In what could be seen as evidence the Russian military has a sense of humour, it has announced it is about to begin construction of its new nuclear-missile-carrying submarine, the Saint Nicolas. If based in Murmansk, as is the norm, it will spend some time at the North Pole, although I doubt anyone will want to receive the presents this "St. Nick" can deliver.
The Americans have just announced that the USS Texas - a brand-new, Virginia-class attack submarine - has surfaced at the North Pole. Until now, conventional wisdom held that this class of submarine was not designed for use in Arctic waters. With the arrival of the Texas at the North Pole, however, it seems that either "conventional wisdom" was wrong or the Americans have taken steps to modify the Virginia-class sub's abilities. Thus, Canadians have just been reminded that the Russians are continuing to build brand-new submarines for use in the Arctic, and that American submarines can and do go there. If the Cold War in the Arctic is over, it seems somebody forgot to tell the Americans and the Russians.
To their credit, Canadian leaders and officials are aware the Arctic is going to become a busier place for the world's navies. Both the Liberals, with Paul Martin's short-lived International Policy Statement, and the Conservatives, with Stephen Harper's long-awaited Arctic strategy, have pointed out that while Canada wishes that the world's navies would not come to our backyard, Canada must have the capabilities to know and act when they do.
To this end, the Harper government has announced that it will build six to eight Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). This is clearly a step in the right direction. In recent testimony to the Senate committee on fisheries and oceans, however, DND officials disclosed that financial considerations will severely limit the capabilities of these ships.
First, it seems unlikely that the navy will be able to build more than six. In operational terms, this means we will seldom have more than two of the AOPS available for service. (The rule of thumb for all navies is that for every one ship you have on duty, two will either be going into or out of refit. It is the only way they can be kept operational.) This will not be enough for an increasingly open and busy Arctic.
Second, when asked by a senator whether these vessels will be able to handle Canada's largest helicopters, the Chinooks, navy officials replied that this hadn't been examined, likely due to the costs. Yet, the sinking of the cruise vessel Explorer in Antarctic waters demonstrated there is a need to move a lot of people very quickly in the polar regions -something large helicopters do better than smaller ones. If Canada is faced with a similar emergency, we should accept the extra costs now of giving these ships the ability to handle our largest helicopters, so lives are not lost.
Third, officials have also stated that the AOPS will have a limited top speed, owing to cost considerations. While it is expensive to design a faster vessel, if the ice is disappearing it would be well worth the expense to have a ship that can top 17 knots. Although this speed may not be required in the first half of the ship's expected lifespan, it will be needed in its second half. It's almost impossible to "add" speed after the ship is built.
Finally, navy officials clearly indicated they think the ship is to be built to primarily perform constabulary roles in the Canadian North. Thus, it has limited armament capability. But given that the Russians and Americans are building a new fleet of Arctic-capable submarines, Canadians must be aware our neighbours do not view the Arctic's future as optimistically as we do.
Canadians may be surprised to learn that even the Danes and Norwegians have spent the past decade rebuilding much of their navy and air force into a considerably more combat-capable force that operates well in the Arctic. Today, it is difficult to think of a conflict in the Arctic. But then why are all of our neighbours rearming?
If the future indeed does become darker than we expect, we should ensure that the ships we build today can be adjusted accordingly. At a minimum, it seems prudent to ensure that these vessels can be retrofitted with the best surveillance systems, including those for underwater purposes, as well as more meaningful defensive systems than are currently planned. These vessels will be one of our main defensive systems in the Arctic from the middle 2010s to the middle 2050s. Spending more now will save us a lot more later on. After all, the American Texan has already arrived and the Russian St. Nick will be coming soon!
Rob Huebert is associate director at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary.