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Due North

by Martin Shadwick

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In late March, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence published the 2007 edition of its Canadian Security Guide Book, a massive four-volume tome embracing coastal, border, seaport, and airport security. Although the series garnered comparatively little media and public attention – Don Martin of the National Post was undoubtedly correct when he pointed to “alarm fatigue” – the committee’s perceived dismissal of Arctic sovereignty and security issues touched more than a few raw nerves.

A source of particular frustration to the committee was the Harper government’s 2005-2006 campaign pledge to equip the navy with “three new armed naval heavy icebreakers,” and, at least by inference, alternative options for an expanded naval presence in the Arctic. “With defence [of] Canada’s littoral waters in disarray on our East, South and West coasts, the Committee finds it unfathomable that the government has announced its intention to get the Canadian Navy much more involved in Canada’s northern waters, where little or no threat exists to the security of Canadians.” Disagreements over Canada’s sovereignty in these waters, posited the committee, “are not going to be settled through the use of gunboats. They will be settled through the use of diplomacy or in the courts. Canada’s Navy is not trained or equipped for icebreaking, nor is it the right agency to exert Canadian sovereignty in the North. Draining the Navy’s already inadequate budget to play such an inappropriate role makes no military sense.”

The committee’s perceived lack of sensitivity to issues of Arctic sovereignty, security, and stewardship prompted an eclectic mix of rejoinders. “The senators miss the point,” mused a Globe and Mail editorial of 29 March 2007. “If Ottawa does not project its presence into the Arctic, it could lose its rights to exert sovereignty over the waters there as the polar ice melts.” A blunt Edmonton Journal editorial of 30 March 2007 labelled the committee’s notion “to retreat from patrolling and asserting sovereignty over the Far North,” an “absurd suggestion.”

A vessel

Photo: Jesper T. Andersen / www.jtashipphoto.dk

The norvegian Svalbard-Class offshore patrol vessel/light icebreaker.

With no little irony, the committee’s remarks appeared at almost the same instant that several new academic and other publications pointed to the increasing salience and time-sensitivity of sovereignty and security in the Arctic. For example, in the CDAI’s excellent Defence Requirements for Canada’s Arctic (a Vimy Paper edited by Brian MacDonald), Professor Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary explored how five factors – 9/11 and the vulnerabilities of North America to terrorism, climate change, the prospect of increased foreign accessibility to the Arctic, the growing demand for natural resources and particularly energy resources, and “a series of well-publicized international incidents” (i.e., Hans Island) – have contributed to the renaissance of Arctic sovereignty and security issues in Canada. Noteworthy, too, were the questions and dilemmas posed by Professor Donald McRae in his thought-provoking Arctic Sovereignty? What is at Stake? (Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 2007) and in a pointed National Post op-ed piece by Professors Ken Coates and W.R. Morrison. They suggested: “Our national commitment to the north, particularly the Arctic Islands, is dismal by international standards. If we have any pretenses of being a circumpolar nation – and we do when it suits us – we need to make a formidable commitment to the region.” In their view, “Canada requires the military resources necessary to maintain a regular presence in the region and to develop the capacity to defend our sovereignty.”

The committee, not surprisingly, moved to counter the impression that it had taken a laissez faire approach to issues of sovereignty and security in the north. In a March session with the editorial board of the Ottawa Citizen, committee chairman Colin Kenny stressed that the senators were cognizant of such issues, and voiced support for the Canadian Rangers, a northern training centre for the army, and improved airlift. Its report, in fairness, also recommended that Ottawa “procure three, year-round, Class 10 icebreakers with constabulary powers for Canadian Coast Guard presence in our Arctic waters,” and “to provide the [Canadian Coast Guard] with the capacity to provide safe passage for marine traffic through Arctic water[s].” In essence, therefore, the committee would argue that its problem is not with heavy icebreakers per se, but with naval-operated heavy ice-breakers. Point taken, but the report’s lack of substantive attention to sovereignty, security, and stewardship in the north, the marked lack of detail on the specifications, including any “fitted for but not with” provisions, of the three proposed heavy icebreakers, particularly when it provided considerable detail on a proposed new class of coast guard cutters, and the palpable lack of interest in finding other means for the navy to operate in the north, do raise troubling questions.

