Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose announced today that the Canadian government has signed a $288 million definition contract with Irving Shipbuilding for Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (A/OPS). The definition contract will allow Irving Shipbuilding to design the ships and their electronics and mechanics up to a production level. A separate contract will be awarded for the construction of the ships, which is slated to begin in 2015. The first ship will not be operational until 2019, and the fleet will not be fully operational until 2023 — a full 17 years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged during the 2006 election to acquire three icebreakers. The ships were set three years behind schedule last year, a delay I discussed in a previous post.
At today’s announcement of the definition contract, the Honourable Kerry-Lynne D. Findlay, Associate Minister of National Defence, stated, “The Arctic/Offshore patrol ships represent a new capability for the Royal Canadian Navy that will help them achieve success in their missions-patrolling our three coastlines and protecting our sovereignty…We are committed to the complex work of rebuilding our Navy’s surface fleet, to creating high-quality marine sector jobs, and to getting the job done right.”
While the press release states that the contract will support up to 200 jobs, the Chronicle Herald, a Nova Scotia newspaper, is questioning where the actual work will be done. Denmark’s Odense Maritime Technology will carry out some engineering work, whereas General Dynamics Bath Iron Works from Maine will help with top level design. Perhaps this is all in the spirit of Arctic cooperation, though?
The government’s budget for the ships may also underestimate the actual cost of construction. MP John McCallum, a Liberal and former Defence Minister, questioned the figures used in the budget during a House of Commons debate last February. He asked, “Mr. Speaker, recently officials were evasive when I asked how they were accounting for inflation in the shipbuilding contract. Now we learn that their assumed inflation rate is 2.7 percent versus an industry rate between 7 percent and 11 percent. This huge inflation gap shows gross financial incompetence by the government and would add at least $14 billion, or 56 percent, to the total cost of the ships. Does this mean that we will get way fewer ships, a massive budget overrun, or both?”
A brief sketch of the planned capabilities for the A/OPS is available on the National Defence and Canadian Forces’ website. The idea is for the ships to be able to operate in Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which spans three oceans: the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic. The A/OPS will have medium icebreaking capabilities. The exact number of ships was not stated, but it was previously rumored that Ottawa would like a fleet of six to eight A/OPS. Mark Collins wrote an excellent post about the A/OPS last November, in which he quoted Senator Colin Kenny as calling the ships nothing more than “window-dressing” due to their middling capabilities. Kenny wrote an op-ed in the National Post last year in which he asked:
“If it’s big on trade, and big on security, why not build vessels capable of protecting our ports and our seaways? Why build vessels whose only purpose is to bolster our sovereignty claims in the Arctic? Sovereignty issues are going to be decided through diplomacy and/or in the courts. Arctic patrol ships won’t matter there.”
Kenny does have a point here in that sovereignty issues will ultimately be decided by countries in multilateral forums like the United Nations. Yet there is still some sense in having ships that are able to police and monitor a country’s EEZ, particularly as shipping picks up. Ships can carry out counter-terrorism operations, surveillance and SAR, among other tasks. The problem with Canada to a certain extent is that its ships will have to be able to operate in both the Arctic and the warmer, open water conditions in the country’s southern latitudes. Thus, they will be not be ideally suited for either Arctic or open water operation and will instead sit somewhere uncomfortably in the middle.
Canada might want to look to New Zealand’s Royal Navy to see how its vessels patrol the country’s EEZ. The navy has two offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), which have a maximum speed of 22 knots — much faster than the A/OPS 17 knots. The OPVs have a range of 6000 nautical miles, whereas the A/OPS will have a range of 6,800 nautical miles. They are built to sail in both the tropical waters of the South Pacific and the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean close to Antarctica, where there will sometimes be ice. Though they are not designed as icebreakers, the OPVs have strengthened hulls. Most of the time, Arctic states look to each other as models for how to operate in the poles. Yet they could also look south to places like New Zealand and Chile, whose navies have to operate in the circumpolar south. Interestingly, the Icelandic Coast Guard’s OPV Thor, whose job is to monitor the Icelandic EEZ, was built in a shipyard in Chile, so there might already be some cross-polar collaboration after all.