HMCS Winnipeg, designed in the Cold War days for anti-submarine warfare, has an arsenal at her disposal that includes a 20 mm Gatling gun, a Bofors 57 mm gun, an evolved Sea Sparrow missile system and SSM harpoons to engage any challenge to Canada's sovereignty.
But these days, the guns typically are silent: On a routine training exercise on calm waters off Vancouver Island, the ship recently responded to a mayday call from Barkley Sound. A small fishing vessel called Tagoola with three people aboard was taking on water. HMCS Winnipeg arrived around the same time as the local Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard towed them to safety, the navy made sure everyone was all right and then carried on.
The 15-year-old frigate is rarely idle. The warship was used this summer to help the RCMP and Canada's border services bring a boatload of Tamil men, women and children to shore. Last year, it was part of an international anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.
The world has changed since HMCS Winnipeg was commissioned in the mid-1990s, and the navy has changed with it. Military analysts say Canada's highly flexible and mobile navy is now particularly well suited to promote the country's interests in a world where terrorists, migrants and pirates have replaced Cold Warriors. Whether that potential can be realized depends on whether, in an era of restraint, Ottawa comes through with plans to upgrade and expand the naval force.
Some might still view navies as the military tool of the past, harking back to gunboat diplomacy and the battleship buildups before the Second World War. But surprisingly, navies are the force of the future, especially for countries such as Canada. When there's a problem, we often send a ship.
The navy has some unique advantages: It can deploy almost immediately, without necessarily relying on infringing on the sovereignty of other nations or requiring establishment of a base overseas. Its vessels can be active in an area without putting people on solid ground. Its entire fleet can be moved within a week to 10 days, can be self-sufficient for as long as two weeks and can be withdrawn as fast as it came. In sharp contrast, an army formation requires 30 days to move; the air force needs a field to land in, often requiring a round of high-level diplomatic negotiations to clear the way.
In Haiti, Canadian navy ships delivered aid, equipment and engineers; in the Gulf of Aden, they policed pirates. Canada may also have a role as China and other Asian nations expand their Pacific navies. If those powers clash at sea, Canada's military may not have a big impact on a war - but a Canadian navy task force, along with those of other nations, could play a big role in keeping them from coming too close at tense moments, while keeping key shipping lanes open.
Canada's ships and crews have shown what they can do, whether in Newfoundland, Somalia or Haiti. But after decades of neglect, does the navy have the boats to do the job?
The multibillion-dollar Canada First Defence Strategy announced in May, 2008, held out fresh promise for a modern navy that would have new Arctic patrol ships and 15 upgraded warships to replace the fleet's backbone of destroyers and frigates over 20 years. But current projections for defence spending are far less than that strategy proclaimed.
The plans to build three new multipurpose supply ships have been whittled down to two basic oilers to replace the aging HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver, which provide at-sea support for refuelling and resupplying naval task groups and helicopter operations.
Canada First also calls for spending $3.1-billion on the acquisition of six to eight Arctic patrol ships capable of breaking one-year-old ice, starting in 2013. But the project is being trimmed to fit the budget and the first ship won't be ready by then. The strategy pledged new ships to replace the navy's three aging destroyers, which go out of service in 2017, and its 12 frigates in the next decade - but it's not clear whether there will be enough money to pay the more than $40-billion needed to replace those 15 warships.
David Zimmerman, a military historian at the University of Victoria, says the navy could fulfill its mission with the fleet at its current strength, but only if the government carries through with its commitment to replace and upgrade the supply ships and frigates, and acquire the Arctic patrol ships. "The real issue," he says, "is will the government actually come through with this multibillion-dollar commitment?"