Canada's Role in Global Maritime Security
Seth G. Jones: Welcome, everyone.
I have the great honor of introducing Vice Admiral Angus Topshee, who’s the 38th commander of the Royal Canadian Navy. One of the highlights of his time at sea was his command of her majesty’s Canadian ship Algonquin in 2009 to 2010, and a close second his three years in command of Canada’s Pacific Fleet. He also deployed to Afghanistan for all of 2011 as director of Afghan national police training.
And before taking command of the Royal Canadian Navy, he had the honor and pleasure of commanding maritime forces Pacific and Joint Task Force Pacific located where my wife is from, in the Esquimalt, B.C., Victoria, B.C. area. I have to say, though, my favorite part of your biography, the official biography on the Canadian defense website, is that he has deployed in ships around the world and has accumulated countless sea stories involving pirates, sharks, terrorists, volcanoes, whales, fires, and all other things which make life at sea a true adventure. Sounds like a fantastic career, and really appreciate you spending some time at CSIS.
Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee: Yeah. It’s absolutely a pleasure. And, you know, for me, the value proposition of the Navy – join the Navy, see the world – has really come true. And so I’ve had the pleasure of sailing in just about every ocean and sea in the world. There’s a few things I never got the chance to do. Never got around Cape Horn, one of the things I really wanted to do. As a Canadian navigator, wanted to sail through the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes. Never got to do that. I thought those were the only two things that Canadian Navy could do that I really wanted to do, until in 2021 Harry DeWolf went through the Northwest Passage. And now there’s three things that I feel I’ve missed out on in my career at sea. But I’m still going to try and figure out how I can get those done.
Dr. Jones: (Laughs.) Well, you’ve also added some things that you probably did not expect to do when you joined the Canadian Navy, including police training in Afghanistan. I think your vast naval career, it did not seem entirely like a logical choice. But serving in Afghanistan myself, we had Navy, Air Force, Army, and other forces that had to – were called to duty and responded.
VAdm Topshee: Yeah, I mean, it was a really interesting point in my career. I went straight from commanding an air defense destroyer, deployed for five months, to the middle of a landlocked desert training a police force. But what I learn(ed) is that the skills we teach military officers prepare us to do a whole range of different things. And my job was not to tell them – teach them how to be police, but to make sure that the system that would deliver that training could work across the entire state of Afghanistan.
Dr. Jones: That’s great. Before we start and get into more serious issues, I have to say that the Canadian military leadership is in Washington this week as part of the Partners in Defense. And in quintessential Canadian fashion, the gift that was given out to those U.S. military and other officials there, including me, was a puck, to commemorate the U.S.-Canadian defense relationship. So I won’t – I promise I won’t ask you tough questions about the state of the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the NHL, or Gary Bettman, or anything like that. We can stick to Navy issues. But welcome, again, to CSIS.
VAdm Topshee: Thank you very much. And yeah, it is a bit problematic, but I don’t think we’ve won the Stanley Cup this millennium, so we got some work to do. (Laughs.)
Dr. Jones: Maybe that’ll change. I will say, as now an avid Washington Capitals fan, we went through many years of finishing the regular season first, or some cases second, and losing in the first round of the playoffs. So there is sometimes a light at the end of the tunnel.
VAdm Topshee: Hopefully, I think the Toronto Maple Leafs have been waiting for that light to reappear since 1967. So it’s been a while.
Dr. Jones: OK, well, there’s always – there’s always next year.
There has been some news coverage – and I was just recently in Taiwan to see President Tsai and and the national security leadership. A U.S.-guided missile destroyer and a Canadian frigate, the HMCS Ottawa, I believe, recently sailed through the Taiwan Straits. And I’m just wondering, kind of more broadly, from an operational and tactical level, what are you – what are you doing in the Taiwan Straits and in the South China Sea? And what’s the mission there? And then just to take a step back at the strategic level, what’s the broader Canadian naval approach to the Pacific?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah, so our approach to the Pacific became a lot simpler when the government released its Indo-Pacific strategy just over a year ago. And that’s a really well-written strategy that highlights the challenges in the region and the need for a rules-based international order. Among other things, it commits Canada to deploying at least three frigates a year into the region. So we did that this year with Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver, as well as one of our replenishment ships. So we’re there in force. And the goal of the Navy basically is to uphold that rules-based international order. So to make sure that as we operate we do so in compliance with the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea.
And with regard to Taiwan Strait transits, if you’re heading from the South China Sea up to, you know, enforce sanctions off of Korea, which is one of the tasks we take on, then the logical route to go was through the Taiwan Strait. And that’s in accordance with international law. So we do those transits.
