The Case for a Polar Multifunctional Security Vessel

By David Prior, 30 December 2022

In October 2022, General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff, told the House of Commons defence committee studying Canada’s security posture in the Far North that the region does not face an immediate threat. “Right now, today, we don’t see a clear and present threat to our sovereignty, not today, not this week, not next week, not next year,” Eyre said, “However, in the decades to come, that threat, that tenuous hold that we have on our sovereignty, at the extremities of this nation, is going to come under increasing challenge.”1  

Canada’s Arctic has a number of security requirements that an ice-class Polar Multifunctional Security Vessel (PMSV) can effectively and economically satisfy.  Unlike a conventional wide-ranging patrol vessel or warship, a PMSV is akin to a mobile base in a remote and hostile environment. It is equipped with powerful defences to protect itself and Canada’s territory, has modern Arctic-class oil spill technology, offers heliports for up to 2 large helicopters in need of landing, and is a place of refuge and support for survivors from accidents or natural disasters. It has ample space for medical/dental clinics in addition to basic shelter for the full complement of an evacuated cruise ship. A PMSV has a powerful presence and its ice-class mobility allows it to disrupt intrusions by hostile players violating Canada’s territorial borders. Pipe-berths for 150 troops will fold up; the space can then be used for materiel. Centuries ago, wooden ships over-wintered in a vastly more hostile Arctic; a modern steel PMSV can likely do the same, providing a secure year-round military base.  

To recover spilled oil, break ice or engage in hostilities, the PMSV takes on water ballast to greatly reduce its freeboard. The vessel transforms from a catamaran with normal freeboard to a monohull with much less freeboard. (A Royal Norwegian Navy fast corvette utilizes a similar feature.) This capability enhances its ability to withstand ice pressure; it also provides the PMSV with a unique military advantage. Even when stationary in winter ice, the PMSV continues to serve as a base for troops, eyes and ears for the military, a heliport for aircraft in need of one, and a research hub for year-round work in the Arctic. If mobility in heavy ice is required, icebreakers can assist. PMSVs would be effective complements to the Harry DeWolf-class AOPS. 

PMSVs are not expensive high-tech warships or research vessels. They are ice-class cargo ships with light icebreaker capabilities and, with hull/beam ratios of 14:1, likely 25 kt capability on open water. Overall beam is 24m, allowing access to the Great Lakes and effective assistance from heavy icebreakers.2 While not slow, they are not high-powered greyhounds. The PMSV’s durable and slippery anti-stick hull coating, necessary for oil spill clean-up, also provides anti-fouling, faster hulls and enhanced icebreaking.3 Multifunctionality means better value, and PMSVs can play important roles. 

The world is full of heavily armed warships. Like nuclear weapons, they are sometimes too powerful and lethal for the job at hand so cannot be utilized. Force needs to be applied against intruders in a measured way. In the Iceland-UK cod wars, for example, rugged British offshore work vessels dominated Icelandic patrol vessels simply by pushing the patrol vessels out of the way.4 The frigate commanders could not justify retaliating with lethal firepower so they could not defeat the lightly armed patrol vessels. In a shoving match Polar Class PMSVs will have the thrust and strength to dominate modern warships. A PMSV is built for tug-like pushing, and for ramming if necessary. In ramming, an aggressor is often damaged as much as the target vessel. PMSVs, however, are designed for ramming. Hardened corners at the bow and stern will puncture the hull of an intruder several metres above the waterline, forcing it to withdraw to a shipyard but not sinking it. 

A PMSV armed with large calibre guns can respond if an intruding warship escalates the confrontation with lethal force. It’s worth noting that modern fragile warships are not designed for close quarters combat that may occur in ice-covered seas. A well-armed USCG cutter recently had to immediately retreat from an old Chinese fishing vessel.5

PMSVs could provide constabulary duties throughout the Arctic, and with teeth. They are designed for very close encounters and do not need to withdraw when the situation becomes hostile. PMSVs have the capacity to dominate any vessel in close encounters. Each of a PMSV’s twin hulls are subdivided into dozens of seawater ballast/oil storage tanks; it can withstand being rammed without being crippled. For constabulary duties, PMSVs can be stationed in strategic areas to monitor traffic and quickly respond to intruders. PMSVs can also provide the ‘muscle’ to help AOPS enforce regulations in a measured way without undue escalation. AOPS were designed when the Arctic was to become a peaceful region of cooperation and friendly competition. China and Russia apparently never agreed. We can expect Russia and China not to follow international rules but to continue to act unpredictably with dangerous aggression.6 The West needs to revise its plans to address this reality. PMSVs address this military challenge, while bringing logistical, environmental and commercial benefits to the polar regions. 

PMSVs can be equipped with the same armament and aircraft as the Harry DeWolf-class AOPS but will possess additional features that overcome the military weaknesses of conventional patrol ships. In a hostile encounter at close quarters, the first indication an AOPS may have that an intruder is responding with lethal force is when an RPG removes the 25mm gun from the AOPS’s fore deck. To meet that threat, the PMSV utilizes the fore deck for an extra heliport and mounts 25mm guns high on each side of the superstructure. Each 25mm gun will have an arc of fire slightly greater than 180 degrees, providing 360-degree coverage. The superstructure may protect one of the guns from direct attack. 

