The days of large naval battle groups exchanging fire with 14-inch guns on the high seas are long over, but navies have taken on new and important roles that were never imagined in the past.
In fact, the 21st century may turn out to be the Maritime Century because of the new threats that have emerged from the sea, Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, told the Free Press editorial board Tuesday.
Canada's economy, like most of the world's, "floats on salt water," Adm. Maddison said, quoting Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The immediate threats to the global economy today are not so much in the form of hostile navies -- although such threats can never be ruled out -- but in a wide variety of challenges around the globe.
Piracy, for example, threatens shipping lanes from the east coast of Africa to the Straits of Malacca, a critical trade route that connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. The problem is so intense the world has been forced to respond with multinational naval task forces to ensure freedom of the seas.
Drug trafficking and the illegal transport of immigrants and arms to foreign shores are also major challenges for the world's navies, including Canada's fleet of roughly 65 vessels of various types.
Global warming, Adm. Maddison said, could also create massive humanitarian disasters in low-lying coastal areas if sea levels rise. Strife in failed states strains naval resources that could be required to perform multiple tasks, including rescue, surveillance and even intervention.
Migrating fish stocks could pressure navies as poorer nations struggle to combat food shortages, while competition for seabed resources, such as oil, will also intensify, particularly in the Canadian Arctic, where questions of sovereignty have not been settled.
Other challenges, all of them potentially more explosive, lurk in the seas that link China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, where territorial disputes have caused serious diplomatic tensions.
Adm. Maddison said the global situation demonstrates why Canada needs a navy with the ability to project force and influence around the world.
He said Canada's navy is adequate, but it ain't cheap -- a single frigate on patrol consumes $33,000 in fuel a day.
Despite concerns by defence analysts that Canada's $35-billion procurement program for new ships is behind schedule and possibly at risk as the government wages war on the deficit, Adm. Maddison said it's steady as she goes. Canada's frigates are being refitted and modernized, while a variety of new ships will be turned out over the next few years, including Arctic patrol vessels and new supply vessels.
Canada's troubled submarines are slowly being made sea-ready, and one of them even fired a torpedo and sank a derelict ship last year during an exercise, the first time since four boats were purchased from the British in 1998.
The navy also serves as a quasi-diplomatic service by showing the flag and meeting with foreign officials and military staffs. Adm. Maddison conducted a high-level visit to India in January, and a similar visit to China is being planned. Such visits increase mutual understanding and opportunities for co-operation.
The case for an effective, modern navy is strong, but there is less certainty it is being operated efficiently and with an eye on waste and fat. Adm. Maddison conceded a "legacy" of inefficiency and said the Forces are focused on "business process renewal" and on "working smarter" to achieve the same goals with less resources.
With three coasts to patrol and a world full of complex problems, Canada needs a modern navy that can work with its allies to protect its interests and ensure the seas remain free based on the rules of international law.