Dr. Jones: So one issue that certainly has come up is the Chinese have not always responded cooperatively to Canadian, U.S., U.K., or other – or other activity in that area. So recently a Chinese war plane, a J-11, fired flares in front of Canadian military helicopter that, least news reports were, that first it was in international waters in the South China Sea, that was involved in – according to some newspapers – monitoring Chinese submarines. So and I think there’s a great quote from a Canadian defense official saying that the risk to a helicopter in that instance is that the flares moving into the rotor blades or the engine. So this was categorized as both unsafe, and non-standard, and unprofessional by the Chinese.
You’ve just outlined some of the actions that the Canadians are taking in partnership with the U.S. in these areas. Can you talk a little bit about sort of are you seeing more frequent activity along these lines? And how do you mitigate it? I mean, you’re operating in international waters, but we have seen – just having been there – we’re seeing more incidents like this to take place. So how do you – how do you – how do you deal with them?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah, so there is actually an approach that it’s called CUES, the Convention for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which is part of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, which has outlined if you encounter a warship from another country how do you signal your intentions to make sure that there’s no misunderstanding or miscalculation. Unfortunately, we’ve seen some Chinese vessels and some Chinese aircraft that don’t always comply with that approach, and have operated in an unsafe and unprofessional manner, and specifically involving Ottawa’s helicopter. That was, in our view, it approached within 100 feet, it fired flares in advance of the helicopter. And so that was not safe or professional. And the Canadian helicopter was operating more than 20 miles offshore. So it was clearly in international waters at the time.
Dr. Jones: So, more broadly, just staying with the Pacific, one – if we can just pull up one of the slides for a moment – I mean, the distances that we’re talking about, even between here – so, Esquimalt – and Japan, so not even yet the Taiwan Straits, are significant. Does that tyranny of distance present some challenges for the Navy as you move such a large distance, your ships?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah, it certainly does. In Canada, we have a tendency to think of the Atlantic and the Pacific as similar. And you can cross the entire Atlantic Ocean in seven days. In the Pacific, from Esquimalt, you can get to Hawaii in seven days. And then you still got to make your way to Guam and back up to Tokyo. It’s about 21 days to get all the way across the Pacific Ocean. So it is a massive ocean. And obviously that factors into things. And so when we’re on the far side of it, we’re a long way from home. We’re looking for support from allies. We’ve got a great, robust network of allies and partners in the region that we work with. And so part of the ongoing commitment to the Indo-Pacific strategy is to be a part of that region and to recognize that Canada is a Pacific nation.
Which is something most Canadians – we don’t tend to think of ourselves like that. We’re very mindful of Europe. We think naturally of the Atlantic and that way across. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’ve been a founding member of NATO, so it’s natural. But we are a Pacific nation. And increasingly, you’ll see the Navy more and more present. In fact, we’ve shifted the weight of our efforts to the Pacific.
Dr. Jones: Well, I was – just to say, for anybody that’s visited the west coast of Canada, Vancouver, Victoria, or other cities like that, the influence of the Indo-Pacific is clear in those cities. Populations that have moved there. So I think that is – one of the reasons you’re here, the main reason you’re here, is to coordinate, cooperate with U.S. military officials. Can you talk a little bit along those lines too about, you know, some of the primary reasons you’re here? Thankfully, we now have a confirmed chief of naval operations. You don’t have these legislative issues that we seem to have these days, but can you talk a little about interoperability and some of the issues you’ve discussed with Admiral Franchetti and our senior Coast Guard and naval officers here?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah, absolutely. So we do make sure – I mean, the U.S. is our closest ally. The relationship with the U.S. is very important. We operate with both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard around the world. And so, yeah, I took this opportunity to meet with the Secretary of the Navy, as well as Admiral Franchetti and Admiral Fagan. So really productive meetings with them and their staffs to make sure that as we operate around the world, we coordinate closely.
So, for example, the Coast Guard cooperation, one of the things we do is when we deploy a mission, a ship down to JIATF South, and looking for drugs and other things around – on either side of Central America, we embark a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment. So that’s an evidence of that close cooperation. And what that does is it enables our ship to go out looking for drug smuggling. If we find it, it’s the Coast Guard law enforcement that does the arrest. And so that way that court proceeding doesn’t tie up my ship or my sailors to prosecute that. And it fits in the same pattern as everything else. And so that’s an example of how that tight cooperation can actually enhance both of our objectives.
Dr. Jones: So what are the primary missions? So JIATF South, based out of Miami area, what are the primary missions that you’re cooperating with the Coast Guard right now? I mean, the one you noted was counterdrug operations, but what are the other missions that you’re involved in as you work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah, so we’ve taken delivery of a new class of Arctic and offshore patrol ships, the Harry DeWolf class. And so they are icebreakers, effectively. So they operate up in the high north. As a result, we’re often working in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, for example, the Healy, which has just completed a Northwest Passage transit and just finishing a circumnavigation of North America. We work with them. And then the other one is fisheries.
