Quotulatiousness

April 17, 2015

Hubris – A General’s Worst Enemy I THE GREAT WAR Week 38

Filed under: Britain,Europe,History,Middle East,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 16 Apr 2015

This week, generals on three different fronts show that they are not able to realise their mistakes. Basra falls to the British, the quick victory at the Dardanelles is getting more and more unlikely and the Russians are loosing their advantage in the Carpathians. But not the commanders have to pay the price for their mistakes, the soldiers have to.

Grant and Lee at Appomattox

Filed under: History,Military,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson posted an article earlier this month marking the 150th anniversary of Appomattox:

If ever the vanquished had reason to be bitter, or a victor had cause to be punitive, it was Lee and Grant. Yet their comportment at Appomattox stands today as a testament to the ideals of national reconciliation, goodwill, and honor and respect for one’s enemy. In his epic narrative history of the Civil War, Shelby Foote recounts two instances from Appomattox that suggest Lee and Grant were both thinking of the greater good, keenly aware that an enduring peace depended in part on their humility and generosity.

Early on the morning of April 9, Lee called a conference with his generals so they could give their opinions on surrender. All of them concurred that under the circumstances surrender was the only option, except the young Brigadier General Edward Alexander, who, writes Foote, “proposed that the troops take to the woods, individually and in small groups, under orders to report to the governors of their respective states. That way, he believed, two thirds of the army would avoid capture by the Yankees.”

Lee gently rebuked Alexander, reminding him, “We must consider its effect on the country as a whole.” The men, he said, “would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections that may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” Alexander would later write: “I had not a single word to say in reply. He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it that I was ashamed of having made it.”

Grant’s terms of surrender were remarkable for their leniency on the Confederate Army. Although the rebels would be required to turn over their arms, artillery, and private property, Grant added an impromptu final sentence: “This will not embrace the side arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage.” At Lee’s request, he also allowed Confederate cavalrymen and artillerists who owned their own horses and mules to keep them, reasoning that most were small farmers and would not be able to put in a crop “to carry themselves and their families through the next winter without the aid of the horses they are now riding.”

At this crucial moment, it was most important to Grant and Lee that the soldiers return home safely and get on with civilian life as soon as possible. Returning to his men, Lee told them, “I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you.” En route back to his headquarters, Grant heard salutes and cheering begin to rise up from nearby Union batteries. He sent orders to have them stopped. “The war is over,” he said. “The rebels are our countrymen again.”

April 15, 2015

Operation Sealion, wargamed by some of the original commanders

Filed under: Britain,Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Strategy Page has a great summary of the German plan to invade Britain and the most likely outcome if the invasion had ever been attempted:

Operation Sealion, or, in the original German Unternehmen Seelöwe, is one of the most famous “what ifs” of the Twentieth Century.

On July 16, 1940, following the collapse of France, the Dunkerque evacuation, and the rejection of his peace overtures, Adolf Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 16, which initiated preparations for an invasion of Britain. At the time, it seemed to many that if Hitler had tried an offensive across the English Channel a defenseless Britain would inevitably fall. But was it so? What were Hitler’s chances?

In 1973 historian Paddy Griffith, just beginning his career as an instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, decided to evaluate the chances of a successful German invasion of Britain by using a wargame.

Organization. Griffith’s wargame was much more than a board with a set of counters, a rule booklet, and some dice. It was a massive multiplayer game, which Griffith later wrote about in Sprawling Wargames. Based on traditional kriegsspiel methodology, the game involved several dozen players and umpires, all isolated from each other except by means of simulated signaling. Many of the players and umpires were veterans of the war from both sides. Among them were former wartime senior German officers such as Luftwaffe fighter Generalleutnant Adolf Galland and Kriegsmarine Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, as well as several men from both sides who had been lower ranking offices and later risen higher, including Christopher Foxley-Norris, who had commanded a fighter squadron during the Battle of Britain and rose to air chief marshal, Sir Edward Gueritz, a junior naval officer at the time who became a rear admiral, Heinz Trettner, who had served on the staff of the German airborne forces in 1940, rose to command a parachute division by war’s end, and later served as Inspector General of the post-war German air force, and Glyn Gilbert, a junior officer in one of the defending infantry battalions in 1941, who later rose to major general.

