Published by Senator Colin Kenny and Senator William Rompkey (retired) on 16 July 2009
There are two very good reasons why military planners cannot afford to make mistakes when purchasing ships for Canada's navy.
First, new ships are going to be at the heart of the kind of navy Canadians are going to need to negotiate the turbulent waters of international politics in the coming decade.
Second, vessels are extremely expensive, and one or two procurement blunders could bankrupt plans to rehabilitate our navy, which is currently in danger of sailing toward irrelevance.
For those reasons, the strange goings-on at the Department of National Defence these days regarding two vital purchases has some close observers feeling a bit seasick.
The most obvious problem is with the announced purchase of three joint supply ships. That purchase has been on hold since bids came in that would have put the cost of the ships well beyond what the current government seems willing to pay.
These were supposed to be huge vessels that would play dual roles, replacing 40-year-old supply ships that provide ammunition and fuel for task force operations at sea as well as hauling vehicles and equipment for Canadian land forces operating abroad. The standstill on this purchase threatens naval renewal.
But there is another dual-purpose vessel on the drawing board that is cause for concern -- the planned purchase of six to eight naval patrol vessels to be used in the Arctic in the summer and fall and off Canada's east and west coasts the rest of the year.
The Senate committee on defence has maintained for two years that the government's plan to purchase these ships is wrong-headed for a number of reasons.
Now the Senate committee on fisheries and oceans, in its new report Rising to the Arctic Challenge: Report on the Canadian Coast Guard -- is also pointing to a better strategy for controlling northern waters.
The Harper government has decided the best way to promote Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic would be to put these new patrol vessels under the control of the navy. They would also take on some Arctic responsibilities traditionally handled by the coast guard.
The report says that "The coast guard has far more experience and expertise in the North than the navy." It says that the coast guard should be outfitted with new icebreakers.
Canada's current icebreaking fleet, the report points out, is long in the tooth and was designed to be used in the St. Lawrence River. It will be inadequate once shipping increases due to warming in northern waters.
Unfortunately, only one new icebreaker is being ordered, as the government focuses on the patrol vessels. Those patrol vessels, the report observes, will only be capable of breaking newly formed ice.
The report quotes Michael Turner, former acting commissioner of the coast guard, as saying that since the new ships would be of hybrid design they would have "limited capability in open water."
This obviously applies to both the Arctic and along Canada's east and west coasts. Slow and lightly armed, the new ships are meant for "low threat" environments. They would be too weak for northern work.
The defence committee has argued in two reports that moving the navy into the Arctic will drain its effectiveness elsewhere and that it does not have the competence the coast guard possesses in the Arctic.
It has further argued that if the government wants guns on boats to make a point about sovereignty -- which it obviously does -- then arm the coast guard, in the same way the U.S. arms its coast guard. The union representing coast guard employees is not against this, as long as officers and crews are properly trained and compensated.
Again, the defence committee reports dovetail with the fisheries and oceans report, which recommends deploying multi-mission coast guard icebreakers "as a cost-effective alternative to Canada's surveillance and sovereignty patrol needs in the Arctic."
In short, both the manning of these patrol vessels by navy officers and the purchase of the ships themselves would be a huge mistake -- the kind of mistake a country with a limited military budget can't afford to make. These patrol vessels wouldn't even be fast enough to outrun speedy fishing vessels, which makes them of dubious use on the east and west coasts.
When two committees tell the government it needs to rethink its course in the Arctic, perhaps the government should show some signs that it is listening.
Colin Kenny is chairman of the Senate committee on national security and defence. Bill Rompkey is chairman of the Senate committee on fisheries and oceans.