So that Indo-Pacific strategy I mentioned also includes money for our Department of Fisheries and Ocean to understand the challenge of fisheries and how to build a sustainable fishery around the world. A lot of the small nations of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, you know, they see climate change as an existential threat, and fish stocks in particular is a major source of their protein. So we’re interested in leveraging our new our offshore patrol vessel and working with the U.S. Coast Guard and other Coast Guard partners to make sure we understand that and can help them address those challenges.
Dr. Jones: One issue you just mentioned, and if we can pull this up, is the Arctic. And I’m curious if you can walk us through right now – and we can keep this on the screen just for a second – what your general sense is of melting of the Arctic and opening up, and what you’re up to in this region.
VAdm Topshee: Yeah. So it’s a challenging region. So climate change is impacting the Arctic probably more than anywhere else in the world. One of the things to understand about the Canadian Arctic is it is extremely sparsely populated. We’ve only got about 200,000 Canadians across a vast expanse. There’s a lot of misunderstandings about that. So, yes, the ice is melting. And we see a smaller and smaller ice extent each year. So around September is sort of the minimum ice extent. And it’s possible at some point, scientists tell us, that we could see the loss of the polar ice cap at that time.
But even with all of that, the Northwest Passage that you see up on that chart, and sort of the pink color on the left-hand side, you can see how complex that routing is. And the most direct route that sort of goes straight through between the islands is actually not the most viable route. Most of the Canadian Arctic is not charted to current standards. So it remains sort of – you’d want to follow in the footsteps of the people who have gone before you. So some passages are good. The way the ice moves around the Arctic as well, so it’s a counterclockwise flow for the Arctic gyre. So it all tends to come around the North Pole counterclockwise and pile up on the western edge of the Canadian Arctic in the Beaufort Sea. That complicates access into that area.
And then, as you can see, you know, the most direct route across the North Pole would be actually right through the North Pole, across the pole of inaccessibility, or along the northern sea route that Russia operates. Those are more viable, more direct shipping routes. So we don’t see the Northwest Passage as becoming a main shipping route for anyone other than those who are going into the Canadian Arctic for some reason. And there’s a number of resources in our Arctic. We’ve got a large iron ore mine on Baffin Island, for example. Northwest Territories has some of the largest diamond reserves in the world. And we know that there are other minerals and resources that might be exploited up there.
Dr. Jones: So one issue that you just brought up, which is a little bit of the competitive nature of the Arctic, is we have tracked recently, including with satellite imagery and tracking ships, the Russians sending crude oil on non-ice-class tankers through the Arctic, and also shipping nuclear fuel across the northern sea route on a cargo ship that actually was not specialized in the transport of nuclear fuel. All these issues and increasing incidents along these lines raise lots of questions about what competition looks like. And obviously, in addition to that, you’ve got Russian subs operating in and around the Arctic. What do you see as the evolving nature of competition in this region?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah. So it’s concerning for us. Now, there is a framework that allows us to resolve all of that. The United Nation Convention on Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, it has an article, actually Article 234, which allows states with ice-covered waters to make regulations to preserve the pristine nature and, you know, particularly vulnerable status of those areas. And so, we’ve enforced that and enshrined that in our regulations. And so that’s exactly what the Russians are doing with ships that are not certified to carry oil would not be permitted in Canadian waters. We also enforce those out beyond, you know, our actual territorial waters up to the 200-mile limit, to make sure that nothing can jeopardize our resources, our use of the waters.
At the moment, there’s a moratorium on fishing in the high seas of the Arctic, which we think is a really good idea, as we understand how do we make sure that any fishery that might happen up there be sustainable? And then we are concerned. We’ve seen a military buildup in Russia’s north. Now, if you understand that about 22 percent of their GDP comes from their Arctic region you can sort of understand, OK, it makes sense they’d want to protect all of that. But what’s a defensive posture to them can also be the base for an offensive operation. We don’t anticipate a war in the Arctic over the Arctic, but we definitely – it’s the principal avenue of approach for Russia to North America. And so, you know, we’re paying close attention to that. NORAD, in particular, North American Aerospace Defense Command out of Colorado Springs, is very focused on making sure that we understand everything that’s happening across the North Pole and in the Arctic region.
Dr. Jones: So a couple of questions, since we’re talking briefly about the Russians right now and Russian activity. I was in Europe last week and spoke to a range of European officials. And one of the concerns recently has been the maritime threat to what people may call sort of gray zone activity, the maritime threat to pipelines, oil, gas pipelines, fiber optic underwater cables. And so recently we saw what appears to be an attack, likely a Russian attack, on the Baltic connector pipeline between Sweden and Estonia. May have been partly in response to Sweden’s decision to move into NATO. What are you – what are you seeing on the – in terms of the gray zone threat? And how are you thinking about responding to it, even deterring that kind of activity, if it’s possible?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah. So all of that begins with the best possible domain awareness. And I think all of, you know, partner nations have realized the need for us to really understand what is on the surface and certainly on the bottom of the ocean? Where are all the cables and pipelines and other things? And so how do we make sure that we can understand what’s happening in that and watch for potentially, exactly as you say, hostile activities, things that would try and disrupt our use of those?
