Analysis: Canada's Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) have been in the pipeline for five years. Now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has signed a CAN $9.3 million contract with the Nova Scotia-based Irving Shipbuilding to begin work on the vessels.

It's an important first step, as for a while the number of AOPS that Canada would acquire was in flux.

However, the amount of money represented by the contract is quite small, as the ships are estimated to cost $3.1 billion to acquire and a another $4.3 billion to maintain. With the funding from the initial contract, Irving Shipbuilding will review the existing blueprints for the AOPS and begin working on an execution strategy.

As part of Canada's National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, Irving Shipbuilding received a $25 billion contract to perform work on 21 large combat vessels. Vancouver Shipyards will construct seven large non-combat vessels under an $8 billion agreement.

Canada First defense strategy

In a press release, Defense Minister Peter McKay stated, "This strategic relationship with Canadian shipyards will help us deliver on our commitment to the Canada First Defence Strategy, and enable us to provide our Navy with the modern ships they need to defend Canada's interests at home and abroad. Canada has the longest coastline of any nation on Earth and these new ships will allow the Royal Canadian Navy to enforce Canada's northern sovereignty."

The Canada First Defense Strategy, released in 2008, is billed as a "detailed road map for the modernization of the Canadian Forces." The strategy will provide $490 billion to invest in Canada's military. Sixty-billion dollars of that will be spent on new equipment, such as the AOPS and maritime patrol aircraft, to monitor the Arctic.

Six core missions for the Canadian Forces are identified in the document -- the first being the capacity to "conduct daily domestic and continental operations, including in the Arctic and through NORAD."

Three-ocean navy all in one ship?

In Canada's Arctic region, changing weather patterns are altering the environment, making it more accessible to sea traffic and economic activity. Retreating ice cover has opened the way for increased shipping, tourism and resource exploration, and new transportation routes are being considered, including through the Northwest Passage.

While this promises substantial economic benefits for Canada, it has also brought new challenges from other shores. These changes in the Arctic could spark an increase in illegal activity, with important implications for Canadian sovereignty and security and a potential requirement for additional military support.

Canada is a three-ocean country, and it desires a navy that is able to effectively operate in all three bodies of water.

As I have discussed before, even though the AOPS technically fall under the heading of "combat vessels," Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison has stated that the ships will not be "complex combatant[s]." They will not be armed enough to seriously be able to defend themselves in combat. As such, Canada is making a compromise between Arctic patrol vessels and offshore patrol vessels.

By possessing elements of both types of ships, AOPS gains the ability to break through ice with its thick hull but loses speed and maneuverability.

It might have been better -- and more affordable-- had Canada ordered some patrol vessels specifically designed for the Arctic and others, which are at a lower cost without the thickened hulls, for open-water patrol along its Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Canada should not try to have a three-ocean navy all in one ship.

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