VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada is finally moving ahead on building a fleet of Arctic patrol ships to provide a naval presence in the resource-rich north.
But the CAN $3.5 billion project (US $3.2 billion), helmed by Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax with Lockheed Martin handling onboard combat systems, will produce only five ships with limited military capabilities, defense analysts and politicians warn.
The cost of the project to build the Arctic offshore patrol ships has also increased from $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion, government officials confirmed on Jan. 16.
The official contract announcement with government and company representatives was held Jan. 23.
The ships were originally announced in 2007 by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and were supposed to be in the water by 2013. At the time, Harper said that up to eight ships would be built.
Under the new deal, construction of the five vessels will begin in September, said Kevin McCoy, president of Irving Shipbuilding. The first ship will be ready by 2018. The last ship will be delivered by 2022, he said.
Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice Adm. Mark Norman has said the Arctic patrol ships will give the service greater reach into the remote region. "The Arctic offshore patrol ships will enable us to become a truly Arctic, rather than just northern, Navy with the capability to operate in the Canadian Arctic archipelago on a sustained and persistent basis," he told delegates to a naval conference here in October.
But defense critics for the two opposition parties in the House of Commons say the ships are less capable that what was promised.
Harper originally called for a fleet of armed Polar-class icebreakers. But that was scaled back to one unarmed icebreaker, yet to be built, and up to eight Arctic patrol ships. That total was further cut.
"The Navy keeps losing capability and this project keeps falling further behind," said Liberal Party defense critic Joyce Murray. "What the Navy is getting is far different than what they required."
New Democratic Party defense critic Jack Harris said the ships will be limited in what they can do in the Arctic, since they are not true icebreakers. In addition, Harris questioned whether the ships are up to their other role of patrolling on the east and west coasts of the country because they are mainly designed for Arctic operations.
The Navy has acknowledged that the offshore ship is not an icebreaker for other vessels, but noted it can cut through some levels of ice for its own operations.
Some in the Canadian military have dubbed the ships "slush-breakers."
These warnings about the program have not been the first.
In October, Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette warned that the program's budget was not enough to construct the fleet of ships. Frechette said if the government wanted at least six ships, it needed to boost the budget by $470 million.
Conservative government officials at the time said Frechette was not correct in his findings. But on Jan. 16, government procurement specialists confirmed the budget would be boosted by $400 million.
Defense analyst Martin Shadwick said for the Navy, the contract is significant as the ships will be capable of patrolling farther into the Arctic and stay in the region for longer than the service's existing ships.
"For the Navy it is a deal changer," said Shadwick, who teaches strategic studies at York University in Toronto. "We have been without a credible Arctic naval capability since the late 1950s."
But Shadwick acknowledged the ships are limited in their ability to travel through heavier ice.
In addition, other items on board have been scaled back, including weaponry. At one point, the ships were to carry a landing craft equipped with an over-the-snow vehicle, Shadwick said. That was scaled back to having the ship carry a commercial pattern truck.
The reduction in the number of ships could also be a problem, Shadwick said. The vessels will not only will patrol the Arctic, but Canada's east and west coasts as well. "We have the longest coastline in the world, so the question is whether five ships is enough?" he said.
Government procurement officials say the start of the offshore project is a milestone in that the vessels will be the first of the Royal Canadian Navy's ships to be constructed under the government's National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. That strategy would also see the building of supply ships and a new surface combatant.
Still, the government procurement officials cautioned that there are challenges ahead. "The [offshore ship] is a new design and a new class of ship being built in a brand new shipyard," one official said. "These factors bring risks with them."
Irving's McCoy said he is confident the firm will be able build the sixth ship. The government has designed the contract so that Irving will receive financial incentives if it keeps costs down for the first five vessels. That should allow the sixth ship to be built within the budget.
"It's a fairly simple formula," McCoy said. "As we drive our costs down, both Canada and Irving share in some of the benefit of the reduced cost."