It’s a challenging problem. Oceans are massive. And so to try and monitor all of that space is quite difficult. It’s something we need to do in cooperation with our allies. I know that NATO is seized of that challenge, because of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipeline incidents, and trying to make sure that we can do a better job of tracking and, at least, attributing responsibility for those, if they happen. Prevention really comes down to one of those fundamentals of the military, which is deterrence is the first and best way to prevent it. And then after that, is to make sure we have a response capability if necessary.
Dr. Jones: So how do you deter it? I mean, the challenge with countries below the threshold of conventional war is it gets harder to deter? In some cases, these fiber optic cables, as we’ve looked at them, are pretty thin. They’re in areas that aren’t closely monitored or have ships there. Same thing with oil and gas pipelines. How do you think about deterrence in these areas? And how much is actually really achievable, from a deterrence perspective?
VAdm Topshee: So it’s tough, right? So the deterrence by denial is really what we’re trying to do, is to try and figure out how do we make sure that we can see this and anticipate it coming, and position something in the place to say: Look, don’t do this, and we will prevent you from doing it. And then naming and shaming. You know, being able to attribute responsibility to these actions, and hoping that the court of public opinion and this sort of international condemnation would ensure that countries don’t do those things any further.
But at the end of the day, we also, I think, need to start to discuss what is an armed attack, what is unacceptable, and all of these. And those are tough questions that we want to be really careful about analyzing. We’re also conscious of the harms to the environment that can happen when you, you know, destroy pipeline infrastructure and cause oil spills or a gas spills, and things like that. So it’s a complicated thing. But, again, all of this starts by making sure we understand everything that’s happening on and under the waters. And so that’s the major focus of –
Dr. Jones: And that’s really an intelligence issue. And I think that goes well beyond the Canadian Navy, too. Its where satellite imagery can be critical and signals intelligence and other aspects of intelligence go well beyond just the Navy too.
VAdm Topshee: That’s right. And also, nowadays, companies are starting to appreciate that it’s helpful if we know where all of their stuff is. And so part of it is, going back to my days as the NORAD air defense planner, of understanding all of your critical infrastructure, what points of vulnerability do you have, mapping out all of those. And that way, you can start to see what are the major risk points that we see? What are the targets that offer the maximum value to a potential adversary? And those are probably where we want to first focus our deterrence and detection efforts.
Dr. Jones: So one, you know, interesting and terrible event, frankly, that occurred in in early 2022 was the Russian illegal invasion of Ukraine. The Canadian government has been very responsive, very public about its support to Ukraine. Can you talk a little about when you look at the maritime dimension, people often focus predominantly – even understandably, to some degree – on the land dimension, or the land-air dimension, air defense, cruise missiles. But the Black Sea plays an important role and Ukrainian activity in the Black Sea. What are some of the key lessons that you – that you take away from what has gone on in Ukraine? I mean, it could be on various types of maritime operations, countering activity in in a maritime environment. What are some of the key lessons you take away as you look at Ukraine?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah. So we’re very closely monitoring the situation, obviously. And Canada is providing all possible support to Ukraine as fight to beat off that invasion. It’s certainly had an impact on our readiness, because we’ve been giving them everything we can and working to replace it.
The particular things I look at, you know, one of the first takeaways is the impact when you don’t have free movement of goods on the oceans it can have surprising consequences. So the fact that Ukraine can no longer ship grain out of its port is having consequences in terms of food insecurity in Africa, which adds to the destabilizing trend. We see that navies are not always as ready as they think. I think we were surprised by the sinking of the Moskva on twofold.
One, that’s an air defense cruiser. It should be able to defeat missiles like that. And second, missiles shouldn’t sink ships. So it should have been able to have the damage control capacity to be able to save the ship after that. And so that’s an indication of the level of readiness in the Russian surface fleet is probably not what they thought it wasn’t, and it certainly wasn’t as good as we’d expected it would be. That said, their submarine forces still quite capable. And so we’re not saying the Russian Navy isn’t capable. But I think that was a – definitely a wake-up call for them about their readiness.
And the final thing is just drones, and the – all of the different uncrewed systems that can be used today. The importance of communications to being able to enable those systems. So for me, I want to make sure that all of the sailors in the Royal Canadian Navy are empowered to innovate, because we’re really impressed by what Ukraine has done to take technology, you know, often civilian technology, and create a warfighting purpose and a warfighting effect from it. So I want to make sure my sailors are doing the same things, that they are looking at the problems that they’re going to face, the challenges that they’re going to see, and that we’re able to give them the tools and empower them to find the techniques and tactics that will be successful in maritime warfare.
