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The new recruitment video opens with images of grey and threatening seas. Then, ghostlike, a frigate glides into view from behind an iceberg. "Wanted: The next generation of sailors," the ad concludes.

But what that next generation of the navy will look like is a troubled question.

As it enters its second century, the Canadian navy struggles to define a future worthy of its past.

The Conservative government has made lavish promises. The Canada First defence blueprint calls for 15 new destroyers and frigates to replace the existing fleet, starting in 2015, to be followed by 10-12 maritime patrol aircraft, which would be integrated into a surveillance "system of systems" employing everything from sensors to satellites to secure Canada's maritime borders.

"When you look at all that, over the next 10, 15 years of investment, that is giving us that globally deployable, sea-controlled navy that Canada needs in order to do its most fundamental strategic tasks," said Captain Serge Bertrand, who handles strategic communications for the navy.

And the need for a properly manned, trained, and equipped navy may never have been more acute. As Douglas Bland, chair of the defence management studies program at Queen's University observes, Canada's strategic interests are shifting from Europe and Western Asia to our own hemisphere.

Canada has vital security interests in the Caribbean and Latin America; global warming and oil exploration are turning the Arctic into a strategically contested space, while the Pacific Ocean could be witnessing the early stages of an arms race as China expands its navy.

For this reason, "we should be building a navy-centric armed forces, not an army-centric one," Prof. Bland believes.

But then there is reality. The navy's ranks are almost 1,000 bodies below its authorized strength of 8,500 souls. Its two supply ships are in the very last days of seaworthiness. Without replacements, ships will not be able to refuel, drastically limiting their range.

The fleet's three destroyers are also at the end of their lifespan. But although the Conservative government's strategic defence plan calls for $50-billion in investments over 20 years, actual purchase orders remain elusive.

"The capital budget has enough to do an army and a navy or an army and an air force," but not all three, said Brian Macdonald, senior defence analyst at the Conference of Defence Associations, a defence-issues think tank.

And there's nothing more expensive than a navy. Replacing a single destroyer, for example, will set you back $2-billion.

Yet the predictions of doom obscure real accomplishments, Capt. Bertrand maintains.

The refit of the first of the navy's 12 Halifax-class frigates will begin in a few months; trials are under way with the much-delayed Cyclone maritime helicopter; the Victoria-class submarines that Canada bought from Britain are finally operational. For the first time in years, recruitment targets have been met.

But when it comes to big-ticket items such as supply ships and destroyers and Arctic patrol craft, the navy has to get in line. The army will be leaving Afghanistan next year, and will have to re-equip for whatever lies ahead. And the air force simply must find a replacement for its fleet of CF-18s, the last of which will have to be grounded within the next few years for safety reasons.

"I've got to lay keels for ships," General Walter Natynczyk vowed in 2008, when he became Canada's new Chief of the Defence Staff. But during his tenure, nary a keel has been laid.

Plans were going ahead for new supply vessels, but they've stalled. The Conservative government announced it would acquire Arctic coastal patrol vessels; that's now on hold.

Our navy's past has at times been glorious. But its future will see it unable to deploy in distant lands or patrol its northern sea unless the Conservative government decides to lay some keel and soon.

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