A major showing at this week’s RIMPAC 2012 naval exercises off Hawaii may only be the start of a push by Canada to have a solid presence in Asia
by Simon Kent
Then there were two.
Last month China sent its first aircraft carrier Shi Lang to sea for trials. At 66,000-tons, the reconfigured former Soviet ship is a significant new player in a building South Asia arms race that has drawn the attention of both the US and Canada.
Now India has followed suit. Its refurbished aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya began long-delayed sea trials June 8, leaving Sevmash shipyard in northern Russia for the White Sea.
After a $2.3 billion conversion at Sevmash — originally contracted in 2005 for $943 million — the former Soviet vessel now sports a full flight deck and bow ski jump, allowing aircraft launches without catapult assistance.
The 45,400-ton Vikramaditya will remain at sea for the rest of June and India hopes to begin initial flight operations within 12 months.
That’s not all. The Indian Navy is confident it will have two fully-fledged aircraft carrier battle groups (CBGs) by 2015 or so despite slippages in refit of the Vikramaditya and construction of a 40,000-ton indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) at Cochin Shipyard. India does lack long-range attack submarines for escort and a close-in defence weapons system for the capital ships, but it is a start predicated on experience.
Unlike China, India has been operating escort aircraft carriers or almost 50 years. It brings a core of naval pilots and fully developed doctrine to the task of maintaining fixed wing flight operations at sea, although never on a scale demanded by the sheer size of the Vikramaditya.
Both these ships represent a southern shift in the global balance of military power that the US and more recently Canada have acknowledged.
It also comes in a year when, for the first time, Asia’s military spending will surpass Europe’s, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The U.S. Navy recently confirmed it will be sending its most advanced ships and aircraft to the Asia-Pacific region as it builds its biggest presence there since the end of World War II.
Admiral Cecil Haney, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, revealed two weeks ago that under a policy recently outlined by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a full 60 per cent of the US Navy’s fleet will be deployed to the Pacific by 2020.
There will also be a forward deployment of troops that already includes a permanent US Marine brigade for the tropical city of Darwin in far north Australia and other troops and assets in Singapore.
Further possible staging posts include the Philippines, South Korea as well as Japan.
For its part, Canada is seeking willing allies in the Asia Pacific region with a view to building and maintaining a military hub.
“We’re doing the rounds, signaling Canada’s intention to reassert our credentials in the Pacific,” is how Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay describes our new Asian posture.
Although Canada’s footprint will be nothing like that of the US, or the expanding military might of the likes of China and India, it will involve something more than planting a flag on a deserted stretch of coral atoll.
The most likely scenario will see a port facility made available in a trading centre like Singapore with access to an airfield. MacKay said any regional military hub would be similar to the arrangements Canada has reached with Kuwait and Jamaica, to give it military footholds in the Middle East and the Caribbean.
Canada’s new military engagement with Asia will be visible sooner rather than later and starts Friday at the biannual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises off Hawaii.
Canada is contributing a major contingent of military assets to what is the largest naval exercise in the world. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) alone will provide five surface ships and the maiden overseas deployment of the submarine HMCS Victoria.
The RCAF will send 15 planes including seven CF-188 Hornet fighter jets, surveillance planes and refuellers, as well as helicopters, a dive team and 150 infantry soldiers from the Canadian Army’s 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
A total of 1400 Canadian personnel will be involved.
At the command level, Canadian officers will hold three senior leadership positions in RIMPAC 2012.
Rear-Admiral Ron Lloyd will be the Deputy Commander Combined Task Force; Brigadier-General Michael Hood will be the Combined Forces Air Component Commander; and Commodore Peter Ellis will serve as the Commander Combined Task Force 176, an amphibious Task Group led by the United States Ship Essex.
All of which lives up to Defence Minister MacKay’s perception of Canada’s new “we need to be present” engagement with Asia and the Pacific.
How that squares against any cutbacks in future Canadian defence funding is yet to be made clear.
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