Dr. Jones: So you mentioned drones. The use of drones, for multiple purposes, has been interesting to follow really for combined arms. When I used MQ-9s predominantly in Afghanistan, it was largely for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, ISR, and occasionally for strike purposes. What we do see in the land war in Ukraine, and in part in the – in the in the sea dimension, the Black Sea dimension, is the use of them for targeting as part of what the Russians call reconnaissance strike complex. For other – it could be air, could be land-based, it could even be sea-based targeting. So drones for spotting, basically, for electronic warfare, for information operations. They’ll take videos of strikes and put it out on social media platforms, in addition to the traditional intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike activity.
So as you look down the road at the evolution in the way drones are being built, and produced, and designed, how do you, from a Canadian Navy standpoint, think about the use of drones? And it’s not just the sort of uncrewed systems, per se, there. We’ve also seen a big increase in the loitering munitions as well. So how are you – how are you thinking about them from a Canadian Navy standpoint, and how to actually use them?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah. So our first challenge is to make sure we can detect them defeat them, right? So for me, it’s about defending my ships and my sailors. And then, yes, you’re absolutely right, we want to make sure that we’re leveraging them as well, because we recognize that the way Ukraine has used some of them to attack the Russian fleet in its harbor seems like a fantastic idea to us, because it extends the complexity that an adversary would have to deal with that period of vulnerability that they face.
We know that they’re fantastic sensors. And so one of the things is, how do we make sure that we are building a network of sensors and we’re able to gather all that information? And more importantly, it’s not just about getting the information. How quickly can we process it and build a proper picture, especially in the sort of confused environment that we’re expecting in times of conflict? So all of that is – for me, it comes down to there’s not going to be one big, magic solution that’s delivered from Navy headquarters. It’s likely going to be a series of innovations at the tactical level that we then look to see what’s successful, how do we scale that, how do we make sure we’ve got effectively an open architecture for tactics, right, that allows all of our people to innovate and to seize these opportunities? Because if we try and do it centrally, we won’t be able to keep up with that. We will be too slow and not meet the need.
Dr. Jones: So when it comes to – I’ve visited a few of the defense companies that are producing various types of drones for the maritime domain. And, you know, one of the things that’s interesting is there are a lot more capabilities on running these drones, flying them off a U.S. aircraft carrier, for example, conducting missions without actually anybody flying them at all. They’re all programmed. There’s an artificial intelligence component to some of them, so they can make some judgment calls along the way. Now, I think from a U.S. standpoint, we’re nowhere near the area of using those kinds of drones for strike. That just raises all kinds of questions. But I’m curious, as you look at some of these technologies, where does artificial intelligence come in? And how much are you integrating it into various components of the – of the navy? The U.S. has also been thinking about it in its air defense capabilities as well, including on the naval side.
VAdm Topshee: Yeah. We’re already using a lot of artificial intelligence, some as simple as just basic algorithms that help us detect and defeat threats and prioritize them. Because when you start to talk about the hypersonic threat to a ship, it moves faster than human comprehension. So we need – we know that we’ll need artificial intelligence in that process. The human will still make the final decision about the use of force, but how we set those up to make sure that we’re – you know, we’re capable of leveraging it, is critically important. Another one is that processing dilemma that I talked about before. So if we are out and we do an intercept of some sort, you know, artificial intelligence can now listen to the tape, quickly do an actual translation of it, and provide us the key points, and allow us then to focus our analysis attempts on the things that we think are most directly relevant at that moment.
Dr. Jones: Yeah. I do want to come back in a moment to some of these technology issues, but I want to get to a few questions that we have from the audience. And we really haven’t even gotten into some issues related to, say, shipyards or the retention and some of the activity you’ve been up to on recruitment. But here’s one question from someone in the audience from the Canadian Center for Strategic Studies.
Has the Royal Canadian Navy identified theatres of contention, aside from the Arctic, in the next decade or even further out up to 30 years? And if so, how does it plan on contributing to efforts in those areas alongside allies? And what are some of the key allies? We’ve gone over this ground a little bit, but I think this is – this opens up sort of an interesting strategic question.
Yeah, it’s a really good way of framing the question. And so one of the challenges we face in Canada is that we don’t have a natural region of the world. You know, so Australia knows it’s centered in the South Pacific, at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. You know, that region of the world and Southeast Asia is clearly where its backyard is. For Canada, you know, surrounded by three oceans, with the U.S. to the south, what is the natural engagement we have? We’ve always had this tie to Europe, but Africa is distant. What exactly would Canada be able to do, you know, in Africa? How do we make a difference in, say, South America or the Caribbean, or in Asia?
