Ottawa, August 9: For the first time in eight years, Canadian warships are not involved in either of two NATO naval task forces charged with patrolling European waters and defending against Russian threats.
The revelation has cast a spotlight on what experts say are the growing trade-offs that Canada is having to make with its navy, which is struggling with a shrinking fleet of aging ships and a lack of trained sailors.
Canada had been a consistent presence in the Standing NATO Maritime Groups since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, deploying at least one Halifax-class frigate to the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean on a rotational basis.
The federal Liberal government made a point of deploying a second frigate in March as part of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That ship had been planned for a months-long deployment in the Indian Ocean and Middle East.
But Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande says Canada does not have any frigates attached to either of the NATO naval groups since HMCS Montreal and HMCS Halifax returned to their home port last month.
Lamirande linked the decision not to send any new frigates to Europe to the deployment of two such vessels to the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the Halifax-class fleet’s maintenance and training requirements.
Canada has instead deployed two smaller Kingston-class coastal defence vessels to work with a different NATO naval force that is focused on finding and clearing enemy mines.
Chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said that will help Canadian sailors gain experience in an important area of naval warfare while still showing Canada’s commitment to European security.
But he conceded in an interview with The Canadian Press on Monday, “we are stretched from a resource perspective. And so we’ve got to make those decisions as to where we invest, and when we invest.”
He added that he approved the decision to send two frigates to the Pacific, where tensions between the West and China are growing, “because we want to deliberately increase our presence in Asia-Pacific because we are a Pacific nation.”
China last week launched a massive military exercise around Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing considers its territory after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. The exercise came amid growing fears of a potential Chinese invasion.
University of Calgary shipbuilding expert Timothy Choi said the decision to send two frigates to Europe at the same time earlier this year played a large role in constraining Atlantic Fleet’s ability to send another frigate in the short term.
While Canada has 12 frigates, Perry said the navy’s maintenance and training requirements mean only a handful are available to deploy at any given time. Canada used to also have three destroyers, but those vessels were retired in 2014.
Adding to the difficulty is the growing age of the frigates, which entered service in the 1990s and are becoming increasingly more challenging to fix and maintain, according to both senior officers and internal reports.