While Canada dithers over warships, drones devastate the Russian fleet


If it is possible to sink or damage the flagship of the Russian fleet with a few drones, we may be on the cusp of a major technology shock

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Canada may have (unwittingly) played a part in changing the course of naval warfare by developing and producing the maritime drones that possibly crippled Russia’s Black Sea fleet during a recent attack on the port of Sevastopol.

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In the fog of war, a great deal of qualification is required. But what is known is that at the end of October, speedboat-sized unmanned surface vehicles packed with explosives drove directly at the frigate the Admiral Makarov, flagship of the Black Sea fleet, after the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva. The Ukrainians released video of the nighttime raid that appears to end in an explosion. There are no photos or videos to confirm that the frigate sustained damage and the Russian Ministry of Defense said that only one vessel was slightly damaged after an attack by eight aerial drones and seven unmanned surface vehicles (USVs).

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What can be said is that a country with no navy to speak of has effectively bottled up Russia’s naval power in the Crimean Peninsula, daring it to venture into open water.

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Tayfun Ozberk, writing in Naval News, suggested that the attack ushered in a new era in naval warfare, where low-cost, expendable drones wreaked havoc on multi-million dollar warships.

The Canadian connection is that Canada has been at the forefront of marine drone technology, with such companies as QinetiQ producing unmanned surface vehicles (USV) at its manufacturing plant in Medicine Hat, Alta. (UK-based QinetiQ bought Meggitt Target Systems in 2016. Meggitt and Nova-Scotia-based shipyard AF Theriault pioneered the Hammerhead USV, of which more than 500 units have been sold worldwide.)

It is understood the UK military purchased Hammerheads and their command-and-control systems, and then weaponized them.

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As the National Post reported, the Ukrainians may also have experimented with USVs powered by Sea-Doo brand jet skis.

The Department of National Defense could not confirm that Hammerhead USVs were used in the attack, or that any Canadians were involved in training the Ukrainians in their use.

The Russians have blamed British navy specialists, a claim the British deny, and we may never know the truth. But it seems highly likely that a Canadian technology — originally intended to help warships defend against attack by high-speed small boats after al-Qaida’s suicide attack against the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 — was instrumental in what is likely to be a major re -assessment of naval warfare.

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Which brings us neatly to Canada’s plan to build 15 warships at an acquisition cost of $80 billion and a life-cycle price-tag of $300 billion.

The Canadian Surface Combatants program was originally sold to the Conservative government as costing around $14 billion. By the time it was announced in 2008, the plan to create a domestic shipbuilding industry had risen to $26 billion.

In the years since, DND has attempted to frustrate all attempts to gauge the costs to taxpayers but redoubtable parliamentary budget officers have kept pressing. In 2017, the PBO estimated the ships would cost $62 billion; In 2019, the figure was updated to $69.8 billion and most recently to $80 billion.

Such massive price inflation is partly because of delays — the first ship is not expected to be delivered before the end of the decade and the 15th and final vessel will enter service in 2048-49 — 40 years after the project was announced.

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Writing in the National Post on the weekend, retired naval commander Roger Cyr called the project “ludicrous.” He pointed out that changes to the original Type 26 frigate designed by Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems have added 900 tonnes to the design, making it double the weight of the Halifax class frigate it is replacing — with a commensurate increase in cost.

The modifications are being carried out to accommodate the demands of the navy, which wants an anti-submarine and anti-air warfare capability.

However, as Cyr points out: “Surely our requirements are not so unique as to require changes so drastic that they would multiply the cost by three?”

He said DND should mix the Type 26 ships with smaller Type 31 frigates that could be bought for under $1 billion each. Currently, each of the 15 frigates on order will cost more than $5 billion each — more than the British spent recently building the Prince of Wales aircraft carrier.

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Writing in the Hill Times this week, Alan Williams, a former assistant deputy minister of materiel at National Defense, said without a change of course, the acquisition costs for the surface combatants alone will consume two-thirds of the Defense Department’s capital funds over the next three decades.

Pierre Poilievre, the new Conservative leader, has not shown much interest in defense issues to date but what Williams called “the unfolding CSC calamity” has more legs than any number of picayune ArriveCan scandals.

Williams is absolutely right in saying the warships program is “shameful, wasteful and out of control.”

But in light of recent developments in theatre, it is also entirely possible that this is the very definition of admirals fighting the last war all over again.

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If it is possible to sink or damage the flagship of the Russian fleet with a few drones, we may be on the cusp of a technology shock similar to the one that saw wooden-hulled ships armed with muzzle-loaded cannon replaced with steel-hulled battle cruisers and submarines at the turn of the 20th century.

Instead of tying up two-thirds of Canada’s military capital in surface vessels that may soon prove to be too vulnerable to leave port, perhaps resources should be redirected towards capabilities that might be more effective in the defense of Canada’s North — such as building new submarines . As one defense source put it: “If you want to do area denial in the Arctic, you need submarines, not warships.”

The opposition’s inattention to defense issues is only surpassed by the Liberal government’s neglect of all things military. There was no mention of defense spending in the recent fall update and nothing has yet emerged from the “swift” defense policy review promised in last spring’s budget.

Just when Canada most needs innovation and strategic thinking, its national security policy is beset by stagnation and myopia.

• Email: jivison@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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