The main deck of the PMSV’s superstructure contains armoured compartments housing larger calibre guns. These guns will have a 90-degree arc of fire and will fire through vertical slits protected by sliding armoured doors and smoke screens. The doors open and close extremely briefly during the firing of the guns. A Royal Norwegian Navy corvette utilizes a similar, but slower, arrangement to fire missiles. These heavier guns will not be vulnerable to RPGs. The PMSV’s armour-piercing shells will minimize exterior hull damage on the target vessel. The goal is to disable the intruder, not sink it and pollute the ocean. Responding to an intruder, the PMSV will first reduce freeboard with water ballast, allowing it to fire directly into the side of the hull of the intruding vessel, a few metres above the waterline to avoid flooding. One armour-piercing round will likely end the aggression by a hostile vessel. PMSVs can be equipped with defensive missiles but they will not be required, or even possible to use, for close engagements. MANPADS and RPGs will prove more useful. 

Located below the gun room and between the twin 7m wide hulls filled with seawater ballast will be the PMSV’s armoured control room and crew pipe-berths. The normal bridge, exposed high on the vulnerable superstructure, can be evacuated before engaging in dangerous confrontations. The PMSV can mount dozens of cameras with adequate redundancy. The PMSV will become a semi-drone, with the operators isolated from the conflict. Cameras also record the sequence of events. The images can be transmitted in real time -- all-seeing witnesses in future diplomacy battles. 

Confrontations with China and Russia may increase in Canadian polar waters. Without being overtly warlike, PMSVs have the needed ‘teeth’ required to dominate them. Unlike the USCG cutter chased away by an old Chinese fishing vessel, the PMSV can stand its ground in a close action against the most powerful opponent. The PMSV dominates the grey area between war and peace. AOPS (peace) and frigates (war) are unable to do that, yet the grey area is the most likely scenario in confrontations with Russia and China in the Arctic. 

Conclusions 

In the near future the biggest threat to the Arctic is environmental – climate change and oil pollution. The threat of oil pollution is increasing rapidly as traffic increases. Ocean currents in the Arctic continuously move oily ice and water, and the cold inhibits degradation. Oil stuck to ice soon becomes encased in the ice and will not sink; it can continue to poison the ecosystem for decades. As the ice melts, the still-fresh oil will be released into the ecosystem, but this time possibly thousands of kilometres from the accident site. Oil spilled at Russian and American offshore oilfields and shipping lanes may migrate to the Canadian Arctic. That is why spilled oil must be removed and safely stored as quickly as possible. This requires being at the spill site within days, not months.  

PMSVs are not just useful for security operations; they have the strength, size, workable Arctic oil spill tools and on-site storage capacity to achieve success, particularly in winter conditions. A single PMSV can store 40,000 bbls of recovered oil in below-deck heated tanks. All existing technology must wait for the ice to melt, which is months too late to prevent the escape of the oil and the poisoning of the ocean, shoreline and community ecosystems. 

As well, PMSVs stationed throughout Canada’s Arctic would be equipped to handle medical emergencies, routine medical needs and evacuations. With their large decks, cranes and interior spaces, PMSVs can also deliver essential goods, including in the winter with icebreaker assistance. In the event of a cruise ship incident, PMSVs have highly trained crews, available interior space and an ability to facilitate the offloading of lifeboats by lowering freeboard and side doors.  PMSVs can supply instant medical assistance and adequate food and shelter for hundreds of people.  

The most important role of Polar Multifunctional Security Vessels is a military one. PMSVs can meet military requirements by responding to and defeating intruders in a measured way, and by assisting with the logistics of troops and materiel in the Arctic. They can also play a significant role in security against oil spills, cruise ship/community evacuations, year-round remote search and rescue and heliport services. Canada also needs more Arctic research facilities. PMSVs can support this activity. Only PMSVs are capable of realistically and successfully handling all these challenges.  

Notes

1. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/wayne-eyre-arctic-russia-china-defence-1.6621040

2. https://www.ccg-gcc.gc.ca/icebreaking-deglacage/fleet-flotte-eng.html

3. https://www.seacoat.com/commercial-marine-2/

4. https://allthingsiceland.com/the-cod-wars-iceland-vs-britain-ep-36/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsOytZMRXo0&t=64s

5. https://maritime-executive.com/article/report-chinese-fishing-vessel-tried-to-hit-uscg-cutter-off-galapagos

6. See for example: https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/world/us-concerned-about-increasingly-dangerous-behavior-by-chinese-aircraft-us-defence-secretary/ar-AA14oO1Y; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/21/china-accused-of-seizing-rocket-debris-from-philippines-navy-in-south-china-sea-dispute; https://defenceindepth.co/2020/11/27/russian-military-latest-another-russia-us-naval-confrontation/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrzMI7-URcM; https://www.arctictoday.com/nato-allies-take-bigger-steps-to-counter-russian-military-force-in-the-arctic/; https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/world/nato-allies-wake-up-to-russian-supremacy-in-the-arctic/ar-AA14aSQU

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