An interview with Vice-Admiral Mark Norman

A Command Perspective / November 4, 2013

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman took command of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in June. Since then, he has forged ahead in planning for challenges associated with the most comprehensive period of peacetime modernization and renewal in the RCN’s history.


1. What are your main priorities as the new commander of the RCN?

My main priorities centre around a number of inter-connected challenges that we must address simultaneously. Briefly, we need to:

  • Ensure continued excellence in operations at sea. This speaks not only to maintaining high levels of performance, but also keeping sufficient naval forces available at the required readiness to provide to Government a set of viable response options for contingencies at home and abroad, even as we advance the modernization of the Halifax-class frigates at full speed.
  • Enable our transition to the future fleet, which includes moving forward with all dispatch on the delivery of the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship, the Joint Support Ship and the Canadian Surface Combatant, as well as preparing ourselves as a navy to operate all the new capabilities these projects will deliver. Inherent in the latter point is the need to protect our most precious asset – the seagoing and war fighting competency of our people – while there are fewer ships at sea in which they can perfect their craft.
  • Evolve the “business of our business” by continuing to advance towards what we’re calling “one navy” as our contribution towards defence renewal, as we look to better, leaner and smarter ways to organize, train and equip naval forces for operations.
  • Finally, while not an institutional challenge, but rather a personal priority, I spoke at the RCN change of command in June about “energizing the institution”, which is all about embracing the essential role we play in securing Canada’s security and prosperity; celebrating our history and our part in the broader Canadian story; promoting our ethos and recognizing our people; and empowering our sailors, as well as our friends and stakeholders, to engage in an ongoing conversation with Canadians about their navy.

2. How do you view the RCN’s current combat readiness, and how is it impacted by fleet modernization?

The heart of the RCN’s mission – to generate combat-effective maritime forces for operations – as well as navy culture, is exemplified by our motto “Ready Aye Ready”. On both counts, we’re working hard to ensure our performance on operations and exercises will continue to make Canadians proud of their navy. Let’s look, for example, at HMCS Toronto’s superb performance in the Arabian Sea. She’s been deployed on Operation Artemis for several months, where, thanks to great theatre intelligence cueing, she’s put a major dent into the narco-supply chains through which regional and global terrorist organizations fund their operations. She’s become a “go-to” ship in the multinational coalition Combined Task Force 150 because we train as we intend to fight, across the full spectrum of naval operations.

As for fleet modernization, we’re on track to modernize all 12 Halifax-class frigates by 2017. Four of the ships have already been delivered back to the navy from Irving and Victoria Shipyards on the east and west coasts respectively.

3. What does the future fleet look like?

We’re really excited by the Canada First fleet that we’re working hard to deliver. Sailors joining the RCN today will be witnessing the introduction of new classes of warships and new capabilities through their entire careers and beyond. That’s a direct consequence of the shipbuilding approach that’s at the heart of the Government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, as we put “boom or bust” shipbuilding in the RCN’s wake for the first time since the Korean conflict. It also has tremendous implications for our agility as a war fighting institution in this volatile and uncertain, but indisputably maritime, 21st century.

As recent sea combat operations off Libya demonstrated, strategic trends indicate that Canada will continue to require a globally deployable sea control navy in the decades to come. Our understanding of the future maritime security environment suggests that future maritime threats and challenges – air, sea and undersea, conventional and non-conventional – will multiply and intensify, especially in the “contested littorals”, that region astride the world’s coasts where the vast majority of humanity resides. So we need to examine the acquisition of weapons, sensors and other joint capabilities that will permit the RCN to contribute effectively, even decisively, to joint and combined operations ashore, even as we retain that capacity for decisive maritime action at sea.

4. Should the RCN be training more for domestic or overseas missions?

The short answer is that we must do both. Canada is not just one of the world’s most globalized nations, with all that means in terms of its interests around the world. Canada is also one of the world’s largest coastal states, and one of the few nations that has developed a highly integrated approach to the management of ocean policy at the federal level. The RCN has been assigned a key role in supporting its partners who have jurisdictions and mandates for ocean management, to ensure that Canada’s sovereignty – in short, our rights and obligations for the stewardship of our home waters – is respected by all.

In fact, I would emphasize that protecting our sovereignty is our most fundamental task, and one for which we must be properly trained, equipped and prepared. In this vein, I’d say we’re in pretty good shape in our Pacific and Atlantic home waters, even as we’ve well and truly begun that process of learning how to operate in the Arctic in preparation for the arrival of the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships.

In relation to operations abroad, we’ve looked very closely at NATO’s Libyan campaign, not only to validate our current approach to readiness, but also to assess how future maritime operations are likely to evolve in contested coastal waters. That assessment is shaping the development of naval requirements.

5. Is the RCN flexible enough to be prepared for roles such as humanitarian aid, both at home and abroad?

One of the key lessons we have learned from operations conducted over the past several years, from East Timor in 1999 to Haiti in 2010, is the need to broaden the fleet’s ability and flexibility to support operations ashore across a range of missions in relatively permissive environments, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

As a complement to its primary role of supporting the combat logistics requirements of the task group, the Joint Support Ship will be capable of delivering a limited amount of cargo ashore, and it will have the space and weight reserved to accommodate the potential inclusion of a modest joint task force headquarters for command and control of forces deployed ashore.

Capabilities of a similar incremental nature will also be examined for the remainder of the surface fleet. Among these could include the design of more flexible deck arrangements, the acquisition of larger and more versatile small craft, as well as the incorporation of sufficient reserved volume for humanitarian stores and accommodations. These could be coupled with sail-away joint mission modules such as an air/sea transportable medical/dental facility, as well as packages for military construction and environmental disaster response.

6. How do Reserve Force sailors contribute to the overall capability of the RCN?

The Naval Reserves are an integral part of our “one navy”, and they have been ever since Walter Hose established them as the RCN’s visible footprint across Canada in the 1920s. In many cities and towns, the Naval Reserves are the navy, and that speaks to one of their most enduring functions. I’m really proud of our Naval Reserves – those who have chosen to make a difference by serving as part-time sailors within their own communities, as well as those serving full-time in the fleet and elsewhere in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

From their stellar performance in responding to domestic floods and providing maritime security during Op Podium (the CAF mission in support of the 2010 Winter Olympics), our part-time sailors have demonstrated the importance and utility of having a strategic reserve whose competence is centred in sea service. At the same time, the full-time reservists who make up the overwhelming majority of our Kingston-class maritime coastal defence vessel crews have developed indispensable skills in coastal defence and mine warfare.

7. What does it mean to you to have the “Royal” designation back, along with a return to the Naval Ensign?

Part of what makes the RCN a national institution is a sense of belonging to something that bigger than any one of us. Part of that includes a strong sense of our own history and the role our navy has played in the making of the larger Canadian story, and equally the whole set of expectations we have of ourselves that comes from knowing what previous generations of sailors accomplished in peace and war, for most of our history as part of the RCN. So the Government’s decision to restore the historic title “Royal Canadian Navy” was a very welcome one, as was the more recent decision to return to the practice of using a distinctive service device as the Naval Ensign (see Crowsnest Vol. 7 No. 2, Summer 2013).