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The Coastal Patrol Conundrum

by Martin Shadwick

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One of the consequences of the horrific events of 11 September 2001, and of the emergence of a decidedly volatile geo-strategic environment, has been renewed global attention to maritime sovereignty and security. In Canada, a country at once blessed, and cursed, with a coastline of breathtaking magnitude, this attention has been reflected in the recommendations of parliamentary committees (most notably the prolific and blunt Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence), in Ottawa’s April 2004 National Security Policy, and in the navy’s reawakened interest in the acquisition of offshore patrol vessels (OPVs).

Less clear is whether these pronouncements, recommendations and expressions of interest will translate into the type of flexible, robust and cost-effective coastal security capability so patently required. If there is scepticism on this point it is not surprising. Studies and reviews of how best to structure and coordinate the many relevant agencies and departments have been churned out, almost like clockwork, over many decades, and often with little discernible impact. In other cases, the changes may well have been counterproductive. Even with the post-9/11 environment as a catalyst, there remain strong differences of opinion, by no means all of them rooted in the sterility of bureaucratic politics, over the best route forward.

Scepticism has been bred, too, by an embarrassing number of false starts. The Canadian Surveillance and Sovereignty Enforcement Vessel, up to six of which were projected during the final stages of the Mulroney government, were intended to “relieve the major surface fleet of much of the patrol requirements within Canadian areas of maritime responsibility” and to supplement larger combatants on “overseas operations at the low end of the spectrum of conflict” but died a quick death as a result of budgetary and other considerations. Another of the maritime surveillance initiatives unveiled in the early 1990s, a Coastal Patrol Aircraft (CPA) to replace the Tracker, suffered a similar fate. Both could have proved useful in the post-9/11 environment.

The National Security Plan of April 2004 outlined a six-point plan for strengthening marine security. It included “clarifying and strengthening accountability for marine security amongst the various portfolios that have a role to play in securing our waters”; establishing Marine Security Operations Centres (multi-agency, but headed by Maritime Command); “increasing on-water patrols to better position the RCMP, Coast Guard and... Maritime Command to intervene, interdict, and board ships that may pose threats to Canada” and increasing contracted aerial surveillance; improving inter-fleet (i.e., civilian and military) communications; collaborating more closely with the United States; and securing the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In the 2005 edition of its Canadian Security Guide Book, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence deemed the NSP plan “short on specifics, deliverables and cost projections,” but allowed that “the goals it sets are good ones.” Nevertheless, the Committee is clearly exasperated by the state of Canada’s “toothless Coast Guard,” an entity which “cannot contribute to Canada’s national security in a significant way because it lacks the mandate, the experience, the equipment, and the institutional focus to do so.” It “does not have a constabulary function, it is not armed, and it reports to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, all of which contribute to a focus away from coastal security.” In the Committee’s view, the Coast Guard should retain such duties as search and rescue, ice-breaking, fisheries protection and maintaining aids to navigation, but be refocused, and suitably equipped, to “take on new responsibilities for national security.”

This proposal is most intriguing, but it is not clear that the case has been made. If nothing else, there would be a certain irony in moving closer to the coast guard-heavy American model of coastal surveillance and security, and away from the more navy-intensive (or at least hybrid) approach of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand... each of whom is acquiring new naval-operated, and distinctly multi-purpose, coastal patrolvessels.

Peter T. Haydon of Dalhousie University has identified other concerns in a fascinating November 2004 study prepared for the Institute for Research on Public Policy. “Law enforcement and intervention at sea,” he posits, “are specialized jobs. At the moment there are only two organizations qualified to do them: the RCMP and the military. The Coast Guard should not be invited into this field. The experience of the 1995 Turbot ‘war’, where the Coast Guard resorted to the use of force imprudently and without traditional Cabinet authority, should be adequate reason for not using the Coast Guard in intervention tasks.”

The navy’s recent interest in offshore patrol vessels – up to ten ships in the 1500 tonne range, austerely equipped in terms of combat information systems and armament but robustly constructed for operation in high sea states, and first-year ice, have been mooted – adds another element. To some observers, mindful of the navy’s traditional wariness of offshore patrol vessels and its attachment to much larger, and more sophisticated, major combatants, the interest in OPVs may be perceived as a bureaucratic pre-emptive strike against the possibility of a revitalized, and financially competitive, coast guard. Others, taking note of the navy’s declared willingness to explore interagency manning or the possible dividing of the OPV fleet between the navy and the coast guard, may perceive innovative, non-compartmentalized, thinking.

Other issues abound. Even if the navy acquired OPVs, what inspection and enforcement tasks, offshore and inshore, would remain the purview of the Coast Guard? Would a naval OPV of about 1500 tonnes prove too small and lacking in endurance? To what extent would a larger vessel provide cost-effective improvements for the operation of helicopters or UAVs? To what extent should “fitted for but not with” sensors and weapon systems be considered? The essential truth, though, is inescapable: Canada’s maritime security status quo will not suffice in the post-9/11 world, and current deficiencies cannot be corrected through mere tinkering.

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Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly.