Watching our coasts with one eye closed

The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has recently released the latest in a series of reviews focused on maritime security. The report cogently argues for a careful delineation of responsibilities in all Canadian waters - internal and offshore - and bluntly notes:

The key element of the government's new defence policy is Canada First. Why then, is there nothing in the planning that recognizes the basic need to defend Canada's coastlines? This policy is going to amount to a hoax if thousands of miles of Canadian coastline are left unguarded. "Canada First" sounds wonderfully patriotic and sensitive toward the needs of Canadian citizens, but without littoral defence, it will be a fraudulent attempt to pretend that the government is defending Canadians, when it isn't.

While the report focuses to a large extent on the role and the operations of the Canadian Coast Guard it is a very useful challenge to the assumption that the navy should be all things to all challenges in maritime security.

The current government seems to be determined to get the Canadian Navy involved in icebreaking in Arctic waters. The Committee believes that this would be a strange application of the Navy's mandate, given that Canada's northern sovereignty is not being threatened by invading navies. Sovereignty in the North is not going to be defended by force - can anyone imagine Canadian guns firing on U.S. or British vessels going through the Northwest Passage? It would also be a strange application of resources - the Navy has not broken ice anywhere for half a century. Nobody in the Navy has any experience doing this. Part of the Canadian Coast Guard's mandate, however, is icebreaking, so why would the Coast Guard not continue to play this role in the Arctic? If the government wants to give other countries the impression that it has placed "muscle" behind Canada's sovereign claim to Arctic waters, an armed Coast Guard would be a much more efficient way of accomplishing that end than twisting the Navy out of shape.

While the recent announcement of Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessels in lieu of naval icebreakers seems to be a step in the right direction, this is only one step in what should be a complete strategy. Offshore security is a complex business - ask the U.S. Coast Guard about the ambitious Deepwater Project:

We determined, therefore, that it would be most cost effective and efficient to acquire a wholly-integrated system of ships, aircraft, sensors and communications systems, or, as it is commonly called, a "system of systems". The idea is based on the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; all elements combine to generate greater capabilities across the entire system. Given that, our goal is not to replace ships, aircraft, and sensors with more ships, aircraft, and sensors, but to provide the Coast Guard with the functional capabilities required to safely achieve mission success.

(Statement of Rear- admiral Gary T. Blore on the DEEPWATER: Charting a Course for Safer Waters before the Committee on Homeland Security, 17 May 2007)

The US emphasizes, rightly, the central role of intelligence, surveillance, communications and command and control within an integrated effort of naval, coast guard, and law enforcement agencies. The Canadian signals indicate a lack of appreciation of this need - surveillance assets are waning with the decision to shorten the Aurora modernization project; HF Surface Wave Radar is not as effective as predicted; we are reluctant to demand the universal application of commercial vessel notification systems and above all we have no overriding plan and have no empowered agency to take charge and to be held accountable. This week's announcement of a large container terminal project in the Canso Strait and earlier projects in Prince Rupert underline Canada's commercial reliance on secure sea approaches and the widening scope of the security challenge.

The present navy is ill equipped to function in the north and challenged to maintain long-range as well as local operations. The coast guard is poorly adapted to security operations offshore and lacks not only the vessels but also the underlying mandate. With a renewed emphasis on the Arctic the overall maritime challenge will only increase and the Senate Committee echoes earlier Osbaldeston-style "Ocean Strategy" recommendations demanding closer working relations and designating the maritime security coordination role as appropriate to the navy. To this extent the report makes a helpful and forceful argument for greater combined effort to secure our maritime frontiers - in the larger oceans and on our interior lakes.