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Military: Part 5 of 6

Part 5: Ships from the past power Canada's navy of the future Add to ...

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.

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