The future face of Arctic sovereignty

The sea-borne defenders of Canada’s Arctic are already beginning to take shape, at least on the drawing board.

The sea-borne defenders of Canada’s Arctic are already beginning to take shape, at least on the drawing board.

But five years remain until these ships will be seen off the Yukon’s northern coast.

In July, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his government would build a fleet of six to eight Arctic offshore patrol ships to strengthen surveillance and guard the Canadian Arctic.

“The steel-reinforced hulls will be able to crunch through ice up to a metre thick, meaning the ships will be able to patrol the length of the Northwest Passage during the months a Canadian naval presence is necessary,” said Harper.

In regards to Canada’s North, “we either use it or lose it,” he added.

There is currently no year-round naval presence in the Canadian North.

“The navy can only operate in northern waters for a short period of time, and only when there is no ice,” said a release from the Department of National Defence.

Only weeks after Harper’s announcement, a Russian nuclear submarine plopped its flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole, raising concern among Canadian northern sovereignty wonks.

Last week marked the first meeting of the Arctic offshore patrol ships combined project team, a multinational group headed by Ontario-based BMT Fleet Technology.

The team will include Aker Shipyards, a Vancouver-based naval consulting company with experience developing patrol vessels for the Royal New Zealand Navy and the Irish Naval Service.

Most recently, Aker designed and built the KV Svalbard, a new icebreaking offshore patrol vessel for the Norwegian Coast Guard.

The Arctic offshore patrol ships pose a unique challenge in that they must be adaptable to a  diverse range of Canadian environments, including the Canadian Arctic, the Newfoundland Grand Banks and the Pacific Northwest.

Equipped with a helicopter-capable rear deck, the ice-hardened ships will be armed with a light- to medium-calibre machine gun as well as at least one 50-calibre remote-control heavy machine gun.

The ships can respond to non-military threats, such as “illegal attempts to exploit renewable and nonrenewable natural resources,” criminal activities and “unauthorized transits … by foreign ships.”

Currently, the United States and member states of the European Union pay little heed to Canadian claims of jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage, calling it an “international strait.”

Due to climate change, the thawing Northwest Passage is emerging as a viable channel for international shipping, as well as a potential hotspot for natural resources.

With a stronger Arctic presence, Ottawa would be better able to assert fishing and environmental regulations on the passage, as well as fiscal and smuggling laws.

The first Arctic offshore patrol ship is expected to be delivered by 2013, with the full project to be completed by 2019.

The ships are estimated to cost $3.1 billion.