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HMCS Charlottetown heads past Georges Island in Halifax harbour in this photo from January, 2012. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
HMCS Charlottetown heads past Georges Island in Halifax harbour in this photo from January, 2012. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Colin Robertson

Canada’s shipbuilding program is too important to run aground on poor planning Add to ...

Will we ever see steel cut on our promised new fleet of Arctic patrol craft and new warships for the Royal Canadian Navy?

Yes, but it will require continuing political will in holding to schedules and budgets and resolve in the face of relentless criticism.

Reports about the high cost for the design of the Arctic patrol craft come on the heels of the Parliamentary Budget Office warning that the new Navy supply ships are over budget and behind schedule. The Auditor General has announced he will investigate the entire procurement process.

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The bite of austerity also threatens that we will end up with both less ship and fewer ships.

With memories still fresh of the F-35 controversy, the government is seeking third-party expertise for the shipbuilding exercise.

It will need it if the multi-billion dollar project, designed to provide us with a new Navy and to re-create a Canadian shipbuilding industry, is to beat back the bean counters.

With three oceans at our back and the longest coastline in the world, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that Canada and its economy “float on salt water.” On any given day, one third of Canadian Tire’s inventory is at sea.

Our maritime interests fall into two baskets: advancing international law as surety for our sovereignty and preserving the freedom of the seas for our trade and commerce. Negotiation of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea is one of the greatest triumphs of Canadian diplomacy. Canadian jurisdiction was extended to the continental shelf, effectively doubling our ocean estate.

With 40 per cent of our landmass in our northern territories, and 25 per cent of the global Arctic, securing international recognition for Canada’s extended continental shelf is a priority. Later this month we retake the chair of the Arctic Council, although we still need to explicitly spell out how we will advance this agenda.

Our ability to enforce the law and guarantee safe passage depends on naval power.

For the last two centuries first the Royal Navy and then the United States Navy have preserved maritime order and secured our sea-lanes. Austerity and fiscal constraint is now straining the U.S. capacity and they have called on the Alliance to share the burden.

We need to do our part for reasons of self-interest and collective security.

Piracy, and the trafficking of guns, drugs and people, last year cost the global economy more than $6-billion. Our warships are part of the international force in the Persian Gulf actively stopping piracy. Last November, HMCS Ottawa participated in a major drug interdiction off the east coast of Costa Rica that netted more than 1,000 kilos of narcotics.

Our Halifax-class frigates are being refurbished and, after a troubled refit, all four of our Victoria-class submarines will soon be at sea.

But we need our new ships.

Made-in-Canada ships will cost more than buying off-the-shelf because the goal is to recreate a Canadian shipbuilding industry. The Jenkins Report argues that we can leverage our shipbuilding to develop key industrial capabilities.

Our model should be the revitalized Canadian aerospace industry. Ranked fifth in the world in overall aerospace production, it is third in civil aircraft production and is well integrated in global value chains.

But creating a world-class shipbuilding industry won’t be easy.

Much of the success of our aviation industry, as well as our resurrected auto industry, is because they are part of a North American integrated market. This is not the case for shipbuilding because the U.S., through its Jones Act, requires all U.S. internal shipping to be carried by U.S. ships built in the United States. This unabashedly protectionist legislation should be one of our prime targets in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.

Seventy years ago, we were a central part of the Allied effort to win the Battle of the Atlantic. At the beginning of the war we possessed six warships and a complement of 3500.

Our shipyards employed more than 125,000 workers and built more than 4,000 vessels. Merchant ships were constructed in an average of 307 days.

Our warships and the more than 25,000 merchantmen that they escorted across the Atlantic were Britain’s lifeline. Winston Churchill would describe the Battle of the Atlantic as the “dominating factor all through the war…everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.”

At war’s end the Royal Canadian Navy was the world’s third-largest, with a complement of 95,000 sailors and 270 warships. Today, our complement is less than 14,000 with 33 warships. We rank well back, even behind the Turks, Indonesians and Greeks. Yet our economy, increasingly, floats on salt water.

Let us keep faith with the sailors and shipyards that won the Battle of the Atlantic. Our national interest requires a strong Navy backed by a muscular shipbuilding industry.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and (Hon.) Captain, Royal Canadian Navy.

 

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