Canada’s Navy: Sunk in the North?

Now that Ottawa is poised to announce a new purchase of Arctic Patrol Vessels (APVs), the question is: what does this portend for the future of the Navy?

A batch purchase of 6-8 APVs will likely cost about $3 billion over the life of these vessels - a figure that could rise given the inevitable military predisposition to "Canadianize" the ships, and given the equally inescapable political pressure to incorporate significant (i.e. 100 percent or more) Canadian industrial and regional benefits if the purchase goes offshore.

The planned purchase satisfies part of the oft-repeated 'Canada First Defence Strategy' so dear to the heart of Minister O'Connor. Indeed, the project makes far more operational sense than the Minister's immediate post-election musings about acquiring three armed icebreakers for northern patrols.

However, the central issue hinges on whether or not APVs now means further delay or even outright cancellation of what senior Navy officials argue is their first priority (after the Frigate Life Extension), namely, a replacement for the remaining three destroyers and the 12 frigates in the form of the Single Class Surface Combatant (SCSC) - a project whose $20-billion plus price tag is likely to cause a serious case of budgetary indigestion for any government confronted with a minority status and the need to address the 'greening' of any future political agenda. The Chief of the Maritime Staff regards the SCSC as vital to the re-capitalization of the fleet in the crucial period of 2017 and beyond.

Fundamentally, what is at stake for the Navy is the definition of its "core" capabilities. That is, will the navy of the future be structured primarily for domestic responsibilities, or will it retain as its foremost role the fulfilment of expeditionary missions?

If Senator Kenny and David Pugliese are correct in their recent assessments, then for the medium-term at least there will be insufficient defence funds available for both the Navy's 'home' and 'away' games. As a result, the combination of Joint Support Ships and APVs now may well herald the deferment of the SCSC in future. If this proves to be the logic of a more gradual defence funding horizon than DND had once anticipated, will the "constabularization" of the Navy be far behind?