The Arctic – What should the navy be doing now?

It appears that the Government wants our navy to acquire and operate Arctic Patrol Vessels (APV). What should the Canadian navy be doing pending the delivery of these ships?

Well, it should NOT be sitting on its collective duff and waiting for the ships to arrive - that could take many years given the glacial speed (even in these days of global warming!) of new ship-construction programmes! Our Northern waters are largely unexplored and un-surveyed - where are the dangerous pinnacles and uncharted shoals, for example? Could the Navy be part of a project to survey our North: that would also provide the benefit of building familiarization and corporate knowledge with those waters and coastlines?

How else might naval officers learn about northern operations? They could be attach-posted to Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) and other-Navy Arctic /Antarctic courses, and to icebreakers conducting polar operations. Briefings from those experienced in northern waters should be included in courses and professional development sessions. Staff College students should be required to conduct research and write papers on Arctic and Northern issues. Navigation courses should include exposure to northern and ice operation issues - the Joint Support Ship will have a much better capability than the current AORS in those waters, and we will need skills to operate them safely and to best advantage. Exchanges of personnel that will lead to practical sea experience should be sought with other countries. Is it well known that the Maritime Warfare Centre in Halifax has an Arctic Reference Library?

I have heard that the manning solution for APVs may be to crew them with reservists, as a replacement for the current Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels. Is that really a good idea? The Norwegian Svalbard, apparently the best APV design at the moment, is twice the length and some 6 times the displacement of an MCDV, and will usually have a helicopter embarked - operating such a vessel to its maximum capability would be a challenge to the most capable sea officers the Canadian Navy can find. Also, we need to build expertise in Northern operations - this cannot be readily accomplished with part-time sailors! The reserves can fill some of the positions to augment regular force manning of an APV, and if they continue to accept contracts to serve at sea they would gain useful experience, but then they become - in reality - permanent force by another name.

Do we have to wait for shiny-new APVs to arrive in Halifax or Esquimalt? What about leasing/borrowing vessels for the northern summer navigation season and manning such ships with naval crews augmented with specialists on loan from shipping companies, CCG or other navies while we learn about such operations, pending delivery of purpose-built APVs. Perhaps a core-crew of experienced people could be part of the lease agreement, especially in the early years.

Unfortunately it could take quite a few years to acquire APVs. If Canada is serious about gaining this capability to operate in our north, let us hope we can accept a proven but simple design such as Svalbard and keep the cost down, as the Norwegians seem to have done. In the meantime the Canadian Navy needs to gain broad-based experience wherever it can be obtained so that we will not be rank amateurs in our own North when our ships finally arrive!