A fusillade of words

The question is: If our DND fleet is suffering like this, what is happening to our Government civilian fleet? They do not have the same high profile as the military and can be quietly ignored by the government.

Better pray we do not have a cruise ship accident, we may find out that our Search and Rescue capabilities have sunk years ago.

A fusillade of words
Citizen Special April 21, 2010, By Colin Kenny

The Liberals starved the military of funds for years, but it will take more than talk from the Harper government to keep our ships afloat

Stephen Harper has an effective kick-to-the-groin response that he often uses to neuter critics of Canada’s military policies, no matter if their complaints have anything to do with Afghanistan. He simply throws out lines like, “You’re not supporting our brave young men and women in the field who have been risking their lives …”

Blah, blah, blah.

The huge hole in the prime minister’s argument is this: it is his government that keeps falling short in providing the equipment those men and women need to defend Canadians. The government loves to make grandiose funding commitments to the military, often regurgitating the commitments months or years later so they seem like they involve new money.

Unfortunately, these commitments keep disappearing in a fog of delay, postponement, cancellation or just plain inertia. Meanwhile, deadlines pass beyond which military analysts know that holes are inevitably going to open up in Canada’s defences.

The Liberals starved the Canadian Forces in the 1990s, making little pretense that defence was a priority for them. The Conservatives pretend that defence is a priority, but fusillades of macho words can’t disguise the fact that Afghanistan is a façade — behind our muscular performance there, alarming weaknesses are creeping into Canada’s capacity to protect itself.

Take the Canadian navy. It should be expanding. Canada has the longest coastlines in the world, our economy depends on safe passage of our exports, our allies expect our support at sea, and we border on the Pacific where the new powers are showing their naval strength. Navies are proving their worth in countering piracy, and in providing emergency assistance in places such as Haiti.

But the Canadian navy isn’t expanding — it isn’t even treading water.

Long-awaited replacements for the Sea King helicopters remain a dream. Since the 1990s, Canadians have been worrying about our young military people taking to the skies in these antique flying machines.

It is true that it was the Liberals who first botched a Sea King replacement deal because Jean Chrétien felt the helicopters the Mulroney government ordered were too expensive.

But in July 2004, the Martin Liberals announced that they would spend $3.2 billion on 28 Sikorsky S-92 helicopters, to be known as Cyclones.

That wasn’t a great idea either. The overpriced Cyclones can’t seem to make it off the production line. They have not demonstrated a capacity to “run dry” for long enough to land them if the gearbox fails, which it did in the civilian version of the helicopter that killed 17 oil rig workers last year.

The Harper government has compounded this mess by going secret, as usual. It has not imposed prescribed penalties on Sikorsky for late delivery. Instead, it tried to bury an announcement two nights before Christmas that it will pay Sikorsky $117 million for some mysterious design changes. So nobody still knows when the Sea Kings will be honourably laid to rest.

Then there are the joint support ships that first the Liberals and then the Conservatives announced would replace aged refuelling vessels and provide the capacity to support army deployments around the world.

Canada needs four of these ships — two on each coast. The government ordered three, then backed off when the bids came in too high for its liking. No news since. Expect ghost ships for many years to come. Meanwhile, the Royal Netherlands Navy has signed a contract to develop a similar vessel. The Dutch don’t like huge holes in their national defence capacity. We don’t seem to mind.

Canada desperately needs replacements for four destroyers, one of which, the Huron, has already rusted out. Without these ships you are pipsqueaks at sea — without the capability to provide area air defence for frigates and other ships, and never playing a leading role in command-and-control in allied formations. Our three remaining destroyers are supposed to be replaced two years from now. At 40 years old, they’re prohibitively expensive to maintain. No word on replacements has come down.

We bought four electric-diesel submarines from the British. Submarines are vital to coastal defence and overall intelligence. One of these boats — the Chicoutimi — will probably never serve after the tragic fire that occurred during delivery. The other three are in and out of dry dock and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, have never fired a torpedo. That’s quite a weakness for subs. These submarines are in mid-life already, and plans should be in the works to replace them.

Again, no word. Again, one can predict another big hole in Canada’s naval defence years after our current political leaders have left the scene.

To add insult to injury, it has been estimated that our navy is 20-per-cent short-staffed, and a lot of the shortages are in skilled trades.

And what about the Arctic coastal patrol vessels the government pronounced it was going to use to protect our northern waters as well as ply our southern coastlines? No sign of those, although that’s actually a relief. For a start, their usefulness in the North would be nothing more than symbolic — they are simply not going to fire on vessels from Russia, the U.S., or anywhere else. Secondly, their design is ridiculous — they could be outrun by fishing boats or even freighters.

Then there is the Cormorant search-and-rescue aircraft with the defective tail rotor. It has been recognized as being defective for several years now, but that doesn’t seem to get it fixed.

The week after Gen. Walt Natynczyk was named Chief of the Defence staff, he defined his biggest challenge as procuring big-ticket items for the navy, whose needs have been shunted aside with the focus on Afghanistan. “I’ve got to deliver,” said Gen. Natynczyk. “I’ve got to lay keel for the navy.”

This year is the Canadian navy’s 100th birthday. It should be a proud year for an institution that is vital to the security of Canadians.

Happy birthday, Walt. Sorry, your government could only afford a card.

Senator Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate committee on national security and defence. E-mail: kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca

This article has 1 Comment

  1. Yes, indeed a good op-ed piece. Indeed if this government is perceived to be "military friendly" and this is the treatment they get. Its pretty obvious what is in store, and will be in the future for the civilian gov mariners.

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