VICTORIA - The Conservative government will spend more than $3-billion on new ships to patrol the Arctic, with the Prime Minister saying it is "urgent" that Canada do more to assert its claims to the North.
"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic," Stephen Harper said. "We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it."
The patrol vessels are described as a class below the armed Arctic icebreakers the Conservatives had promised in the last election. The Prime Minister had said the government would supply the navy with icebreakers in order to enhance Canada's northern sovereignty claims, but the proposed vessels won't be able to operate in the region year-round.
The vessels will also be able to operate at the approaches of the Northwest Passage year-round, as well as off the country's East and West coasts.
But an international law professor who specializes in Arctic sovereignty says that while the vessels are a welcome addition, the government must revitalize the country's ageing icebreaker fleet so it can have a regular presence in the Arctic.
"That capability to operate anywhere in Canadian waters at any time of the year will not be answered with this announcement," said Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia. "It's not what we really need for the decade or two ahead and it's not what [the Prime Minister] promised."
Prof. Byers said both Russia and the United States operate heavy icebreakers able to sail in Arctic waters claimed by Canada pretty much any time those countries wish.
In his announcement yesterday, Mr. Harper acknowledged the patrol vessel program is different from his election promise of armed heavy icebreakers. But this way, he said, more ships can be purchased. Moreover, the "medium" icebreakers are more versatile.
The ships will be capable of operating in ice up to one metre thick, Mr. Harper said.
However, Prof. Byers said the vessels are not icebreakers at all, but rather "ice-strengthened" ships whose operations will be limited.
Military officials privately agree, adding the ships would be more valuable for patrolling the East and West Coasts, in place of the more expensive frigates currently used.
Government officials say the Arctic patrol ships will cost $3.1-billion. Another $4.3-billion will be spent on operations and maintenance over their 25-year lifespan. Six to eight vessels will be bought, but delivery of the first ship is not expected until 2013.
The new ships, to be based in Halifax and Esquimalt, B.C., will be built in Canada. Mr. Harper did not specify which shipyards would build the vessels, but added there will be enough work for all such facilities across the country.
In the past, Canada has used foreign ship designs and built the vessels in Canadian shipyards.
Six months ago, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the Conservative government would not proceed with the purchase of the armed icebreakers promised by Mr. Harper. Instead, it would acquire Arctic patrol vessels, in line with a Conservative defence strategy also obtained by the newspaper. Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor dismissed the article as "inaccurate [and] sensationalist."