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FEATURE INTERVIEW – VAdm Topshee, Commander of the RCN

FEATURE INTERVIEW – VAdm Topshee, Commander of the RCN

BY JOETEY ATTARIWALA

HMCS Shawinigan faces the waves in the Baltic Sea during Op REASSURANCE on August 2, 2023 Credit: Petty Officer Second Class Roxanne Wood, CAF

Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee

COMMANDER OF THE RCN

For CDR’s annual report on the Navy, we asked Senior Staff Writer, Joetey Attariwala, to interview Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy. Here is that in-depth conversation.

CDR: Vice-Admiral Topshee, thank you for speaking with me. You’ve now been in your position for just over a year, so how have you settled into your role and what’s it like working in Ottawa as the top-most sailor?

VAdm Topshee: You’re welcome, Joetey. I’m glad that we have this opportunity to sit down and chat. So fundamentally, everybody is trying to do the best that they can, and I see a shared desire within the public service and within the military to deliver for Canada. Now, there are processes and things that are inefficient and can be very annoying, but all of them got there for a reason.

I’ve really benefited a lot from mentorship from the Deputy Minister, or from the Chief [of Defence Staff], from the Vice [Chief of Defence Staff], they’ve all been very helpful in sharing their perspective and explaining why we do things a certain way. I have a very collaborative relationship with the other “three stripes” too — I think we’ve got a really good solid cadre of leaders right now who are all working on a piece of the problem, collectively and collaboratively. It doesn’t mean we always agree, but there is no doubt that we have a shared objective, and we have robust discussions about how best to achieve that. So, I think that’s been quite good. The other thing that’s been really helpful is that I’ve reached out to talk to just about every one of my predecessors and have asked them for their advice. It’s really been useful to understand the challenges they faced because we have this tendency to believe that everything is new and different and this is the first time we’ve ever done it, which usually isn’t the case.

CDR: What is the biggest challenge for the Navy today?

VAdm Topshee: It is undoubtedly personnel. We are very short of people in the Navy, and we need to arrest the decline. The objective for 2023 is quite simple — the trained effective strength at the end of the year needs to be bigger than the trained effective strength at the start of the year, so we’ve got to start growing again. Even if that’s one sailor more, that’s better than fewer trained effective sailors. That goes hand in hand with culture — the need to make sure that we are fostering a culture that is truly welcoming and inclusive, where every sailor feels as though they can reach their full potential. We need to listen to our sailors, we need to empower and enable our sailors, and we need to make sure that they’re set up to succeed. There’s a whole host of things that go into that, and a lot of that is about the working environment we create.

AN EVOLVING MARITIME DOMAIN 

CDR: How have you seen the maritime domain evolve during your career in the Royal Canadian Navy?

VAdm Topshee: I joined the military in 1990, so literally as the Cold War was ending. I joined a fleet that had grown up to defend sea lines against Soviet aggression, and resupply Europe and the Canadian Army in Europe. We were really focused on high-end anti-submarine warfare — that was the mission of the Royal Canadian Navy. We were also just taking delivery of the new frigates and the modernized Iroquois-class destroyers under the TRUMP [Tribal Class Update and Modernization Program] program. So suddenly, we were moving from a steam and gun Navy to a gas turbine and missile Navy, so it was really interesting to be on the cutting edge of that technology.

There’s a whole evolution in what our purpose was and the ships that we had to operate in that environment. And then in a new world, it was about peace and security in a different way. We got into a lot of maritime interdiction operations — the first Gulf War happened at that time with the invasion of Kuwait, so we were doing maritime interdiction operations and enforcing sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In fact, the second operational deployment I did was all about sanctions against Iraq, in the Arabian Gulf. We did a lot of maritime interdiction operations for years, and then that threat sort of went away and morphed into anti-terrorism after the attacks on 9/11. So maritime security really got redefined — we did a lot of single ship deployer operations, we were part of multinational task groups, but not focused on high end warfighting. We never lost those skills entirely, but it was kind of like that’s the thing we do in the background just in case, but it’s never really going to happen. And then in 2014 the first invasion of Ukraine happens, and it became clear there’s a return to great power competition. We see the rise of China, and China is a separate category because China is absolutely growing a massive Navy in numbers, larger than the U.S. Navy right now – not as powerful – but clearly, it is something designed to have full blue water capabilities and global ambitions. So, the security environment is certainly different. What if we went to war with Russia or China? That’s very different from being prepared to defend ourselves against a terrorist attack.

In the meantime, our equipment has become quite old, because unfortunately, we’ve not replaced most of it since I joined. We’re in the process of doing that now and we just hope that we can do it in time for whatever we might need to do next. It has been quite an evolution of change but the fundamentals of service at sea haven’t changed — the ocean does not become any safer over time. In fact, arguably, with global warming and climate change, it has become far more destructive because the storms are not as predictable as they used to be and are quite powerful and affect us here at home as much as they have abroad or at sea.

CDR: That speaks to the Navy you have and the Navy you need. Are you optimistic for the future of the Royal Canadian Navy?

VAdm Topshee: People are fundamentally the strength of the Navy, and they always have been. The outcome of a war at sea has never been determined by the quality of the ship or the equipment, it has been determined by the quality of the sailor because bad sailors on the best equipment in the world will lose to good sailors, as long as their equipment is adequate. So, we’re very fortunate there — we still continue to have some of the best sailors in the world. We’ve kept the Halifax-class modernized so it remains capable. I wish it was younger, but in the meantime, we’re looking forward to the Canadian Surface Combatant to come along, which is going to be a fantastic capability so I’m really excited about that.

DETERRENCE VS. COMBAT

CDR: I see certain types of threats in the maritime domain mentioned all the time. What threats worry you?

VAdm Topshee: I actually worry about how we avoid war because the nature of war is such that you’re exploiting every opportunity that you have, and humans are very innovative, especially when it comes to finding ways to kill other humans. I’m very focused on how we make sure the Navy is contributing to sustaining the rules based international order and deterring conflict, because if we can deter, we’re far better off — we never want to have to fight. The essence of deterrence is being able to make sure that your adversary believes that you can deny them the benefit that they seek. I prefer deterrence by denial of benefit as opposed to retribution.

I’m really focused on making sure that we’ve got a military – and more specifically a Navy – that reinforces deterrence and supports all of the things that go into creating those conditions around the world. Once you get into actual combat at sea, I’m afraid of just about everything to be honest. The innovations that we’ve seen in torpedoes, and submarine launched anti-ship missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, hypersonics — all of these things are incredibly challenging to defeat. I worry that we are on the wrong side of the cost curve in just about all of these things. We’re firing extremely expensive ordnance at relatively unsophisticated things. You can look at some of the uncrewed and autonomous systems that are being used nowadays — you can take something relatively inexpensive and turn it into a pretty serious weapon.

I worry about our readiness level. You can never really guarantee what threat you’re going to be facing on any day, so you need to make sure you’ve got the mindset of a crew that is alert and watching for everything. The Moskva was not ready when it got hit by two Ukrainian missiles — it wasn’t ready to detect or defeat those missiles, and it wasn’t ready to deal with the damage that ensued. We need to be ready to do both. When I talk about being ready to fight, which is one of my priorities, it’s about the mindset of our fleet. Do we really appreciate that this is serious, and that we may be asking our sailors to go to war at sea. Is the Canadian public understanding of what that means? War at sea is vicious and deadly — it does not kill small numbers of people. Like I said, the goal is to be ready so that we deter that from ever happening because it’s not in anyone’s interest to actually get into a fight.

CDR: What else have you learned, from a naval warfare perspective, from what you’re seeing in Ukraine?

VAdm Topshee: I’m seeing that you can turn an amazing number of things into weapons. Sailors, and people who are threatened, are incredibly talented at solving problems at the lowest level but we impede them with process in many cases. What we really need to do is figure out how we unlock that innovation at the lowest level. How do we make sure that we hear them? How do we experiment with that in a way that is safe and validates or invalidates an idea.

So, for me, it’s about making sure that commanding officers understand that my expectation is that they’re constantly looking to have an edge and maintain readiness to fight, and that they’re prizing innovation and trying new things.

The resilience and resistance that Ukraine has shown is remarkable. It benefits all of us to support the rules based international order. It’s on us right now to find ways that we can support Ukraine by any means that we can. There’s not been a lot that the Canadian Navy has really been able to offer given the nature of the conflict, but we’re proud of the training that we did with them prior to the war, and we stand ready to support in any way that we can. Every time a request for assistance comes we’ve been doing our best to meet it. We’ve got forces that are planning alongside NATO for a return into the Black Sea and a lot of work to de-mine that region whenever the war finally ends. We know that there’s a lot for us to do.

SUBMARINES

CDR: Canada currently has four Victoria-class submarines. What do you feel is the optimum number of submarines that Canada needs under the Canadian Patrol Submarine Project?

VAdm Topshee: It typically takes four submarines to ensure one of them is always available. The Victoria-class has never actually met that metric for a variety of reasons. The Air Force describes this as a line of task, so we have a similar philosophy with this and we’re basically saying it’s four submarines for a single line of task. If we want to be able to guarantee submarine availability in the Atlantic or the Pacific, then you need to have four submarines based in Esquimalt and four in Halifax. So, the minimum for Canada we think is eight — that allows us to be able to continuously operate a submarine in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and that allows us to get up to the Western and Eastern approaches to the Arctic. If you really want to be sure of being able to have a submarine presence in the Arctic, and on each of our oceans, then you need twelve. That’s a lot, it’s expensive, and it’s a challenge to get there from the point of view of personnel because right now we’re at four submarines and about two and a half crews for those submarines.

If we buy a submarine that’s in service with other Navies, we can accelerate the production of submariners because we’d have more sea days, and more opportunity to create submariners on the submarine that’s in service and like the one that we would be acquiring. We don’t have to get to twelve submarines tomorrow, that’s something we can do over the course of 20 years. The key is, it’s a government decision — what does the government want us to be able to do, or what is the risk they’re willing to take in terms of the operation of subs because these are all expensive things that come at the expense of other programs that Canadians care about like other military capabilities and other government of Canada capabilities. My job is simply to explain that — I really feel that eight is the minimum number of submarines that Canada should have, but it is the government’s job to make those decisions.

HMCS Fredericton sails in the Mediterranean Sea with its embarked CH-148 Cyclone helicopter during Op REASSURANCE Credit: Cpl Noé Marchon, CAF

MARITIME COASTAL DEFENCE VESSEL (MCDV)

CDR: It was interesting to see the unsolicited proposal for a replacement of the MCDV. What are you looking for in that regard?

VAdm Topshee: We don’t know yet, is the honest truth. It was really interesting to see the unsolicited bid and the things I would say that really struck me about it were the 20 bunks that were available as potential training bunks, and the ability to take, I think it’s 7, twenty-foot containers that it could internally move around and things like that. Those are really neat features. Is it the right ship for us? I have no idea because we’re still in the early days of figuring that out — the MCDVs is one answer to the problem of what’s the right sort of small surface ship for Canada. Do we want it to be more of a combatant? I don’t know. Do we want it to be able to cross oceans? I think so. So that drives a certain size. Is the ship that was proposed big enough? Well, it’s at the low end of that, but possibly, so we really want to see that design in operation at sea. And then what are the other options from other competitors? There are lots of designs for those smaller Corvette type things around the world so it’s an exciting time. Our first priority is that we need to figure out what we need it to do — once we define that concept of employment and the requirement that would come from having that ship, then I think we’re in a better place to figure out the specific platform to fill that capability.

CDR: So, it sounds like the ship will be bigger than the existing MCDV.

VAdm Topshee: I think it’ll be bigger than the current MCDV. Again, we need to determine what we want this ship to do. We know the ship has to provide a certain number of training days, but what’s the actual requirement from a Canadian point of view? Route survey of all Canadian waters — is that something that we need to be able to continue to do? I would argue, yes. What’s the right platform for that? What’s the right mix of capabilities? That may actually not be a ship, but rather a combination of autonomous and semi-autonomous systems. So, that begs the question, do we need something that’s a parent ship to all of those things? Maybe what we really want is some sort of more aggressively armed coastal defence vessel because we see an evolution in threats. I don’t know.

CDR: How far along is the Navy in this process? 

VAdm Topshee: We’ve said we really should start to think about replacing the ship. I’ve challenged the team to go around the world and look at all of the different replacement options and be very smart about the range of things that are out there, because there might be a solution that actually solves so many different issues for us. I encourage industry to continue to provide unsolicited proposals to us because I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for us to figure out the right answer for a relatively small ship. But we’ve got to keep in mind, it’s probably going to look different from other countries because our challenge is three oceans and the fact that pretty much everywhere we need to go we’re crossing an ocean. And so, what’s the mission here in Canada? And then how do you balance that against the ability to cross an ocean and contribute abroad potentially? Or have we already got enough of that, and we really want to focus on that ‘here-at-home’ mission because that might drive us a different way.

 

: Canada requires 12 submarines in order to maintain a presence in the Arctic and on each of our oceans Credit: Joetey Attariwala

CANADIAN SURFACE COMBATANT

CDR: You’ve mentioned that the Royal Canadian Navy has, in essence, six Halifax-class ships operationally available even though the Navy has twelve. That’s 50% operational availability. Do you see a path for that metric to get better?

VAdm Topshee: We’re investing all the money we need right now to make sure that the ships can last as long as they need to, and the reality is that they’re going to need to last another 20 years to get us through the Canadian Surface Combatant delivery. It’s not just about the date the CSC is delivered, it’s about when the first one will be ready to deploy on operations, because until then, the Halifax-class is carrying that burden. So, that’s the date that really matters to me. Right now, that’s in the middle of the 2030s.

Currently, we’re deploying four frigates a year. So if we’re going to deliver the Canadian Surface Combatant at the rate of about one every year and a half, it’s going to take us quite a while to get there. When you do the math on all of that, it shows I need 20 more years out of this class to allow for the potential of delays. We’re working really hard to make sure that CSC delivers on the current schedule, and potentially even find ways to accelerate it if there was ever some way to unlock that. We need to invest a lot in the Halifax-class right now to make sure it can last, because we have to have a ship that is safe to operate, and on top of that, it has to be combat effective as well. So, we need to make the investments necessary to sustain it. When I first joined, [HMCS] Winnipeg docking work periods were four weeks long — now they’re nearly two years. Because of that, we added a third yard that does refit, so now it’s Irving in Halifax, Davie in Quebec, and Seaspan in Victoria. So that’s three ships that are in deep maintenance periods at all times. And for every one of those ships, there’s another ship going into or out of that deep maintenance period, and that’s not going to change, so that’s why we’re going to live with six ships that are operational. Could we potentially surge all six of those simultaneously? Yes, we could. We’ve got contingency plans to be able to do that if needed. If we’re ever in a war-type environment, could we find ways to get nine operating? Yes, it will come at a cost though — it will come at a cost of the long term of that class. It’s not the place we’d like to be but it’s manageable — it is barely sufficient, but we can meet the remit of the Government of Canada right now.

CDR: How confident are you that Irving will meet the timelines for CSC? 

VAdm Topshee: Pretty confident, actually. Irving has done some amazing work and they’re doing an integrated master schedule right now that is showing how everything comes together. We’re learning the lessons from BAE’s build of the Glasgow, and from Australia’s work on the Hunter-class. We’ve got the benefit of two other Navies that are building effectively the same ship ahead of us, so all of the things that they learn as they build it, we’re incorporating into our design and build.

CDR: Thank you.

Joetey Attariwala is CDR’s Senior Staff Writer

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