Canada’s Arctic Naval Surge Is a Big Fat Mess

Ottawa’s weapons plan is unrealistic and late


This summer, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper delivered a hawkish, saber-rattling speech to Canadian troops.

During the speech on Baffin Island in the far north of the country, Harper thanked the soldiers for their service, reminded them of their recent sacrifices in Afghanistan and their duty to protect Canada’s territorial sovereignty.

“Including our Arctic,” Harper said.

The Canadian government is highly concerned about the Arctic as a site of future military conflict. To fight such a war, the Royal Canadian Navy plans to replace its aging frigates and destroyers with a one-size-fits-all vessel that’s fit for Arctic duty.

The rival in the icy waters is—of course—Russia.

But this symbol of Canada’s future military force is in trouble. The shipbuilding plan is facing delays and budget problems. The result could make Canada less capable of challenging Russian ships in the north.

There’s a reason why Canada is thinking seriously about its military.

“In Europe, we see the imperial ambitions of Vladimir Putin,” Harper continued in his speech. “Who seems determined that—for Russia’s neighbors—there shall be no peace. And because Russia is also Canada’s neighbor, we must not be complacent here at home.”

Indeed, Russia is pushing into the Arctic. Its icebreakers and nuclear submarines cruise the northern sea lanes, all to protect its recent oil explorations in the area.

Moscow is also revitalizing abandoned Soviet era military bases in the area and building new ones. In September 2014, Canadian and American jets intercepted Russian jets as they neared Canadian airspace.

Harper concluded his speech by saying that a government must protect its borders and citizens. “We are building new ships. We have bought tanks, light armored vehicles, helicopters and transport aircraft,” he said.

At top—a Halifax-class frigate. Royal Canadian Navy photo. Above—Harper rattling sabers in northern Canada. CBCNews capture

The Canadian navy is getting old.

Ottawa’s dozen 440-foot-long Halifax-class frigates have been showing wear and tear for years. In 2007, the Canadian government set aside $3 billion dollars to refit them and extend their service lives until 2030.

Now, Harper just wants to replace them.

Ottawa’s Iroquois-class destroyers are worse off. Fast and loaded down with munitions, these 5,000-ton-displacement beasts were once the pride of the Royal Canadian Navy. That was back in the 1970s when they were new.

The RCN used to have four Iroquois-class ships. Now there are only three and one of them is sick. The Royal Canadian Navy decommissioned HMCS Huron in 2005. HMCS Algonquin collided with another ship during a naval exercise and now sits in the dock, undergoing repairs.

Harper’s plan is to do away with both the Halifax frigates and the Iroquois destroyers. He wants to replace both types of ships with one multipurpose ship outfitted with different kits to do different jobs.

The ambitious plan is known as the Single Class Surface Combatant Project, and it’s already cost the Canadian taxpayer $26.2 billion. Experts and analysts expect the ships to cost an extra $90 billion throughout the project’s life.

One proposal would have Canada’s new fleet comprised of modified Absalon-class destroyers from Denmark. The Absalon is roughly the same size and shape as the Halifax class. They don’t come anywhere near the size of the Iroquois.

The idea is to produce 15 of the Absalon ships and “Canadize” them. The navy would fit these multi-purpose destroyers with different modules for different missions. These new vessels would handle anti-ship, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft missions.

The problems have already begun to mount. Canada is only using one shipyard to produce all its replacements—a yard operated in Halifax by Irving Shipbuilding. The shipyard is also building a set of small, Arctic patrol boats. These vessels are behind schedule.

That casts serious doubts on the builder’s ability to deliver replacements for the RCN’s destroyers and frigates by the project’s target date of 2018.

“Many knowledgeable people are doubtful that even 10 CSCs will be constructed,” wrote Colin Kenny of National Post. “That is far below the 15 promised by the Harper government, which is the bare minimum needed to allow the RCN to fully protect Canada.”

One of Denmark’s Absalon destroyers. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Harper government also hasn’t decided which contractor will build the ships. That deal is worth $26 billion dollars and is still up in the air.

But Canada also has to be careful, as the country’s military is still reeling from the debacle of the F-35 stealth fighter. Canada promised to buy 65 of the next-generation, American-built fighters. A plane that’s much too expensive and plagued with technical problems.

Political opponents and the media blasted Harper for a lack of transparency surrounding the decision to buy the expensive jets. They also criticized him for giving the military free reign over defense spending.

To combat this perception, Harper has cut the navy out of the decision-making process for the new destroyers. So now the people who will be sailing the new ships have no say in which ships they’ll be sailing.

Another unaddressed problem is Canada’s submarine fleet. Russia maintains submarines in the Arctic. If a country wants to protect its presence in the region, it must have healthy submarines.

Canada’s purchased its subs from Britain at a heavy discount in the 1990s. They’re falling apart. Canada’s military has sunk millions of dollars into making the vessels serviceable. One of the subs—HMCS Chicoutimi—caught fire in 2004, killing one of its crew.

Delays and confused promises plague other areas of the Canadian military—such as the Canadian Rangers.

The Canadian Rangers is a force of 5,000 troops that protect the country’s northern regions. The Rangers’ standard-issue rifle is the .303-caliber Lee-Enfield that Canada purchased in 1947.

The guns are falling apart. The Rangers can’t even buy replacement parts to repair them.

Canadian defense minister Rob Nicholson and other military spokesmen have all said the Rangers are getting new rifles next year.

Strange then, that Colt Canada plans to run a competition in 2015 to find a replacement rifle. It doesn’t have plans to get new rifles to the Rangers until 2019. It’s in the contract.

Nicholson accompanied Harper on his tour of the north this summer. A reporter on the scene pressed the defense minister, asking how Canada expects to defend itself against Russia when it can’t even get rifles to its Rangers.

“Canada has entered into a number of ranges with respect to Arctic offshore patrols and icebreakers,” Nicholson replied. “These are moving forward and again the Rangers who use those rifles have been a great part of our efforts in this part of the country.”

Even for a politician, that’s a striking non-answer. He then smiled and walked away.

“What if the Russians beat us to it?” a reporter asked, as Canada’s defense minister wandered off into the background.