So we tend to look at, what are the theaters that are most important? And as the Indo-Pacific strategy identifies, you know, that, you know, so much of the world’s GDP and so much of the world’s population is in that region of the world, that we think that’s the major focus area for us. It’s also a maritime theater, you know? So we really tend to look at, with the army now focused in Latvia as part of Op Reassurance, ensuring that NATO is meaningful, we know that’s really more of a land combat there and against Russia. The air force has got the responsibility for NORAD and the defense of North America because it’s predominantly going to be air attack vectors. And so for the navy, we’re looking at the Indo-Pacific as a maritime theater. Almost all of my colleagues view it the same way.
You know, the old saying is you don’t want to be involved in a land war in Asia. And really what matters there is that free-flowing nature of goods across all of that area, because so much of the world’s manufacturing, so much of the world’s economy, is driven from that region. So many of the world’s people depend on the fish and everything else. So for us, the most important theater really is the Indo-Pacific. And our goal is to make sure that we’re there at all levels. So enforcing the rules-based international order, providing frigates and aircraft where appropriate, but not always using a frigate because a frigate’s not the best fisheries patrol asset. That’s where the Harry DeWolf-class is the ideal sort of constabulary class vessel to be able to go out to little – you know, to small island nations and assist them in protecting their own resources.
Dr. Jones: So I wonder if we can pull up the slide. If you can talk a little about the Canadian challenge in force projection. I mean, you’ve got – you know, we talked a little bit about this earlier, but I think this slide gives us a sense of some of the key areas and distances, not just in the Pacific but also to the European theater, including to Portsmouth. So what are the challenges you face in actually implementing what you’ve just outlined?
VAdm Topshee: Well, that’s exactly it. So when we talked earlier, it’s about 21 days to cross the Pacific Ocean. Well, the distance from Esquimalt to Tokyo is less than the distance up to Nanisivik, our refueling hub in the Arctic. And likewise, the distance from Halifax to Portsmouth is a shorter transit than from Halifax up to Nanisivik. So for us, the Arctic is actually a more distant theater than the far sides of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It’s also an expeditionary theater. So that’s a real challenge for us, because there’s only 200,000 people up there. In winter, most of the food they depend on is flowing in. Non-perishables are barged in, in the summer. The fuel that they depend on is barged in, in the summer.
So it’s not like another port, where traditionally when a ship pulls into a harbor, like a Singapore, and then we’ll refill – you know, we’ll refuel, you know, lots of food, lots of supplies, and all that stuff. Everything we need in the north we have to bring with us up to the north. And so that’s why it’s unusual to imagine your own country as an expeditionary theater of operations, but that’s the mindset you have to have to work up there.
Dr. Jones: So how important is, I’m going to call it, basing here, as we look at some of the cities identified here, whether it’s in Portsmouth or any of the – Cambridge Bay. How important is that? That I’m not sure the word you – the sort of basing up there, and keeping it open on a regular basis?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah, so it’s challenging. So Iqaluit is the largest community by far in the high north of Canada. It’s only around 7(,000) or 8000 people. Most of the other communities in the north are only a couple hundred people at most. And they’re scattered across that distance. So 200,000 people spread across the vast Arctic expanse is quite something. Our Arctic is different from all of the other Arctic nations, because it is so sparsely populated, because there are really no trees, and because it is so dependent sort of on resources being brought in. Now, that said, the people up there are incredibly resilient and hearty. And we leverage a lot –
Dr. Jones: I’d think they’d have to be. (Laughs.)
VAdm Topshee: Well, yes. And last year, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Rangers, which is a fantastic program of reservists who are really our access and our enablers in the high north that provide our sovereignty protection. So this is the local population of the community. They’re provided with a rifle. We pay for the gas for their snowmobile or ATV. And they go out and they just make sure that they’re available to patrol, to respond to search and rescue tasks, and to keep an eye on the ground. So that’s a part of it.
But basing is a challenge. And one of the things we’ve learned is that we really want to adopt a – not even a whole of government, but a whole of society approach. And so there is some heavy industry up there. For example, there’s a mine in Mary River on Baffin Island, which is a very large facility. It has a deepwater port. It has fuel there. So how do we work in cooperation with that company to make sure that we can take advantage of that, should we need to, as we go enforce Canadian sovereignty. As we look to build additional fueling facilities or operational support hubs in the north, it really makes sense to co-locate them with population centers, so that the population there can benefit from them. So really, dual use is the approach to the north.
Dr. Jones: That makes a lot of sense. As you take a step back and look at the at the Canadian Navy today, just looking at the U.S. experience, there have been challenges across the military in recruitment and retention. I know that the Royal Canadian Navy has launched, for example, the Naval Experience Program, which is a new recruitment program. Can you talk a little bit about the challenge of recruitment and possibly retention along those lines? What’s your – and what you’re doing about it, or trying to do about it?
