New naval ships advance Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic

But critics point out that the ships have some serious limitations.

By Beth Brown, Nunatsiaq News - October 16, 2018
Irving Shipbuilding Inc. launched this vessel, HMCS Harry DeWolf, on Sept. 15. The navy will take over ownership of the ship next summer. (Canadian Armed Forces via Nunatsiaq News)

There’s a small glass porthole in the captain’s cabin of HMCS Charlottetown. Besides a handful of windshields, the pie-sized lookout is the only true window on the Canadian warship. Windows would mean a weakness for the double-hulled, steel frigate.

Still, on the ship’s bridge, two sailors are on the lookout for the kind of at-sea hazard that would be harrowing even for the heavy hull of the Charlottetown: icebergs.

“These ships have a very low ice rating. They can operate in about 10 or 15 centimetres of grey ice—which is essentially slush,” says Charlottetown’s commander, Nathan Decicco.

In late August, the Charlottetown was preparing to head home following a fuel stop in Nuuk, Greenland, after completing its summer deployment in the Canadian military’s annual sovereignty exercise, Operation Nanook.

One of 12 Halifax-class frigates, the vessel was built in 1995 for use in the Cold War and was later refurbished to deploy on NATO missions.

“They’re not icebreakers, they’re designed to hunt submarines, which means there are a lot of delicate external sensors on the ship that can be damaged in heavy ice,” Decicco said.

This summer, he planned to sail to Devon Island and deploy army troops for a land operation, but ice conditions left the 134-meter ship with little choice but to operate in and around Frobisher Bay.

“Ice is dynamic in that thawing environment. It can close behind you very quickly,” Decicco said.

But for the navy, ice operations are about to get easier.

HMCS Harry DeWolf launched into Halifax Harbour on Sept. 15. It’s the first of at least five naval Arctic and offshore patrol vessels that will work in northern waters.

Construction of two similar ships is now underway at Halifax Shipyard. The first ship took three years to build and will still need to go through extensive sea trials. The federal project costs around $3.5 billion for design and build.

According to the builder, Irving Shipbuilding Inc., the 130-meter, 6,615-tonne vessel is the largest ship built for the Canadian navy in half a century. The vessel is meant to work in the North during the navigable season, roughly from July to October, and can travel in medium first-year ice up to a metre thick.

If the ships were built as full icebreakers, they’d be too slow to be used in open ocean as patrol ships. As is, they’ll sail at a top speed of around 17 nautical miles — light sailing for a patrol frigate like the Charlottetown, which can do 35 knots. The new vessel is equipped with a low-caliber 25-mm gun — similar to what you would see on one of Canada’s light armored vehicles.

The ships have bow thrusters for maneuverability in narrow waterways and for berthing without a tugboat, as well as retractable stabilizers for sailing in open ocean. These look like underwater airplane wings that can be pulled back into the hull, so they aren’t ripped off by ice. While the patrol ships are Canadian made, they’re designed by a Danish company and are loosely modelled after a Norwegian class of ship.

As offshore patrol vessels, this class of ship will be used internationally to support anti-smuggling or anti-piracy operations, or for humanitarian missions. Domestically they can be used for law enforcement, government projects and academic research.

In the North, the ships could support remote communities under a concept known as “aid to civil powers,” where military assets are used to help when provinces or territories require heavy equipment and trained personnel.

Security, surveillance

The last Arctic-capable ship owned by the Canadian Navy was a Wind-class icebreaker called HMCS Labrador, commissioned in July 1954. It was the first warship to transit the Northwest Passage in both directions, and to circumnavigate North America in one trip. But the military transferred that icebreaker to the Coast Guard a few years later.

Now Coast Guard officials are helping the Navy reboot its training programs for polar navigation.

Next summer, the Navy’s new refuelling depot is set to open at Nanisivik, near Arctic Bay, to support both the Navy and the Coast Guard.

This federal focus on northern security comes as sea lanes open up and commercial traffic, while still small in number, slowly increases in Arctic waters. While the Arctic and offshore patrol ships are a project started in 2007 by then-Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the current Liberal government’s defense policy also pushes the new vessels as a way to increase surveillance in the North.

That’s as “a rise in commercial interest, research and tourism in and around Canada’s northern territory” creates “increased safety and security demands related to search and rescue and natural or man-made disasters to which Canada must be ready to respond,” according to a 2017 defense policy report.

Still, defense critics have questioned the wisdom of opting for these dual-purpose patrol ships.

And at $700 million per vessel, it’s still unclear if Irving Shipbuilding will build five or six offshore patrol ships for Canada.

Last year, a Senate standing committee on national security and defense compared the new vessels to other Canadian commercial, coast guard and fisheries vessels, along with international patrol vessels used by polar nations.

While the committee signalled a need for a Canadian Navy — a force it said was “in decline” — that can work even in High Arctic waters, the report shared the following concerns about the Arctic offshore patrol ships:

“These arctic patrol vessels will be unable to break ice that is more than a meter thick, and will only be able to operate in the arctic between June and October, still requiring a coast guard ice breaker as escort; they are slower than a BC Ferry at 17 knots, and will lack significant force projection in the form of weapons system. These limitations are troubling and raise the question of whether the taxpayers are receiving value for the monies spent.”

One major role the ships will play is the show of presence, Commander Decicco said.

“Part of it is just exercising control. You have to know what’s going on in territory you claim is sovereign territory.”

For Canada, that means knowing what’s going on in the Northwest Passage.

‘Classic optics’ for military presence

“There’s a long-standing controversy as to the status of the Northwest Passage,” said Suzanne Lalonde, a professor of international maritime law with Université de Montréal. “Canada has been claiming for decades that those waters are under its exclusive control” while the U.S., and other nations, call the waterways an international strait.