Each side was given the same forces, operational plans, and intelligence as it had in 1940. The game was based on the assumption that the Luftwaffe had still not won the battle for air supremacy over the Channel and southern England by the time the landings were scheduled to take place, in early September, which was in fact the case. The intelligence picture greatly favored the British, who had proven much better at securing information about the enemy’s plans and force than the Germans had on their own.

There’s even a mention of the (significant) Canadian contribution to the defence of Britain after Dunkirk:

The defending forces included the 1st Canadian Division (the most well-prepared division available, full strength and fully equipped, though without combat experience), plus the less-well prepared 2nd Canadian division and partial divisions from Australia and New Zealand.

Although I haven’t read Griffith’s book, my other readings on the subject align with the eventual outcome of the wargame:

Following the game the participants took part in a general analysis. Some interesting observations and conclusions were made. The British GHQ mobile reserve had not been engaged at all. In addition, casualties to the Royal Navy had been serious, but hardly devastating; of about 90 destroyers on hand, only five had been sunk and six seriously damaged, and only three of the three dozen cruisers had been lost, and three more heavily damaged.

Compare that to the actual Royal Navy losses during the evacuation of Crete — with little to no air support from the RAF, due to extreme distance from friendly airbases:

Attacks by German planes, mainly Ju-87s and Ju-88s, destroyed three British cruisers (HMS Gloucester, Fiji, and Calcutta) and three destroyers (HMS Kelly, Greyhound and Kashmir) between 22 May and 1 June. Italian bombers from 41 Gruppo sank one destroyer (Juno on 21 May and damaged another destroyer (Imperial) on 28 May beyond repair. The British were also forced to scuttle another destroyer (Hereward) on 29 May, that had been seriously damaged by German aircraft, and abandoned when Italian motor torpedo boats approached to deliver the coup de grâce.

Damage to the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, the battleships HMS Warspite and Barham, the cruisers HMS Ajax, Dido, Orion, and HMAS Perth, the submarine HMS Rover, the destroyers HMS Kelvin and Nubian, kept these ships out of action for months. While at anchor in Suda Bay, northern Crete, the heavy cruiser HMS York was badly damaged by Italian explosive motor boats and beached on 26 March 1941. She was later wrecked by demolition charges and abandoned when Crete was evacuated in May. By 1 June the effective eastern Mediterranean strength of the Royal Navy had been reduced to two battleships and three cruisers to oppose the four battleships and eleven cruisers of the Italian Navy

And back to the Operation Sealion summary from Strategy Page:

All participants, German as well as British, agreed that the outcome was an accurate assessment of the probable result of an actual invasion.

Oddly, the Sandhurst wargame was designed on the basis of inaccurate information. Some time after the game, additional hitherto secret documents came to light, which revealed that the Germans probably had even less chance of success than they did in game. At the time the game was designed, the true extent of British “stay behind” forces, intended to conduct guerrilla operations in the rear of the invasion forces, and the sheer scale of defensive installations that had been erected across southern England in anticipation of an invasion were still classified; there were some 28,000 pill boxes, coastal batteries, strong points, blockhouses, anti-aircraft sites, and some other installations.

So assuming Hitler had for a time been serious about invading England, his decision to call it off was probably wise.

