Monday, May 14, 2007

Arctic ice-breaking is a coast guard job. So why is the navy getting ice-breakers

It looks like the Conservative cabinet has a bit of a leak in it. This is information which dribbled out suggesting that the federal cabinet is looking at six new ships for the Canadian Navy.
A key federal cabinet committee has given the go-ahead for a plan to construct six corvette-sized Arctic patrol vessels, The Canadian Press has learned.

The cabinet priorities and planning committee approved the program to build the 100-metre-long, 6,000-tonne warships within the last 10 days, according to defence and political sources.

The patrol vessels, which are almost as large as the navy's frigates, are a step down from the armed Arctic icebreakers that the Conservatives promised in the last election campaign and will likely not be in service before 2015.

Nevertheless, said one political source “it'll be good for the military, good for Canadian industry and the Arctic is critical to our national interest.”

Cabinet is said to have authorized a two-year definition phase in which the scope of the shipbuilding project will be laid out. Much of the cost of the new vessels — about $300-million apiece — is being put off until later years.

The vessels, which will be capable of smashing through “fresh ice,” are expected to be based on the Royal Norwegian Navy's Svalbard class design, said a military source. That particular type vessel is armed with a 57-millimetre deck gun, missile-launching tubes and also has a helicopter pad.

First off, this non-announcement is just that. There's nothing to announce. This is more exploratory than anything else. It will be at least two years before there is even a reasonable artist's conception available. The 2015 "in service" estimate is rather ambitious and the $300 million estimated cost per copy is ridiculously low.

I smell something here. I expect the Harperites will announce this ship procurement program as being the fulfillment of their election promise to build armed ice-breakers, a patently stupid idea and one the navy didn't want to touch with a ten foot pole.

These ships are not full-blown ice-breakers. They are actually "ice resistant" which means they can handle being in the ice but have neither the hulls nor the engineering to break anything more than fresh surface cover about a meter thick.

Rob Huebert, of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, said the corvettes are a good step, but they cannot be the only solution for the Arctic.

“It makes sense only if the coast guard is getting its icebreaking fleet recapitalized,” he said in an interview.

“If this is just a cheap buyout to allow the navy not to get icebreakers, and the coast guard does not get its very old icebreakers replenished, then we're going to be in a lot of hurt.”

In truth, the idea of the navy conducting patrols in the Arctic presents a problem. The better sovereignty tool would be a renewed coast guard and an enlarged RCMP marine section. If Canada is claiming the Arctic archipelago as territorial waters then the navy is the wrong outfit to conduct sovereignty - unless the government is so insecure in Canada's claim that it suspects there will be a need for combat ships in that area.

Given that Canada has the worlds longest coastline and is a maritime trading nation, maintaining a viable navy is critically important. In that respect one of the prime considerations for the navy has been to maintain a fleet of patrol frigates and destroyers capable of securing our sea frontiers and protecting our sea lines of communication. The navy, while they will not turn their noses up at six patrol ships, desperately wants to replace the old tribal-class destroyers and have a program on stream to replace the frigates once they reach the end of their useful lives.

The Canadian Coast Guard is in desperate need of new ice-breakers and it seems odd, (well, it would seem odd if it weren't the Conservatives), that the navy is being told to explore ice-capable ships before the Coast Guard's ice-breaking capability is renewed.

Odd... unless... oh no.

Are the Harperites going to allow the Coast Guard to fade into obscurity and shift the role to the navy? That would create an armed coast guard.

The ship they are looking at building is based on the Norwegian Svalbard class, a purpose-built coast guard vessel designed for the northernmost Norwegian seas and territorial waters. Given the structure of Canada's naval, coast guard and marine law enforcement establishments, providing ice-capable, limited-role ships to the Navy for the purpose of patrolling territorial waters makes little sense.

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