Here’s the scene: You’re playing one of those military strategy games. The country you are charged with protecting has cold winters, borders on a superpower and is extremely dependent on exports for its economic well-being. It has huge coastlines to the east and west, an expanse of land, ice and water to the far north, and that aforementioned superpower glowering at you from the south because the folks there don’t think you’re doing much to defend the continent you share.
A good part of the border with the superpower runs through some very large lakes and other waterways. Some of these bodies of water fester with illegal activity, such as smuggling. Nobody has been able to control the traffic on these waters, which means worse things than smuggling could take place.
If it sounds like I’m describing Canada, I am.
To protect this country and aid your allies abroad, you have a small, aging fleet of naval ships. Some need refitting, others need replacing, urgently. So what do you declare your priority to be? Building ships designed only to patrol the Arctic? Whoops! You just got knocked out of the board game.
Embarrassing, isn’t it? But that’s what is happening (for real) in Canada.
Everyone agrees that there is no military threat to our country in the Arctic, which is one of the main reasons our navy hasn’t patrolled there for 50 years. The coast guard does. Instead of spending a reasonable amount of money to upgrade the coast guard’s icebreaking capabilities, the government is charging ahead with the construction of six to eight armed Arctic patrol vessels to get the navy involved in northern “defence.” It is doing so despite a shortage of funds to build other naval vessels needed in southern waters and for deployment abroad.
Canada is down to two antique destroyers, 12 middle-aged frigates and one active submarine, with two more promised sometime soon. That’s what is available to defend a nation of slightly less than 10 million square kilometres, largely surrounded by water. Official navy documents have predicted that even this small fleet will be significantly diminished over the next eight to 10 years — many of the frigates will be unavailable due to refit, and the destroyers will have to be docked as maintenance costs spiral out of control.
Itemizing Canada’s military weaknesses across the board would fill the pages of this newspaper, so allow me to focus on this one issue with regard to the navy: Why spend scarce dollars on ships that won’t even cut through heavy ice when you have a dearth of real icebreakers? Why spend that money on ships that will be slower than fishing boats when what we need are fast ships that can intercept vessels in our southern waters? The government will argue that the Arctic patrol ships can be transferred to our East and West coasts in the winter. But if they are not designed as minesweepers or even as combat vessels, what would be the point? Why not spend the money on real warships, and give the coast guard real icebreakers?
Threats to our ports may not be imminent, but they are real. Harbours across the country are ripe targets for anyone who might choose to drop delayed-action mines and then scurry away. That is dead easy to do, using technology that’s been around since the Second World War and that we’d have no defence against. We need minesweepers to deal with that potential threat to our trade routes. All we have at the moment are Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs) that are good for training reservists, but little else.
This government has placed a priority on boosting Canada’s international trade. It has also branded its military strategy as “Canada first,” which suggests that it is serious about trying to ensure the security of Canadians.
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.
Building minesweepers to protect our ports while leaving Arctic patrol to the coast guard would be a far more intelligent investment. It’s one thing to lose a board game. It’s an entirely different thing for a country to waste more than $7-billion on window dressing.