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military: part 5 of 6

HMCS Winnipeg, designed in the Cold War days for anti-submarine warfare, has an arsenal at her disposal that includes a 20 mm Gatling gun, a Bofors 57 mm gun, an evolved Sea Sparrow missile system and SSM harpoons to engage any challenge to Canada's sovereignty.

But these days, the guns typically are silent: On a routine training exercise on calm waters off Vancouver Island, the ship recently responded to a mayday call from Barkley Sound. A small fishing vessel called Tagoola with three people aboard was taking on water. HMCS Winnipeg arrived around the same time as the local Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard towed them to safety, the navy made sure everyone was all right and then carried on.

The 15-year-old frigate is rarely idle. The warship was used this summer to help the RCMP and Canada's border services bring a boatload of Tamil men, women and children to shore. Last year, it was part of an international anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.

The world has changed since HMCS Winnipeg was commissioned in the mid-1990s, and the navy has changed with it. Military analysts say Canada's highly flexible and mobile navy is now particularly well suited to promote the country's interests in a world where terrorists, migrants and pirates have replaced Cold Warriors. Whether that potential can be realized depends on whether, in an era of restraint, Ottawa comes through with plans to upgrade and expand the naval force.

Some might still view navies as the military tool of the past, harking back to gunboat diplomacy and the battleship buildups before the Second World War. But surprisingly, navies are the force of the future, especially for countries such as Canada. When there's a problem, we often send a ship.

The navy has some unique advantages: It can deploy almost immediately, without necessarily relying on infringing on the sovereignty of other nations or requiring establishment of a base overseas. Its vessels can be active in an area without putting people on solid ground. Its entire fleet can be moved within a week to 10 days, can be self-sufficient for as long as two weeks and can be withdrawn as fast as it came. In sharp contrast, an army formation requires 30 days to move; the air force needs a field to land in, often requiring a round of high-level diplomatic negotiations to clear the way.

In Haiti, Canadian navy ships delivered aid, equipment and engineers; in the Gulf of Aden, they policed pirates. Canada may also have a role as China and other Asian nations expand their Pacific navies. If those powers clash at sea, Canada's military may not have a big impact on a war - but a Canadian navy task force, along with those of other nations, could play a big role in keeping them from coming too close at tense moments, while keeping key shipping lanes open.

Canada's ships and crews have shown what they can do, whether in Newfoundland, Somalia or Haiti. But after decades of neglect, does the navy have the boats to do the job?

The multibillion-dollar Canada First Defence Strategy announced in May, 2008, held out fresh promise for a modern navy that would have new Arctic patrol ships and 15 upgraded warships to replace the fleet's backbone of destroyers and frigates over 20 years. But current projections for defence spending are far less than that strategy proclaimed.

The plans to build three new multipurpose supply ships have been whittled down to two basic oilers to replace the aging HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver, which provide at-sea support for refuelling and resupplying naval task groups and helicopter operations.

Canada First also calls for spending $3.1-billion on the acquisition of six to eight Arctic patrol ships capable of breaking one-year-old ice, starting in 2013. But the project is being trimmed to fit the budget and the first ship won't be ready by then. The strategy pledged new ships to replace the navy's three aging destroyers, which go out of service in 2017, and its 12 frigates in the next decade - but it's not clear whether there will be enough money to pay the more than $40-billion needed to replace those 15 warships.

David Zimmerman, a military historian at the University of Victoria, says the navy could fulfill its mission with the fleet at its current strength, but only if the government carries through with its commitment to replace and upgrade the supply ships and frigates, and acquire the Arctic patrol ships. "The real issue," he says, "is will the government actually come through with this multibillion-dollar commitment?"

Canada's track record does not bode well. "The history of the Canadian navy has been boom or bust - and more bust than boom," Dr. Zimmerman says.

Peter Haydon, at Dalhousie University's Centre for Foreign Policy Studies in Halifax, says the navy needs to expand as well as upgrade and modernize its current fleet.

The navy needs possibly two more patrol vessels to keep watch on the oil rigs in the Grand Banks and the increased oil traffic along the sea lanes from B.C. to Asia. The ships could provide the necessary command-and-control centres and medical facilities that are not available on the Coast Guard ships, he says.

Another supply ship in rotation on short notice is essential for overhaul, he also said, pointing to the navy's recent experience in New Orleans and Haiti, when a support ship was in overhaul and not available for the forces that were sent.

He also suggests two more submarines. "You can put it out to sea for 35 to 50 days, it can do surveillance missions or provide force-protection for a multinational force," he says. Prof. Haydon is emphatic about the requirement for more submarines, which some say should be scrapped to free up funds for other uses in the navy. "Submarines can do many things surface ships can do with far fewer people," he says. "Subs have better ears than any other ships."

Canada's fleet currently includes 33 ships: three destroyers, 12 frigates, two supply ships, four submarines and 12 coastal defence vessels. But the numbers do not tell the tale. The fleet is punching far below its weight, with 13 ships out of service for maintenance and upgrading.

Only one of four submarines in the fleet is currently in the water. Meanwhile, the navy's three destroyers are close to 40 years old and must be replaced within the next few years.

The supply ships, which are just a few years younger than the destroyers, may soon be banned from some ports on environmental grounds. With single hulls, the decrepit ships may not be allowed to dock. Yet it could take at least seven years before they are replaced and possibly longer.

And that is not all. The frigates, which came into service almost 20 years ago, require a major overhaul, especially of their antiquated weapons system. The ships will be going through a modernization program in overlapping fashion for the next six to eight years. Four frigates are currently in for refits.

Times are tough now for the navy. And with so many ships wearing down around the same time, the navy may be especially challenged to maintain capabilities in the middle part of this decade.

It took years for the navy to arrive at this state of neglect.

Rear-Admiral Nigel Greenwood, commander of the maritime forces in the Pacific, is cautious in his choice of words as he speaks about attitudes to Canada's maritime force. The navy has suffered from "maritime blindness," he said in a recent interview.

"Ignored might be too strong a word," he said. "That's a pro-active word that assumes people know about their navies, and then they chose to turn their back on them.

"I think to a large extent - and this is our experience here in Canada - people do not have a lot of opportunities to see their navies because we are over the horizon. Even when we are working in home waters, we are out of sight."

Regardless of thatlow profile, Ottawa repeatedly looks to the navy first to respond to a crisis. "We have a problem, send a warship" has become a common refrain as the federal government tries to exploit the navy's significant advantage, as it did in providing aid after the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Recent missions for the maritime forces offer a glimpse what the Canadian military may confront in the future. Canada's warships have been involved in several international initiatives in recent years responsible for escorting merchant ships along designated sea lanes, inspecting ships for terrorists and munitions, and responding to acts of piracy in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somali and the Arabian Sea. Canadian warships were also involved in escorting the U.S. war machine during its invasion of Iraq. The same vessels patrol the coasts of Canada, asserting Canadian sovereignty and helping other government departments monitor activities at sea and along the shore.