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Canada's plan to spend $7.4 billion on Arctic patrol ships slammed

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic
Canadians are debating what kind of icebreaker or Arctic patrol boat works best for them. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press photo

The Canadian government’s $7.4-billion plan to buy Arctic offshore patrol ships is headed toward a “titanic blunder,” because the ships are not adequate for working in the region, a couple of independent think tanks say.

A 50-page report denouncing the plan has been released by the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The report is also critical of the government’s plans for a refueling station at Nanisivik in Canada’s eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut.

In 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the plan to purchase six to eight Arctic offshore patrol ships.

Sounding the alarm

The report says that if the government sticks to its plan, the effects will be a disaster for two reasons. First, the type of ship the government has ordered is a compromise: Harper had promised to buy double-acting vessels that could sail in both directions, with a hull built for navigating the open ocean and a stern for icebreaking. “For cost-saving reasons, that plan for double-acting vessels was cancelled. They will now be single-acting vessels, so the bow has to fulfill both the open-ocean function and the ice-breaking function, and as a result, we have a low-speed ship,” said Michael Byers, one of the report’s authors. “That might make a little bit of sense in the Arctic, but it severely compromises the ability of these ships to fulfill an offshore patrol role.”

The ships ordered will be modeled on the KV Svalbard, an ice-strengthened ship owned by Norway. The report is critical of this plan, saying an ice-strengthened ship is not as good as an icebreaker.

Irving Shipbuilding out of Halifax was awarded a contract to design the ships. It has completed $9.3 million in preparatory work, and the company is now in the design phase for the ships.

“The Arctic offshore patrol ship hull will not be strong enough to allow operations in the Canadian Arctic except during the late summer and early fall,” the report says.

Rethinking security threats

The report says the proposed ships also do not have the range needed to patrol the Arctic.

The current plan is for the Arctic offshore patrol vessels to have a range of 6,800 nautical miles, while the Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers can go between 20,000 and 30,000 nautical miles before they need to be refueled. If the ships are stationed in Halifax, it is 2,800 nautical miles away from Nanisivik, a refueling station near Arctic Bay, Nunavut, which has yet to be built.

The report also denounces the plan because it says the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago and Canada has a good relationship with Russia, implying these ships are no longer needed. The report goes on to say that remoteness, small populations, low levels of shipping activity and major geopolitical developments have combined to reduce security threats to Canada’s Arctic.

“Our underlying point is that in the absence of any threat that currently requires even a light gun, why are we building purpose-built Arctic vessels for the Navy to essentially duplicate functions that could be fulfilled by the Coast Guard?” asked Byers.

The report says the biggest security threats to the Arctic are drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. It says the proposed vessels are too slow to handle these kinds of incidents.

The report also says relying on the Nanisivik port will be risky, as access to the port can be blocked by drifting late-season ice, which happened in Iqaluit last spring.

What should happen?

The report makes three recommendations:

  • Cancel the procurement of naval Arctic offshore patrol ships.
  • Build six to eight purpose-built high-speed offshore patrol ships.
  • Rebuild the Coast Guard icebreaker fleet and consider that the vessels need to perform a "constabulary" role.

The report suggests leaving Arctic duties to Coast Guard icebreakers. The first offshore patrol ship is scheduled to be ready by 2018.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.