Yeah. We’ve been challenged in Canada. We haven’t hit our recruiting targets since about 2012. Recruiting is a centralized function in the Canadian military. So it’s one recruiting center recruits for all services. We need to attract about 20 percent of the people who walk into those recruiting centers. And historically, only about 6 percent have had expressed any interest in the Navy. So recognizing that, you know, we’re not even in the calculation for most Canadians we launched the Naval Experience Program which is a one year gap year program. It’s a no-strings-attached thing.
So, you know, it pays a fair amount of money for a person who’s just graduated from high school, or maybe hasn’t even graduated from high school, to go off, join the Navy for a year. We give them the minimum amount of training that they require. So basic training that’s common to all of our services, plus about four weeks of Navy training. And then they spend the next nine months experiencing life in the Navy. It’s a recognition of the fact that about – we have about a 50 percent attrition rate in our initial training.
A lot of that’s because, you know, they signed up based on what the sergeant infantry guy told them the Navy was all about. They get to the Navy, and they find out, oh, it’s not quite what I imagined. That’s not the job I want. I want that other job over there. So now we’re giving them the chance to actually come experience the Navy and make an informed choice about what job they want. They’re not committed.
So at the end of the year, if they feel that, you know what, the Navy is just not for me. I get seasick and I can’t manage it. We’ve got lots of medications that allow that, but not everybody can figure – you know, can find something that works for them. At the end of that year, they have to decide they want to join. We also get a chance to look at them, evaluate their values and ethics, is this the type of person we want to be a sailor in the Navy? If it’s a yes and a yes, then we’ll enroll them full time and we’ll start them on their full training into whatever their chosen occupation is.
Dr. Jones: So have you found yet that it’s affected at all your numbers?
VAdm Topshee: It has. So we’ve – the overall numbers of people who’ve enrolled through that system are only sort of around 75. Now, keep in mind, we’re a small service. So our target for the year overall is 1,200, through all approaches. So we were only looking for around 150 to 250 through this program. And we’re on track to meet that. The biggest difference has been we’re now seeing that 20 percent of people who walk into a recruiting center are asking to join the Navy, because of the attention that this program has got. We’re also able to – our reserve force is able to recruit people into the regular force through this program. So that’s given me an extra 24 places across Canada that are able to recruit sailors.
And the final thing is, that we’re seeing this has been really attractive to sort of – Canada’s a nation of immigrants. Twenty-three percent of Canadians aren’t born in Canada. And we historically have attracted about 7 percent of our applicants are visible minorities and indigenous Canadians. We’re seeing 20 percent through the Naval Experience Program. So we know we’re tapping into an audience we haven’t hit before. And we’ve increased the visibility of the Navy in Canada.
Dr. Jones: And how important for you is the human dimension of this, people? There’s often a lot of focus on items like capabilities, ships, weapons systems. How important are people? And how do you include that as part of your broader naval strategy?
VAdm Topshee: So sailors are what define the quality of the Navy. You go all the way back to the days in Nelson. You know, the Battle of Trafalgar, the best ships in that fight were in the combined fleet of France and Spain. But Nelson had the far better sailors. And so they won a decisive victory. And it’s about the quality of those sailors.
So for me, the people are the most important thing. My favorite photos to look at of a ship is the one where the entire ship’s company is assembled on the forecastle of the ship. You know, because you can’t miss the fact it’s a warship, because they’re all assembled around the gun. But what we really understand is it’s the sailors, it’s the crew that make that platform work.
Dr. Jones: One key part on the – we talked a little bit about the workforce. You need ships. You need to build ships. Having visited a number of our shipyards in the U.S., whether it’s at Bath, or Pascagoula down in Mississippi, or in Groton, or in Quonset Point, or even in the Virginia Beach area, there are definite challenges with our shipyards, challenges in recruitment and retention, challenges in bringing on and retaining welders, for example. There are some supply chain issues. Can you talk a little bit about the state of your shipyards, some of the challenges that you see, and how you’re trying to ameliorate some of them?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah. It’s a challenging space because, I mean, I guess, the good news in Canada, like in the U.S., is unemployment is at a historic low level. And so that’s great for the economy, but it’s a challenge when you’re trying to find that workers with the skills that you require to build ships. Just over a decade ago, the Canadian government committed to a national shipbuilding strategy. So we were going to actually build ships, warships for Canada, in Canada, and we were going to sustain that capacity for the long haul, as opposed to trying to create it every time we needed a new class of ships and then getting rid of at the moment we’d delivered all the ones we wanted.
That strategy is paying off. We’re seeing the Harry DeWolf-class is being delivered in Halifax at the Irving Yard. A big part of the strategy for that yard has been an apprenticeship program, really trying to tap into different demographics that are non-traditional shipbuilders. Because if – you know, if we don’t see a large number of women in that workforce, then we know we’re missing 52 percent of the population. So we – you know, we know we need to attract people who previously hadn’t thought of that as a career. And they’re doing a great job of that there.