But that controversy was largely theoretical, she said, until recently, as diminishing amounts of Arctic sea ice prompted even non-Arctic states to develop northern policies, seen this winter in the release of China’s Arctic policy white paper.

“It’s no longer just a little quirky thing between Canada and the United States,” she said.

Lalonde sailed with the Charlottetown this summer. Legally, claiming the entire archipelago as internal waters is a “fairly aggressive” stake to make, she said. “It’s the strongest legal regime for managing or governing waters, because if they’re internal waters you can even deny access. People have to ask to come in to those waters.”

Right now, vessels sailing into northern Canadian waters have to check in with Transport Canada, and are required to adhere to Canadian environmental regulations.

But this can be hard to enforce. In recent years, Canada could be accused of being unable to responsibly govern its northern waters, Lalonde said.

“That’s where the navy comes in with these new Arctic offshore patrol ships. The navy signals a certain seriousness, a level of commitment,” she said. “So as far as I can tell, it’s classic optics, showing the rest of the world Canada takes its Arctic seriously, that we’ve got strong presence to make sure our rules and regulations are respected.”

And yet, should Canada’s claim over the Northwest Passage ever be contested in an international court, Lalonde said Inuit governance and land ownership might hold more sway in a sovereignty debate than military capacity would.

“This is going to be a very strong argument,” Lalonde said. “We hear from northern communities that they don’t want … an international strait with so little control for Canada.”

The federal government is currently working with Inuit to develop an Arctic policy framework.

“We’re trying to make it so that we’re not closing (the Northwest Passage) off to international navigation, we just want it to be at a high standard, environmentally and culturally sensitive,” Lalonde said.

Partnership needed in northern patrol

On the wall of the operations room at the Joint Arctic Command in Nuuk, Greenland, hangs a large screen that shows every vessel sailing around Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic. By tracking marine traffic, the Danish Defense (which also operates Denmark’s national coast guard) can respond to search and rescue reports, police international shipping and monitor Greenland fisheries.

“Up here the distance and the lack of infrastructure and the extreme weather is what dictates operations,” said Commander Senior Grade Jakob Rousøe, head of operations for Joint Arctic Command. “Because it’s so vast, you never have enough resources.”

As close Arctic neighbors, it is in both Canada’s and Denmark’s national interest to support each other in areas of northern sovereignty, safety and security, he said.

And while the command station is in frequent contact with Canada’s Joint Task Force North and Atlantic rescue coordination center, Rousøe also said that his command station is seeing a subtle increase in international flybys, commercial vessels and even in submarines — along with increased shipping in the Northwest Passage.

“This is the highway they would use, just south of Greenland…. That requires close cooperation between Danish authorities and Canadian authorities,” he said. “As the activity level rises, the only way we can cope with that is by cooperating.”

This summer, the Danish Navy participated in a sovereignty exercise with Canada, in which they practised what would happen if a “vessel of interest” were sailing in Greenland or Canadian waters, undocumented.

“In this case it was a scientific research vessel” that didn’t have permission to be where it was, Rousøe said. “That was valuable for us to exercise this because it’s something that happens all the time.”

Canada’s HMCS Kingston played that vessel of interest. The flat-bottomed coastal defense vessel has an ice girdle that makes it more ice strengthened than other Canadian navy ships. The new Harry DeWolf-class will replace Canada’s 12 Kingston-class ships.

One group of international ships closely monitored by staff at Arctic Command is a set of seven Russian research vessels. Among them is the Akademik Ioffe, which ran aground near Kugaaruk this summer while being chartered as a cruise vessel.

“It’s a well-known one,” Rousøe said.

That vessel’s grounding this year highlighted a known lack of capacity to respond to disasters in the Arctic.

When the 1,600-passenger luxury cruise vessel Crystal Serenity sailed the Northwest Passage, the Danish Navy kept in close contact with Canada, Rousøe said — in an effort to keep potential risk at bay. That’s because it would be almost impossible to safely help that many people should a disaster occur.

On the Charlottetown, Commander Decicco said his ship could find space for the rescue crew of a distressed fishing trawler, but not for a large passenger vessel.

“We could get them out of the water, but then what do you do … we don’t have space on the ship to safety accommodate 1,000 people.”

This summer, the Charlottetown couldn’t respond quickly to the grounded eco-tourism vessel, for several reasons: unexpected mechanical problems, ice in the region, and the sheer distance separating the ships — sailing from eastern to western Nunavut would have left the vessel without enough fuel to sail back down south.

The new Harry DeWolf vessel will have a higher fuel capacity, along with fast rescue craft and extra payload space — but while the ships will be able to support search and rescue in the Arctic, this will not be its primary mandate.

“We are not the Coast Guard,” Decicco said. “Simply put, the mandates are different. We use force, and that’s why we’re here, to be able to act on behalf of the Government of Canada to apply force if ordered.”

The Coast Guard’s focus, meanwhile, is to break ice, safely escort shipping, maintain navigational aids, monitor the Arctic environment, and respond to search and rescue calls.

While the navy celebrates the launch of its first Arctic and offshore patrol ship, the Quebec shipyard Chantier Davie Canada Inc. is planning to refurbish three interim icebreakers that will support the Canadian Coast Guard’s aging fleet.

The same national shipbuilding strategy that brought the Navy its new class of Arctic-capable ships will see just one new polar icebreaker built for the Canadian Coast Guard. That ship, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, will replace the largest Canadian icebreaker, the 52-year-old CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, in 2022.