April 14, 2015

Strategies of the Sri Lankan civil war

Filed under: Asia,History,Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Diplomat, Peter Layton looks back at the strategies that eventually ended the twenty-five year civil war in Sri Lanka:

How to win a civil war in a globalized world where insurgents skillfully exploit offshore resources? With most conflicts now being such wars, this is a question many governments are trying to answer. Few succeed, with one major exception being Sri Lanka where, after 25 years of civil war the government decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and created a peace that appears lasting. This victory stands in stark contrast to the conflicts fought by well-funded Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. How did Sri Lanka succeed against what many considered the most innovative and dangerous insurgency force in the world? Three main areas stand out.

First, the strategic objective needs to be appropriate to the enemy being fought. For the first 22 years of the civil war the government’s strategy was to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table using military means. Indeed, this was the advice foreign experts gave as the best and only option. In 2006, just before the start of the conflict’s final phase, retired Indian Lieutenant General AS Kalkat in 2006 declared, “There is no armed resolution to the conflict. The Sri Lanka Army cannot win the war against the Lankan Tamil insurgents.”

Indeed, the LTTE entered negotiations five times, but talks always collapsed, leaving a seemingly stronger LTTE even better placed to defeat government forces. In mid-2006, sensing victory was in its grasp, the LTTE deliberately ended the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire and initiated the so-called Eelam War IV. In response, the Sri Lankan government finally decided to change its strategic objective, from negotiating with the LTTE to annihilating it.

To succeed, a strategy needs to take into account the adversary. In this case it needed to be relevant to the nature of the LTTE insurgency. Over the first 22 years of the civil war, the strategies of successive Sri Lankan governments did not fulfill this criterion. Eventually, in late 2005 a new government was elected that choose a different strategic objective that matched the LTTE’s principal weaknesses while negating their strengths.

The LTTE’s principal problem was its finite manpower base. Only 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s population were Lankan Tamils and of these it was believed that only some 300,000 actively supported the LTTE. Moreover, the LTTE’s legitimacy as an organization was declining. By 2006, the LTTE relied on conscription – not volunteers – to fill its ranks and many of these were children. At the operational level some seeming strengths could also be turned against the LTTE, including its rigid command structure, a preference for fighting conventional land battles, and a deep reliance on international support.

QotD: Blaming France for causing the First World War

Filed under: Europe,History,Military,Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To begin with, any attempt to shift blame for World War I from Germany onto the French-Russian alliance has to deal with Germany’s responsibility for creating that alliance in the first place. If France wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, it was only because it had lost the territories in a war engineered by Germany. Karl Marx, in a moment of rare foresight, predicted that Germany’s decision to annex Alsace and Lorraine would end “by forcing France into the arms of Russia.” Similarly, it was Germany’s decision not to renew its alliance with Russia that led to increasing enmity between Russia and Austria, and to the creation of an anti-German alliance between Russia and France. And the German decision to rebuff British overtures in favor of a naval arms race (not to mention provoking the Agadir Crisis) pushed yet another potential ally into the enemy camp. Germany’s ability to lose friends and alienate people would continue during World War I itself, with such brilliant diplomatic maneuvers as the Zimmerman telegraph, unrestricted submarine warfare, and the decision to let Lenin back into Russia.

But leave all that aside. It’s certainly true that France wanted to get Alsace and Lorraine back from Germany, and that France knew the only hope it had of beating Germany in a war was with Russia as an ally. But this had been true for decades prior to 1914. Had France and Russian really wanted to start a war with the central powers, they had plenty of opportunities. But they didn’t. Clark himself concedes this, noting that “at no point did the French or the Russian strategists involved plan to launch a war of aggression against the central powers.”

What’s more, far from being an instigator, France was disengaged during much of the July Crisis. Attention in France during July 1914 was focused on a particularly lurid murder trial involving the wife of a prominent politician. During the key period of the Austrian ultimatum, both the French president and prime minister were stuck on a boat returning from St. Petersburg. And when leaders did finally arrive in Paris, their moves were not aggressive. The French prime minister cabled Russia on July 30 that it “should not immediately proceed to any measure which might offer Germany a pretext for a total or partial mobilization of her forces” and the French army itself was pulled back six miles from the German frontier.

