]. We need to sustain that level of commitment to meet the requirements of the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
PW: You say you need the Halifax class frigates to last another 15 years, because you need to have a full complement of the new ships before you can stand down the old ones. They've already been in the water for as long as they were ever supposed to. And now you need them for 15 more years.
AT: Yeah, I mean, that's just the reality of the pace of shipbuilding. In a perfect world we would have made decisions 15 years ago about what new ship we were going to build. And we’d be delivering it today. But we're not. So the Halifax class was designed to last 30 years. And we're going to need it to last longer. In our history, this is not unusual. The reason we're spending extra money on maintenance is, now we have to replace parts that were never intended to be replaced. So those are costs that we weren't anticipating, and maintenance work that the ship wasn't designed to do. We have to machine parts that don't exist.
PW: You don't have a lot of margin for error. You've got 12 frigates in the fleet, and they're all spoken for, for the foreseeable future.
AT; Yeah, that's pretty much it. The reality of the age of the fleet is that there are three frigates that are in deep maintenance periods, that can last up to two years, at any one time. One will be in Esquimalt, another one in the Davie Yard in Quebec City, and then one at the Irving Yard in Halifax. So those three ships will be out of service effectively for two years. And then there's another ship for each of those that he's either going into that period or coming out of it…. What that means is that we've effectively got six ships in deep maintenance and six ships in operational status at any one time.
PW: You say in the video that in order to make sure that the Canadian Surface Combatant ships are ready when needed, you've had to make “tough decisions to prioritize schedule over initial capability.” So on their first tour they're not going to have all the bells and whistles that you would have hoped.
AT: That's exactly it. What we'll be delivering in ship 15 is going to be better than what's delivered in ship one because the priority is to make sure that we get ship one delivered as quickly as possible. Because no matter what it has, it's going to be better than the Halifax class. This is a pretty incredibly capable ship. So in a perfect world, the Canadian Surface Combatant has 24 vertical launch cells for missiles. I would like to see that number doubled, or at least at 36. But if I were to try and insist upon that, I would delay that ship by a couple of years. It's just not worth it. We will manage with 24. And then maybe [in ships that get built later], we'll probably look to increase the number of missiles that it can carry.
PW: How long have you been in the Navy?
AT: I joined the Forces in 1990. I got transferred into the Navy in 1993. So I guess I'm at my 30-year mark in the Navy.
PW: This video describes quite a tight squeeze in force posture and readiness. I'm just wondering how it compares against previous situations. Is this the sort of challenge that arises every few years? Or is this something you've never seen before?
AT: It's a generational challenge. I didn't actually go and start my Navy training until the summer of ’96 [after getting his Master’s degree]. So I joined just as we were in the middle of taking delivery of the Halifax class. I joined a Navy that was excited to be delivering and using a brand-new fleet. [The next comparable moment in the Navy’s history] is 10 years away from right now. [In the ’90s,] all of a sudden, we were a world-leading Navy, again, you know, the first Navy to integrate fully into American carrier battle groups, because we could operate on par or better than American escort ships. So I think part of the message of the video is, look, we are in a tough place right now. In a perfect world, we wouldn't be here. But we are. So, rather than complaining about the fact that we are where we are, we need to start fixing the problems.
PW: Have governments made bad decisions that contributed to this tight squeeze?
AT: You know, I've been wrestling with that, because the question comes up a lot, lately. There is no single cause, no single organization, no single entity that is responsible for where we are at right now. For example the most significant challenge we face is with our marine technicians. And that is a problem of the Navy's own making, because of how we managed that trade over the last decades. In a couple of cases, we made some mistakes. In a couple of places, some circumstances happened that we couldn't have predicted. The pandemic certainly didn't help us. So I think this is a collective problem that has a multitude of causes.