Sunday, July 29, 2007

Whose Arctic

Twenty years ago it was proposed that Canada needed a nuclear powered submarine fleet to defend Arctic Sovereignty. Post War Canada once boasted the lead in submarine hunter killer helicopters and planes to protect its sovereignty. Along comes Harper with much sturm and drang about protecting the Arctic with Ice Breakers. But then the Russians challenge his bluff.

In the next day or two a mini submarine will plant a Russian flag
hewn from titanium 14,000ft beneath the North Pole, along with the country's coat of arms.

Although it will be a symbolic gesture and carries no legal weight, it is designed to send the West a clear message: Russia has shrugged off its post-cold war weakness and will be aggressively defending and pushing its national interests from now on.

If it goes smoothly, the flag planting, reminiscent of the kind of propaganda coup beloved by the Soviets, will feed a rising state-orchestrated sense of patriotism and national pride.

It will also be the beginning of what is likely to be a lengthy international struggle for the Arctic Ocean's riches, with Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States and Russia all having competing interests in the hydrocarbon-stuffed area.

The 1987 military review highlighted Canada's abysmal capabilities of enforcing sovereignty on its Arctic coast. It was therefore announced that MARCOM would receive a fleet of 10-12 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) suitable for operating for extended periods under the Arctic ice. The proposed SSN fleet would force any nation, friend or foe, to possibly think twice before using Canada's territorial seas in the Arctic for operating nuclear submarines. During 1987-1988, MARCOM examined several British and French SSN designs. The planned procurement, however, was cancelled in 1988-1989 during a time of increased defence cuts.

In 1998, the Canadian government made a deal with the United Kingdom to acquire four mothballed, but state-of-the-art Upholder-class diesel-electric submarines that were made surplus by the Royal Navy's decision to operate only nuclear-powered submarines such as the Trafalgar-class boats. The Upholders were considered too valuable and technologically advanced by the Royal and US navies to allow them to fall into the hands of a non-allied nation. Therefore Canada was encouraged through significant discounts to acquire the Upholders. The four submarines were eventually purchased after much foot-dragging by the federal government for $750 million CAD.

The transaction was supposed to have included some reciprocal rights for British forces to continue using CFB Suffield for armoured-unit training and CFB Goose Bay for low-level flight training, while Canada received four well-built and very lightly used high-technology submarines to replace the 1960s-era Oberon class. (It was later revealed that there were no reciprocal rights. It was a plain lease-to-buy arrangement.) After a costly update program which took longer than expected, along with several public and highly embarrassing equipment failures, the Upholders are being successfully reactivated following a decade of mothballing and are now being integrated into the Canadian navy as the Victoria class. Technical problems still seem to plague the fleet however. Part of this deal will see MARPAC receive its first submarine in four decades and returning an active submarine presence to Canada's west coast.


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