Josiah Neeley, “Historical Revisionism Update: Yes, Germany (Mostly) Started World War I”, The Federalist, 2014-01-06

April 13, 2015

RCAF CF-18 Hornet repainted in “Battle of Britain” theme

Filed under: Britain,Cancon,History,Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The 2015 CF-18 Hornet Demonstration Aircraft is unveiled at a ceremony held at 3 Wing Bagotville in Saguenay, Québec on 27 March 2015. Image: LS Alex Roy, Atelier d'imagerie Bagotville. BN01-2015-0186-005 (click to see full-sized image)

The 2015 CF-18 Hornet Demonstration Aircraft is unveiled at a ceremony held at 3 Wing Bagotville in Saguenay, Québec on 27 March 2015.
Image: LS Alex Roy, Atelier d’imagerie Bagotville.
BN01-2015-0186-005 (click to see full-sized image)

From the RCAF CF-18 Demo Team page:

The CF-18 Demonstration Team will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain — and the courageous airmen that Prime Minister Winston Churchill dubbed the “few” — during its 2015 show season.

The special design of the demo Hornet, reflecting this theme, will be unveiled at a later date.

The summer of 1940 was a dark time for the Allies. With shocking rapidity, Adolf Hitler’s forces had overrun most of Europe. By mid-June, Allied forces had been pushed off the continent and Nazi forces were at the English Channel, preparing to invade England.

“The Battle of France is over,” said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

Hitler directed that the Royal Air Force (RAF) — including Canadians and members of other Commonwealth air forces fighting with or as part of the RAF — be eliminated to allow the invasion to take place. The air battle began on July 10, with Nazi attacks on British convoys, ports and coastal radar stations. One of the most savage days was August 13. A few days later Churchill praised the brave airmen in words that have echoed through the decades: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

On September 15, the Germans launched a massive attack but, although the fighting was fierce, the RAF, using new tactics, was victorious. Two days later, Hitler postponed the invasion; he never again considered it seriously.

By the end of September, the Battle of Britain was over. It was the first military confrontation won by air power and Germany’s first defeat of the Second World War. More than 2,300 pilots and aircrew from Great Britain and nearly 600 from other nations participated in the Battle.

Of these, 544 lost their lives, including 23 Canadians. More than 100 Canadians flew in the battle, principally as members of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) No. 1 Squadron (later renamed 401 Squadron) and the RAF’s 242 “All Canadian” Squadron. An estimated 300 Canadians served as groundcrew.

It is a great honour for the RCAF and the 2015 CF-18 Demonstration Team to commemorate the dedication and sacrifice of those brave Canadian aircrew and groundcrew who stood up to tyranny and left their mark on history.

Scrapping the Royal Navy’s decommissioned ships

Filed under: Britain,Business,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the Telegraph, Alan Tovey looks at a British ship-breaking firm trying to retain some of the market for dismantling decommissioned ships of the Royal Navy:

A British family firm is fighting to end the forlorn sight of once-proud Royal Navy warships being torn to pieces for scrap on foreign beaches.

Swansea Drydocks is vying for the contract to break up three decommissioned British frigates. The company is hoping to beat foreign competition — primarily from Turkey — to win the tender to recycle unwanted Type 42 destroyers HMS Edinburgh, HMS Gloucester and HMS York.

HMS York (D98) destroyer located at St. Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands for the Jersey Boat Show 2009 (via Wikipedia)

HMS York (D98) destroyer located at St. Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands for the Jersey Boat Show 2009 (via Wikipedia)

However, Swansea Drydocks Ltd (SDL) says it is facing an uphill battle on the soon to be announced contract because of cheaper labour costs abroad as the Ministry of Defence’s disposal arm looks to award contract — as well as less onerous environmental controls in some non-EU countries.

