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Navy on right course with new ship plan

Sen. Colin Kenny's article "Wrong decision on ships could sink navy" (July 16) criticized the government's plan to acquire a fleet of naval Arctic/offshore patrol ships.

Kenny argued the coast guard, rather than the navy, ought to operate the new ships.

He cited a report by the Senate committee on fisheries and oceans which stated "The coast guard has far more experience and expertise in the North than the navy."

He also cited a report of the Senate committee on national security and defence, of which he is chair, as saying essentially the same thing.

The fact that the navy does not currently have a particular capability is not an argument against developing that capability.

As strategic considerations change, so must the focus and capabilities of the Canadian Forces. The growing geopolitical importance of the Arctic and increasing infringements upon Canada's sovereignty in that region call for a military presence there to defend Canada's sovereignty and security.

The defence committee report Kenny cited stated that the Canadian Coast Guard "lacks the mandate, the experience, the equipment and the institutional focus" to defend Canada's maritime sovereignty.

The coast guard is a civilian organization; its important roles include search and rescue, pollution response, ice breaking, channel maintenance and supporting other government entities. Its unionized crews are not trained in or accustomed to filling national defence roles and should not be expected to do so.

It is inconsistent to argue that the navy should not operate Arctic/offshore patrol ships because of its inexperience in Arctic operations, while at the same time arguing that the Canadian Coast Guard should operate such vessels despite its inexperience in defending national sovereignty and its lack of a mandate to fill that role.

It makes more sense to equip and train the navy to meet an emergent strategic challenge within its mandate than to give the coast guard a new national defence role for which it is ill-suited, and which would overlap the navy's mandate.

Kenny complained the coast guard's icebreaking fleet is "long in the tooth" and criticized the government's plan to purchase only one powerful new icebreaker "as the government focuses on the patrol vessels."

Only one new icebreaker is being ordered because only one existing icebreaker is at the end of its life cycle -- the Louis St. Laurent, which was commissioned in 1969, between one and two decades earlier than any of the coast guard's other icebreakers, which remain capable.

The new icebreaker, CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, will be bigger and stronger than the ship it is replacing and will be built in Canada.

Kenny claimed that Canada's current icebreaking fleet "was designed to be used in the St. Lawrence River."

The coast guard has two 130-metre heavy Arctic icebreakers, the Louis St. Laurent and the Terry Fox, which serve in the Arctic from spring until autumn and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the east coast of Newfoundland in winter.

It also has four slightly smaller icebreakers that operate in the Arctic during summer and in the Atlantic during winter and spring.

The coast guard's seven program vessels have an icebreaking capability suitable for work in the western Arctic and Canada's southern waters and its five marine service vessels have a limited icebreaking capability for use in the St. Lawrence River and Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Kenny noted that the navy's new Arctic/offshore patrol ships "will only be capable of breaking newly formed ice," while also criticizing the new ships as too slow.

He cannot have his cake and eat it too. To maximize versatility, the new patrol ships will strike a reasonable balance between the hull strength needed for ice operability and the sleekness and light weight required for speed.

With a speed of at least 20 knots, these vessels will not be slow, and with the ability to operate in first-year ice, they will not be weak.

The new Arctic/offshore patrol ships envisioned by the Conservative government will greatly enhance Canada's ability to enforce its sovereignty over its entire maritime jurisdiction.

David Tkachuk is a member of the Senate committee on national security and defence.