 However, the Senate committee did strike a responsive chord with its assertion that the heavy icebreakers should be operated by the coast guard, and not by the navy. Writing in the newly created, and fascinating ‘Broadsides’ on-line component of the Canadian Naval Review, Commodore (ret’d) Eric Lehre of Dalhousie University observed that the original Conservative proposal for naval heavy icebreakers was “awfully close to trying to improve highway safety by having the police drive the snowploughs. It looks very impressive but achieves nothing. It’s also expensive, puts the wrong people in the wrong jobs and shifts attention from the fact that what one really needs are more snowploughs and more police cars.” As Lehre notes, “the Navy no longer has any expertise in icebreaking (it stopped doing this 50 years ago); and never had any expertise in maintaining navigational aids, chart marking, vessel safety inspections, or vessel traffic management. The Coast Guard, on the other hand, has no experience in wide area underwater, surface and air surveillance and in building and manning ships that give and take battle damage.” In his view, “efforts to transfer these tasks back and forth or worse, combine them in one ship, or have the navy man the guns on coast guard ships, will be expensive, ineffective, and largely designed to avoid spending money on the large number of vessels that are actually needed.” Essentially similar views have been offered by myriad other contributors to ‘Broadsides’ – both academic and ex-naval turned – academic – and would, no doubt, be shared by a coast guard service confronting a horrendous case of block obsolescence.

 A strong consensus that any future heavy icebreakers should belong to the coast guard would not, however, mean that all of Canada’s emerging maritime security, sovereignty, and stewardship requirements in the north would be met adequately. Nor would it end the bizarre and frankly embarrassing spectacle of a two-ocean navy that cannot operate, to any credible degree, on the third ocean. Mix in some fascinating political-bureaucratic considerations, and it is small wonder that the acquisition of a new class of perhaps six naval-operated Arctic Patrol Ships (APS) is drawing favour in some naval and academic circles.

 As Kyle D. Christensen, a strategic analyst in the Directorate of Maritime Strategy, noted in Defence Requirements for Canada’s Arctic: “Having armed assets with an enhanced ice capability will give the government an ability to respond to events and challenges in the north, support law enforcement activities, contribute to continental security, and secure and protect Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. Consequently, maintaining armed vessels with enhanced ice capability in the Navy, and general icebreaking capabilities in the Coast Guard, will provide the federal government with a spectrum of options with which to pursue these interests.” In order to “increase the Navy’s operational time and area in the north, the [Arctic Patrol Ship] will require the ability to operate in ice conditions up to at least one meter thick at a minimum. However, the ability to operate year-round in second-year ice (i.e., Polar Class 3) would be considered optimal.” Moreover, “the APS will require an ability to operate in all types of weather and climatic conditions, and to be able to conduct helicopter operations as well. It will require enough room onboard to transport troops, and enough flexibility to conduct a variety of missions, either independently, or with [other government departments]. It will also require enough endurance to operate across the vast distances of the Arctic, and to have maintenance and serviceability timelines with enough reliability to permit extended deployments.”

Foreign designs should prove instructive. A design inspired by the Royal Danish Navy’s ice-reinforced Thetis-Class ocean patrol vessel is one possibility, although, as Christensen notes, a vessel of its comparatively modest 3500-tonne displacement “represents the lower end of armed ice capable ships and [would] be unlikely to meet the minimum level of what is required for the Canadian APS capability.” Far more intriguing would be something along the lines of the Norwegian Coast Guard’s Svalbard-Class offshore patrol vessel/light icebreaker. The armed, multi-purpose Svalbard-Class displaces some 6500 tonnes, has a flight deck and hangar for a medium helicopter, and can undertake light icebreaking, heavy towing, and fire-fighting operations.

In the final analysis, a blended approach combining heavy icebreakers for the coast guard and Arctic Patrol Ships for the navy appears logical, although a sceptic, or perhaps a realist, would immediately posit that “logic” usually has precious little to do with the murky realities of politics, procurement, sovereignty, and security. The blended approach would place the heavy icebreakers in the hands of the most obvious operator, while providing the navy, at long last, with not only a credible northern capability, but a class of ships able to perform a security and sovereignty mission off the east and west coasts. This acquisition would, at least partially, replace the modest Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels – albeit, if a Svalbard-inspired APS design is selected, something that, due to its substantial displacement, will inevitably be dubbed a “big honking offshore patrol vessel,” it would also be able to perform selected overseas missions. As Ken Hansen, a Defence Fellow at Dalhousie University has noted: “An ice-capable patrol ship can easily be pressed into any number of support roles in expeditionary warfare, constabulary cooperative operations abroad, and humanitarian relief operations.”

That said, money remains tightly rationed and fiercely fought over, particularly for a navy in need of Joint Support Ships, successors to its frigates and destroyers, and other capabilities. One wonders, too, how the APS would fair in a budgetary and/or bureaucratic competition with the Senate’s proposed class of eight well-equipped cutters. Time will tell, but time is also very much of the essence in this case.

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