Last year the company won the contract to scrap Type 22 frigate HMS Cornwall, a deal the MoD said had to go to a UK ship-breaker to show this country had the ability to dispose of vessels. This was so the Navy’s fleet of decommissioned nuclear submarines can be recycled in Britain to safeguard the technology they contain.

But other than HMS Cornwall, few other from Royal Navy ships have been scrapped in the UK.

April 11, 2015

Robert E. Lee

Filed under: History,Media,Military,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In City Journal, Ryan L. Cole reviews a recent book on one of America’s most famous generals:

America’s Civil War presents a set of forever ponderable “what ifs.” What if a Union soldier hadn’t discovered plans for the Confederate invasion of Maryland in 1862? What if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t been hit by friendly fire after the Battle of Chancellorsville? What if George Meade had pursued the wounded Army of Northern Virginia in the wake of Gettysburg? The list goes on.

But perhaps the most vexing hypothetical has always been: What if Robert E. Lee had accepted Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command Union forces at the outset of the conflict? This would have likely robbed the Confederacy of its greatest military mind. It may have also robbed the South of its fleeting glories, dramatically shortened the war, and made Lee — not Ulysses S. Grant or even Abraham Lincoln — the savior of the Union. It could even have made Lee a second George Washington.

This decision and its ramifications are the basis of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, Jonathan Horn’s thoughtful new life of the Confederate general. It would be wrong to call this a biography. Though Horn, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, assays Lee’s life from birth to death, the book is built around the premise that Lee was practically destined to become the second coming of Washington. Yet he declined, and the consequences of his refusal altered the course of the nation.

Lee had familial and professional connections to Washington. His father, Henry Lee III, better known as “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, was a dashing cavalry officer in the Continental Army. General Washington was impressed by Lee’s bravery and invited the young Virginian to join his personal staff. When Lee begged off, Washington asked Congress to give him an independent command. Like some other young officers, Lee found a mentor in Washington, who had no biological children of his own. He did, however, adopt and raise Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, as his own son. Custis’s daughter, Mary, wed Robert E. Lee. Their children, by birth and marriage, were direct descendants of America’s original first lady.

The Lees lived in Arlington House, a Potomac mansion overlooking Washington, built by Custis as a shrine to his adoptive father and a repository for his relics. Through marriage, Lee was heir to the tactile remains of Washington’s legacy; even the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law were descendants of those who had toiled at Mount Vernon. In his opening chapters, Horn carefully draws the connections between the two titular subjects and plots Lee’s rise to military distinction in the years leading up to the Civil War. The history is simply fascinating. Horn is a graceful writer, and when the occasion warrants, has a suitable flair for the dramatic. The pages blaze by.

April 10, 2015

The Armenian Genocide I THE GREAT WAR – Week 37

Filed under: Europe,History,Middle East,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 9 Apr 2015

The leaders of the Ottoman Empire are looking for a scapegoat after their collosal defeat in the Caucasian Mountains a few month earlier. They start the systematic relocation and disarm Armenian troops among their ranks to end all calls for Armenian independence. Today’s estimates place the death toll of the genocide up till 1.5 million men, women and children.

April 9, 2015

Silent and Deadly – GAS WARFARE IN WORLD WAR 1

Filed under: Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 7 Apr 2015

All soldiers feared poison gas but all sides developed deadlier and more perfidious kinds of chemical agents. Indy tells you everything about gas warfare in World War 1 in this special episode.

Former US Army colonel would be “disgusted” if US doesn’t have plan to invade Canada

Filed under: Cancon,China,Military,USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Retired US officer-turned-SF writer Tom Kratman thinks heads should roll in the Pentagon if they do not have up-to-date plans to invade Canada … among other current allies … because creating and maintaining plans is what the general staff is supposed to do:

Since at least the time of world class fool, blunderer, jackass, and complete and utter failure, Woodrow Wilson, there’s been a lot of confusion about what military planning is and means. For these purposes, it falls into two categories: planning to actually do something you intend to do, and planning to react to something you do not really want to happen but must be prepared for.

In terms of the latter, I would be not just surprised but disgusted if somewhere in the bowels of the five-sided puzzle palace there are no plans, kept more or less up to date, for invading Canada. I would be at least as surprised and disgusted if Canada doesn’t have some plans to resist that invasion, too. Sure, ours might be hidden as a response to a humanitarian crisis, or couched in terms of responding to a request from Canada’s government for help/intervention, while theirs – for all I know – may reference “Fenians,” or the like. Still, if the plans don’t exist – quite despite that none of us want to invade Canada – then a large number of multi-starred idiots need to be relieved. Why? Because you never really know. Because the future defies prediction in any detail.

That is different in kind from things like Hitler’s invasions of Poland and the USSR which fell not into the category of things that the planner would rather not happen (but had to be prepared to react to) but of things the planner absolutely intended to do.

So is China planning for a war as some claim? Sure they are; it’s their general staff’s job to do that planning. Do they want that war or wars? Puhleeze; as discussed previously, a real war is about the last thing they want. They’re much, much more likely engaged in the first, contingency, class of planning than the second, aggressive, class.

April 8, 2015

The sinking of HMCS Annapolis

Filed under: Cancon,Environment,Military,Pacific — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

HMCS Annapolis Sink Day April 4th 2015 from Geoff Grognet on Vimeo.

Sinking of HMCS Annapolis as an artificial reef. HMCS Annapolis is being sunk in Halkett Bay on Gambier Island by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia. It will serve as a recreational dive site, and provide a habitat for fish and other marine life.

April 6, 2015

QotD: Conscription

Filed under: Law,Liberty,Military,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Poul Anderson pointed out to me that he rather doubted if this country could survive through purely voluntary military service.

Perhaps he is right. I care not. If there are not sufficient Simon-pure, utterly uncoerced volunteers to defend a country and save it … [sic] then let it go down the drain! And that applies just as much to my own beloved country as it does to the Roman Empire … The thought of a draftee being required to die that I may live is as morally offensive to me as that of galley slaves, chained to their sweeps, and drowning in battle not of their choosing.

If the United States goes under (as I am inclined to think she will), I will be inclined to blame it on moral decay rather than on the superiority of our enemies … [sic] and, to me, the gravest aspect of that moral decay lies in the fact that we have elected to depend on human slaves as cannon fodder.

But I suppose that my opposition to a democratically accepted and publicly approved social institution such as the National Selective Service Act — having the gall to label this flag-bedecked and chaplain-blessed custom “human slavery” — is still another of “Heinlein’s dangerous ideologies” as seditious as my unspeakable notion that the franchise is not a “natural right” to be handed out as freely as favours at a children’s party, but to be earned by toil and danger at great personal sacrifice.

Well, if my teachings are now to be indicted as “dangerous”, tending to “corrupt the youth of the land”, I will be in most noble and distinguished company. Pass the hemlock, please —

Robert A. Heinlein, letter to Theodore Cogswell 1959-12-04, quoted in William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).

April 3, 2015

Between The Fronts – War Refugees I THE GREAT WAR Week 36

Filed under: Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 2 Apr 2015

Not only the soldiers are suffering on the Eastern and Western Front, the Dardanelles or since this week also in Macedonia. More and more civilians become refugees in this modern war. Even far away from the battle grounds they are not safe anymore when German submarine sink civilian ships.

April 1, 2015

The RCN’s Victoria class submarines

Filed under: Cancon,Military,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Damian Brooks linked to this article in The Walrus, calling it “Easily the best piece on Canadian submarines I’ve ever seen in the mainstream press.”

