‘Arctic’ misplaced in name of new patrol vessels

Much is being said and written about the recent announcement of the new 'Arctic Patrol Vessels'. (See for example the DND Backgrounder, articles in the Globe and Star, commentary by James Travers, and editorials in the Star and Victoria Times Colonist) I maintain that the name given to these new ships misplaces the word 'arctic', which gives a false impression of their broader purpose. Rather, they should be known merely as Patrol Vessels, ones that are capable of operating in ice.

The navy has made key errors in judgement over the handling of this issue and is in the process of divorcing itself from the new patrol ships by handing them off to the naval reserves. These are blunders of strategic proportion that will undermine the navy's credibility with both the government and the people of Canada. Immediate corrective action is needed if the navy is to have any hope of recovering from its intransigent defence of the status quo.

Firstly, the navy must admit that the Kingston-class ships have been abject failures as 'Coastal Defence Vessels'. Originally designed as training platforms for the naval reserves in their specialized mine countermeasures warfare area, they were redesignated "MCDV" (an acronym that is meaningless outside of Canada) from "MM" (General Mine Warfare Vessel) when two follow-on programmes to provide mine sweepers and mine hunters were cancelled. Too small and slow to qualify as proper patrol ships, the Kingston-class ships were punished mercilessly in rough waters and gave many of their crews frightful stories to tell their families and friends. This is the usual fate of ships that are pressed into functions for which they were not designed.

Secondly, the navy must recognize that constabulary duties are a core capability/responsibility. A larger patrol vessel has long been an urgent national requirement, but the navy resisted this for fear of the association with the dreaded 'Tin Pot Navy' of the past that comes with any assumption of constabulary duties. Since its inception, the navy has been focused on high-end combat capability that can only find application in fleet engagement and expeditionary operations in foreign theatres of operation. What its leadership fails to understand is that these capabilities constitute only a small part of the full spectrum of naval requirements and that such combat occurs only rarely. The Canadian government and the public, meanwhile, remain unconvinced of the navy's dogmatic retention of Cold War attitudes and force structure goals. Now, the government has directed the navy to refocus itself. The navy has responded by rejecting the new role for the regular force and delegating it to the reserve force. Such distain for the one role that resonates strongly across the country will eventually cause the regular force navy to lose its relevance to the government and the people.

A patrol vessel that can operate in new ice will be a larger vessel, one that has both a robust hull and a high endurance. They will be able to endure rough seas and provide an acceptable working environment for their crews under such conditions. They will be able to operate in areas that have ice coverage, which no other ship in the existing fleet can do. These are important characteristics that the Kingston-class ships do not possess. The navy must realize that these new patrol ships are central to the future of the fleet and are not ancillary in any way. It is unreasonable to expect that the naval reserve will be able to man and operate these ships entirely from their limited resources. It is also unreasonable to remove the Kingston-class ships from their reserve training tasks and expect reservists to be able to command and operate a larger and more demanding ship without prior experience. The regular force navy must take an active interest in the constabulary role and embrace this change that has been mandated by the government. It is expected by the people.