As of 2003, the Maritime Command operates a fleet of about 30 surface ships (2 replenishment ships, 4 Iroquois (DDH-280) class destroyers, 12 City class frigates and smaller vessels), four Victoria class submarines, and a number of aircraft. The two main naval bases are in Halifax on the Atlantic coast, and Esquimault, on the Pacific.
During the early years of the twentieth-century, there was growing discussion within the British Empire as to the role the Dominions would play in defence and foreign affairs. A key part of this discussion focussed around naval issues. In Canada, it came down to a choice between two options. Either the young country could provide funds, support and manpower to the Royal Navy, or it could form its own navy. Canada chose the latter.
Originally formed as the Canadian Naval Service in 1910, it became the RCN on 30 January 1911, with two cruisers, His Majesty's Canadian Ships Rainbow and Niobe. With the onset of World War I, the premier of British Columbia, in a fit of public spirit, purchased two submarines from a shipyard in Washington that had been built for another customer, but whose sale had fallen through. These were presented to the RCN, but played little role.
As the war went on, plans were being laid in London and Ottawa to expand the RCN significantly, but with the end of the war these plans were stillborn, with only a cruiser and two destroyers being delivered of this program. By the 1930s, the RCN, along with its sister services, were starved of funding and equipment. But this decade saw the RCN begin its rebuilding, as Ottawa joined London, Paris, and Washington in a growing apprehension of the ramifications of Nazi Germany's rearmament and the adventurism of Italy and Japan. But by the outbreak of war in September 1939, the RCN still had only six destroyers and a handful of smaller ships.
The RCN expanded greatly during World War II, and by the end of the war, the RCN was the third-largest in the world, behind the US and UK. Although it showed its inexperience at times during the early part of the war, a navy made up of men from all across the country, including many who had never before seen a large body of water, showed itself to be capable of exceeding the expectations of its allies. A massive building program saw corvettes, frigates, and other escort vessels built in shipyards on both coasts and on the Great Lakes. Added to this were aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and various auxiliary ships.
With the end of the war against Germany, attention focussed on Japan. Plans were being laid to expand the RCNs capabilities beyond its anti-submarine orientation. The war in the Pacific was expected to culminate with a massive invasion of Japan itself, and this would need a different navy than that required in the Atlantic. With Britain nearly bankrupt after five and a half years of war, it was looking to shrink its military somewhat, especially since the United States was the dominant power in the Pacific. With this in mind, the RCN and Royal Australian Navy were to receive many ships considered surplus to the RN's needs, with the end goal being a powerful Commonwealth fleet of Australian, British, Canadian, and New Zealand ships alongside the United States Navy. As in 1918, the war ended before these plans came to fruition. With the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's will to fight evaporated.
With the end of the war, the RCN stopped expanding. A planned transfer of two aircraft carriers from the RN, HMCS Warrior and HMCS Magnificent, was slowed, and when Warrior was found to be unsuitable for a North Atlantic winter, she was sent to the west coast and next year was replaced by Magnificent, with the Warrior being given back. Canada still had two heavy cruisers, HMCS Ontario and HMCS Uganda, a number of Tribal class and other destroyers, and a mass of frigates, corvettes, and other ships, the majority of which were mothballed by 1947.
With the onset of the Cold War and the formation of NATO, the RCN expanded again, although to a much smaller extent than during the Second World War. Work was begun on a new class of anti-submarine frigates, the St Laurent-class. These would replace the remaining destroyers and frigates from the war (except the Tribals). Plans were drawn up for new destroyers to replace the Tribals (though these plans were later scrapped). HMCS Ontario and HMCS Quebec (formerly HMCS Uganda) were scrapped, and Magnificent was paid off, to be replaced by HMCS Bonaventure, a more modern aircraft carrier. In addition, the RCN began experiments with the fastest warship ever built, the sixty-knot maximum speed HMCS Bras D'Or.
By the 1970s, the RCN had become Canadian Forces Maritime Command, had lost its last aircraft carrier, and added the new Iroquois'. But while new frigates replaced the old St. Laurents, and the Iroquois have since been fully rebuilt and upgraded, Canada's military has endured since 1990 a period of extreme underfunding, and its future is very much in a state of flux.