The threat of fire is ever-present on warships, which is why fire training is conducted every day a Canadian vessel is in port and at least once a week when it’s at sea. But the fire on Chicoutimi, which already had experienced a four-year delay in getting out of port, could hardly have come at a worse time for Canada’s “silent service.” It fuelled a controversy that had begun in 1998 with the purchase of the ship and three other mothballed Upholder-class submarines from the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. From the start, critics questioned the deal, which was supposed to cost $800 million for the subs and the conversion work required to bring them up to the Royal Canadian Navy’s requirements. (Few put it as succinctly as Mike Hancock, the British MP who asked, “Why were the Canadians daft enough to buy them?”) The fire simply added to what Paul Mitchell, a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, calls an already “well-established narrative of waste and dysfunction.”

[…]

In 1943, thousands of Canadians bought a book, co-authored by humorist and early supporter of the RCN Stephen Leacock, that gave a reasonably clear account of the U-boat attacks on the St. Lawrence in 1942, which claimed twenty-one ships and 249 lives, including 136 aboard the ferry SS Caribou. Ultimately, Canada emerged from the war with the world’s fourth-largest navy, most of which was quickly scrapped, or “paid off.” In the late 1940s, the threat posed to transatlantic shipping by Soviet submarines led the navy to purchase the aircraft carrier HMS Magnificent, which was replaced in 1957 by HMCS Bonaventure. When the Trudeau government decided to decommission the carrier — Misadventure, as some wags had dubbed it — commentators intelligently discussed the anti-submarine capabilities of the ships that would replace it.

What passes for naval debate today is, by contrast, too often uninformed and sloppy. The Halifax Chronicle Herald reported in September 2011 that Chicoutimi was being “cannibalized” for parts for HMCS Victoria (not acknowledging that this practice, known as a transfer request, is standard RCN operating procedure). And most articles about the submarine program are riddled with errors and boilerplate references to the 2004 fire. Compare that to a 1969 fire, which killed nine men aboard the destroyer HMCS Kootenay and quickly vanished from a more sea-conscious news.

For much of the late twentieth century, Canada’s three British-built, diesel-electric Oberon-class submarines served an important role as “clockwork mice” — targets for anti-submarine training exercises by Canadian and other Allied navies. After being equipped with passive sonar and Mark 48 torpedoes in the mid-1980s, these “O-boats” became true weapons platforms capable of performing their NATO missions in the Canadian Atlantic Submarine area. (Not until 2009 did the public learn of the “surreal moment” in late November 1986 during which Lieutenant-Commander Larry Hickey worked out the coordinates that, had he detected an offensive move, would have guided a torpedo from HMCS Onondaga into the hull of a nearby Soviet submarine — and possibly precipitated World War III.)

[…]

Last October, at the Naval Association of Canada conference in Ottawa, speaker after speaker lamented the public’s ignorance of these topics and, in many cases, its outright hostility toward submarines. Frigates, with their flared bows and graceful lines, intercept pirates in the Arabian Sea and hurry supplies to disaster areas after earthquakes and tsunamis. They sail to Toronto for the Canadian National Exhibition and make for good photo ops while passing under Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge. Part of the image problem, one speaker wryly noted, is that “you can’t host a decent cocktail party on the deck of a submarine.” Nor can the Victoria-class subs assert Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic in the muscular terms employed by Stephen Harper in his 2007 “Use It or Lose It” speech.

The submarine’s most important characteristic is its stealth. Far from being appreciated as a strategic asset, however, stealth jars with the public’s notion of a peaceable kingdom. Former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy went so far as to declare the ships “un-Canadian,” echoing British admiral Sir Arthur Wilson’s 1901 comment that they are “underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English.” According to Commander Michael Craven, gathering intelligence, joining with coalition partners to close off choke points, enabling “covert delivery and recovery of Special Operations Forces,” and performing a constabulary role against illegal fisheries and drug smugglers is exactly consistent with what Axworthy called “soft power.” That is, global influence exerted via “ideas, values, persuasion, skill and technique” and other forms of “non-intrusive intervention.”

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