Arctic/Offshore patrol vessels – an analysis

The right decision was made and a most significant battle has been won - the Navy will now be in the Arctic with an ice-capable ship - the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Vessel (A/OPV). Quite simply, the Navy had to be in our third ocean, and we can now lay to rest the earlier and somewhat curious arguments that only the Canadian Coast Guard should operate ships there. Optimally, the patrol vessels will, however, be joined by new Coast Guard icebreakers.

Other arguments and other problems remain but they are all minor by comparison. In this forum "Airedale" has argued that the plan to crew them with reserves is unworkable and is a signal that the regular force Navy is unwilling to shoulder its domestic tasks. I disagree, and as Fleet Commander I had six uniformly competent MCDV that travelled up to 1800 miles to attend major international exercises. They did superbly, although I fully admit the ships themselves were problematic in heavy weather. In spite of this, we had their reserve crews train all our Navy's sea-going bridge officers in ship driving, provide the bulk of our coastal patrols, and successfully reintroduce our navy to mine countermeasures. Further, the commercial support contract that maintained these vessels massively reduced the load on our dockyards and proved capable of supporting them on distant deployments with a 24 hours response anywhere in the Western Pacific. Based on their past performance, the reserves have every chance of measuring up to the arctic and offshore patrol vessel challenge.

In addition, by continuing to send our 4,500 reserves to sea we get the best bang for the buck. It forces their home units to produce what the Navy needs - sea-going sailors. Further, I see few other financially viable options. Today, 55 percent of our current $18.5 defence budget is consumed by personnel costs, and this figure will soon reach 60 percent. Thus, every new additional regular force billet comes at the direct cost of either operations or new capital. Even the hard-pressed army is not likely to any new personnel growth as a result. You may also have noticed no one is talking about a 75,000 military any more. We simply cannot afford it and no one expects growth beyond 65,000. Given the reserve fleet's proven competence, and the near impossibility of increasing the size of the regular force Navy, there is no other option but reserve crews. These two factors are the reasons why the reserves will man the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Vessels and not the convenient suggestion that the regular Navy is shirking its domestic responsibilities.

A real problem lies in the suggestion that the AOPV funding will also pay for a "docking and refuelling facility" in Nunavut by providing $274 million. The Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has already warned of the dangers of applying scarce defence dollars to such regional development projects. I am very much afraid that the Navy will not have the strength to keep this activity within the bounds of the needed dock and fuel farm. Certainly, the Navy's successful experience with deployed commercial repair teams for the MCDV demonstrates that the last thing we need to do is to also set up a maintenance facility up there.

The final problem involves the announcement's suggestion that the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Vessels may be of 3000 ton size when many in this forum were attracted to the 6500 ton Norwegian SVALBARD. It is clearly not our job to specify ship design to the Navy. However, my earlier post on the Halifax Class Modernization (HCM) makes it clear the Navy has an immense job ahead delivering on the AOPV, the HCM and the Joint Supply Ship. The want of a small but steady continuous ship building process has led rapidly from bust-to-boom times. As a result we now have depleted Naval engineering design teams and Canadian industry that will be stretched to keep up. The use of proven foreign designs like the SVALBARD offered some risk mitigation in these soon to be very challenging times. I do, however, take comfort in the reported 100-meter length. Anything less will not work in the Arctic or in the North Pacific and Atlantic.