On the west coast at the Seaspan Yard, they’ve been building our coast guard ships and also building our supply ships. Their biggest challenge in the workforce front is they’ve been able to build a decent workforce, but the attraction of the oil and gas industry, of hospital construction, of dam projects in British Columbia in a very competitive labor market, trying to maintain a workforce in the most expensive city in Canada is a tough go. And so they’ve been challenged by that. But, again, they’re working hard on an apprenticeship program and working to find the right level of compensation to keep those highly skilled workforce – that highly skilled work force employed.
Dr. Jones: So as we talk about building things, you know, if you take a frigate, for example – even the way we started this, with the U.S. guided-missile destroyer and the HMCS Ottawa that were in the Taiwan Straits – as you kind of open up a frigate, you know, we’re talking about Canadian shipbuilding. But when you look at what’s inside most of these ships, they’re actually quite international and different components from different areas. How important is broader cooperation in the defense industrial base between Canada, say, and the U.S., but also other countries as you’re building these things? How much – how important is that cooperation element to it?
VAdm Topshee: Oh, it’s critically important. You know, we work best when we work together. There’s a defense production sharing arrangement between Canada in the U.S. that allows each of us to treat our defense contractors as though they were Canadian or American, as the case may be. I don’t think we leverage that as much as we could. You’re right, the –
Dr. Jones: And I don’t think the U.S. has that arrangement with anyone else. It’s certainly been pushing on the AUKUS front with the Australians and the U.K., but we are nowhere near there yet.
VAdm Topshee: That’s right. In fact, the AUKUS arrangement is being underpinned by trying to access Australia and the U.K. to the agreements that Canada already has in place with the U.S. And so we think that that that partnership at the highest level, right? So this is where – the value of AUKUS is the level of trust with some of the most closely held secrets in the U.S. around nuclear technology and nuclear power. You know, so we think we need to take a look at this. The threats we’re facing today, in terms of hypersonics, in terms of artificial intelligence, potentially quantum computing, you know, cryptography, we need to work together to make sure that we’ve got the best of our scientists and engineers on both sides of the border.
As you point out, ships, even the U.S. ships, have a lot of technology from other countries in them. The new NATO strike missile is a Norwegian product. You know, we’re really proud of the combat management system that Canada uses, built by Lockheed Martin, Canada. It’s in service in the New Zealand Navy and the Chilean Navy. We’re hopeful of a couple of other navies taking it on, in Portugal, possibly Taiwan. And that’s an indication of this great Canadian technology. So when one of us develops a world-leading technology, really we want to make sure that that’s shared with our closest allies, because it makes us all better.
Dr. Jones: Last question is – last major question. As you look at the competitive framework of the industrial base, the Chinese are moving pretty quickly and building large number of ships. According to some estimates, the Chinese are producing more in one of their shipyards than in all seven U.S. shipyards right now. The Russians are – you know, their navy is largely intact, but their industrial base is trying to recover from two years – almost two years of war. Where you see the Chinese and the Russian naval and maritime industrial bases headed and what kind of challenges does that pose to you?
VAdm Topshee: Yeah. I think we’re – aside from their submarine force and the nuclear forces, it’s clear that Russia has really been hit hard by the war. And so we take heart in the fact that that is the case. And that’s going to simplify, to a certain extent, the challenge in terms of the maritime domain. It doesn’t make Ukraine’s job any easier. China’s absolutely a concern. They’ve got 12 shipyards. They are producing ships at a rate that we haven’t seen before. Fortunately, their submarines are a generation or two behind from a quieting point of view, but I can’t imagine that that’s going to stay that way for long. And the real question for China is, how did they intend to use their navy?
You know, as long as – navies since the Second World War have contributed to the greatest increase in prosperity in human history. And that’s through the – you know, as we develop containerization and the ability to move goods seamlessly across the world, we no longer think about the cost of shipping in most of the world’s manufacturing and economies. That’s a benefit of having, you know, the seas that are free and open for all. As long as China’s Navy contributes to that positively, then no problem. But the question is, they’re building a very large Navy, and what do they intend to do with it? We don’t honestly know at this point. So we’re monitoring quite closely.
Dr. Jones: Well, Vice Admiral Topshee, really appreciate you taking some time to visit us at the Center for Strategic International Studies. As someone who’s married to a Canadian, very aware of the close relationship between our two countries. Thank you for everything you are doing to work with the U.S.-Canadian maritime domain and broadly – more broadly, the military domain. Just again, for everyone to be aware, the U.S.-Canadian Defense Partnership is probably best captured in this puck here to highlight what both of our countries are doing.
So thanks, again, for everything you’re doing. Really appreciate you coming by. And hope we see you again soon.
VAdm Topshee: Absolutely. And all that I ask is that you let us win the Stanley Cup sometime in the not too distant future.
Dr. Jones: I’ll make a call to Gary Bettman when we’re done and see if I can do that. (Laughter.)
VAdm Topshee: All right. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.
Dr. Jones: Thank you.