A lot of questions remain unanswered

The plan to construct six ice strengthened naval Arctic patrol vessels seems to have arisen out of the blue and a lot of questions remain unanswered.

The Ministers of National Defence and Fisheries and Oceans are not members of the Priorities and Planning committee that made the proposal. Were they present when it was discussed? (I hope so).

Are our maritime policies agreed to and coordinated between these departments? (I tend to doubt it).

Will the cost of $1.8 billion affect the acquisition of real icebreakers for the Coast Guard or the Destroyer and Frigate replacements? (Remains to be seen).

In our local paper, the article reporting the plan was next to a photo of HMCS Huron being towed away to be sunk as a target. This destroyer was in perfectly good condition when she was decommissioned because the Navy did not have the personnel to crew her nor, apparently, the funds and a skeleton crew to maintain her in lay-up. How then can we find the find crews for these patrol vessels except by decommissioning real fighting ships? If the Navy's personnel level is to be increased that would be a welcome development, but is it?

The ships, if built, would not be used exclusively in the Arctic but in lower latitudes off our coasts, some of them all the time, probably overlapping or replacing the Coast Guard's fisheries and search and rescue patrols. (That question of coordination again). Consider the nature of patrols. In the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf patrolling ships are active in intercepting and inspecting vessels. The task is worthwhile and the crews are challenged and interested. But when there is little to intercept - a vague threat from Al Quaida who can do much more effective damage by recruiting and indoctrinating young sympathisers - patrols are boring and wasteful of money. The combined Coast Guard/ RCMP anti terrorist-patrols have some craft operating in the Lakes and St.Lawrence but on the ocean they do not go into effect unless the RCMP has intelligence about a target (the same policy they use for drug smuggling). Of course we could lay on air surveillance and intercept anything not reporting to the traffic control systems but are we prepared to? In the seventies and eighties, Coast Guard offshore SAR vessels, constrained by budget cuts to reduce fuel and overtime bills, tended to find a convenient harbour or anchorage to wait for a distress call. If the incident was well offshore, the fisheries patrol vessels, who were out there anyway, usually got to it first. Now, of course the fisheries and offshore SAR functions are combined, a much better system. I would predict that naval commanders would soon get tired of this assignment and want to turn it and the ships over to the Coast Guard; but just as the Coastal Patrol vessels are too small, these would be too big and the Coast Guard would not be happy with them.

Now to the Arctic. The only problem comes from the United States and it is a legal challenge, not a physical threat and concerns the waterways and not the land. It is not an American policy directed at Canada but the normal attitude of the major naval power of the day and they exercise it all over the world. The Royal Navy had the same policy in its time, but things were not so codified then and nobody noticed. As global warning becomes more advanced there may be increased civilian traffic in the Arctic but these ships must conform to Canadian regulations. Are we anticipating that some German or Russian eco-tourism ship or a convience-flag bulker will refuse to conform to the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Regulations and will have to be coerced with a 57 mm gun? How about a USCG icebreaker? Cooperation between our two Coast Guards has been excellent for generations. We have helped them and they have helped us and there is no reason for that to change.

Now sovereignty over remote uninhabited areas is not unquestionable if no national presence is ever imposed there. Visits by Army detachments working with the Canadian Rangers would meet the requirement. They can be transported in Coast Guard icebreakers and, until new ones are built, the Louis S. St.Laurent would be ideal for this purpose. Other scientific work could be carried out at the same time. The main need, however is for surveying. Anyone who has sailed in Arctic waters knows about the scarcity of sounding data, even in commonly travelled areas like the east coast of Baffin Island.

These patrol vessels vessels can be justified only on the following grounds: if their construction does not compromise other needed ships; if there are personnel to crew them; if it is intended to mount an active patrol policy off all our coasts and continue it. However, I think it is more likely that, after expending about $2 billion, they would soon be the victim of the next round of budget cuts. Better to give the Coast Guard new icebreakers, configured for survey and scientific work and with space available for DND to maintain our Arctic sovereignty.