Patrolling the Arctic

KEN MacQUEEN August 18 1986

Patrolling the Arctic

KEN MacQUEEN August 18 1986

Patrolling the Arctic


On paper, the ship is magnificent. An artist’s scale rendering shows her graceful red hull smashing effortlessly through an Arctic ice field. Amidships, huge red maple leaves are emblazoned on twin smokestacks and a Canadian flag flutters from a mast high above the deck. Taped hopefully to the door of a 13th-floor Ottawa office, the illustration is a source of pride for a once-obscure arm of the Canadian Coast Guard.

The eight-member staff of the Polar Icebreaker Project have labored for more than 15 years designing a modern vessel, almost as long as a city block and as wide as a football field, to patrol Canada’s Arctic waters. Now, the federal cabinet is expected to decide within weeks to go ahead with the project or to abandon it altogether.

A full year has passed since the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea crashed uninvited through the Northwest Passage. But the Conservative government remains divided over whether to pay the huge cost of asserting its sovereignty in the Arctic with a polar icebreaker of its own.

Proponents say that if the ship is built, Canada will have the largest and most luxurious icebreaker in the world. Detractors say that the government will be gambling a staggering $450 million on the wrong horse.

The voyage of the Polar Sea last August caught an embarrassed Canadian government unprepared for any meaningful defence of its claim that it owns and controls the 18,187 islands in the Arctic archipelago and the waters that surround them. Ottawa’s mild initial reaction to the ship’s 10-day 1,500-mile voyage in waters claimed by Canada angered Canadian nationalists and created a furore in the Commons. As a result, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark announced last September that Canada would define its Arctic territo-

ry by drawing a boundary encircling the entire archipelago, by applying Canadian civil and criminal laws in Arctic waters—and by building an icebreaker capable of operating year-round in the Arctic. Although the ship would be costly, Clark told the Commons, “This government is not about to conclude

that Canada cannot afford the Arctic.” Clark’s strong statement at first seemed to rescue the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaker program from its 15year limbo. But government officials continue to argue over Canada’s real need for the vessel. Some defence officials have tried to scuttle the project, arguing that a nonmilitary ship is a luxury at a time when Arctic resource development is stalled by low oil prices. The greater threat to sovereignty, they say, comes from Soviet and U.S. military submarines prowling beneath the ice cap. In June a report by a Senate-Commons committee on international relations that studied

the issue concluded, “Icebreakers have little security value: satellites or aircraft are more effective for reconnaissance and aircraft can most quickly dispose of any hostile surface vessel.” While the committee recognized the “important role” of a polar icebreaker in eventually opening up the Northwest Passage to commercial traffic, it suspended judgment on whether the costly measure was needed now.

Despite Clark’s bold defence of Arctic sovereignty at any cost, cabinet deliberations on the issue have stalled over the issue of funding. A senior External Affairs official said it was unlikely that the department would pay a major share. “If you want to look at the External budget,” he said, “maybe we could afford the steering wheel.” However, Perrin Beatty, the newly appointed defence minister, is also reluctant to have his department bear the cost, a Defence official told Maclean's. The official said that the minister believes the icebreaker could drain too large an amount of funds from other programs. In July Beatty ung veiled plans to put a mini-mum of four new ^ submarines in service by £ 1999, and last week he announced a 10-year, $2-billion program to replace Canada’s 50 Sea King submarinetracking helicopters with new shipborne aircraft. While the dieselpowered submarines would have marginal value in the Arctic because they can travel underwater for only two days, the department is also considering a potential rival to the icebreaker: nuclear submarines capable of spending months under the ice fields. The most likely scenario is that several departments will share the cost of the icebreaker, including the department of transport, which has direct responsibility for the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard’s icebreaker was first proposed by the Liberal govern-

ment in 1971 after the American tanker Manhattan traversed the Northwest Passage in 1969 and 1970, sparking an earlier crisis over Arctic sovereignty. By 1975 the Coast Guard had designed a 90,000-horsepower icebreaker, only to shelve the blueprint in 1978 when the government approved design of a nuclear icebreaker. By 1981, with Arctic resource development slowing and the Manhattan voyage a distant memory, cabinet scrapped the nuclear icebreaker and ordered the design of the current 100,000-horsepower proposal. The bulging file cabinets of the 13th-floor icebreaker project offices now contain the paper carcasses of three complete ships. Documents obtained by Mac-

lean's under the Access to Information Act show that, since 1978 alone, the exercise has cost $4,780,131.

The estimated $450-million cost of the most recent Coast Guard design is only the first instalment.

Ship specifications obtained by Maclean's estimate the annual fuel costs alone, measured in 1980-1981 dollars, at $15 million to $20 million. In current funds, the annual operating costs, including fuel, maintenance and the expense of a 116person crew, are estimated at between $35 million and $40 million—an amount almost equal to the icebreaking and ship-escorting budget for the entire existing Coast Guard fleet.

For the money, the government would be getting a ship with combined diesel-electric and gas turbine engines which could generate 101,000 horsepower and drive the 37,000-ton, 194-m ship at a steady three knots through

an eight-foot-thick sheet of ice. Its nearest rivals would be three nuclearpowered Soviet icebreakers capable of 75,000 horsepower. If the ship is built to Coast Guard specifications, it will set a new standard of comfort for Canadian Arctic explorers. The design includes individual cabins for the crew—each equipped with television— a swimming pool, sauna, theatre, gymnasium, exercise and hobby rooms.

However, the Coast Guard design is facing stiff competition from three private companies claiming that they can deliver a pared-down icebreaker at a saving of $100 million or more. The proposals, submitted after Clark’s September statement, came from two Cal-

gary-based firms, Canadian Marine Drilling Ltd. and Arctic Transportation Ltd., and a Vancouver company, Wartsila Arctic Ltd. They were not nearly as detailed as the Coast Guard’s

design and did not include firm cost estimates. But members of an independent committee established by the transport department concluded last December that any of the three could be built more cheaply and quickly than the Coast Guard’s version. Still, William McCloy, program manager for the

Coast Guard icebreaker, warned that all three of the private industry proposals appear to have wildly optimistic price estimates and would require “substantial developmental work.” With the shipyard contract would go an estimated 2,700 man-years of work, the equivalent of 2,700 jobs each lasting a year, Coast Guard documents show. Combined with secondary jobs, such as those in the steel industry, the number of jobs swells to between 4,100 and 5,000 man-years of work, with a spin-off of thousands more jobs in the service industries and the community surrounding the shipyard. Until the three private proposals were submitted, it seemed certain that the con-

tract, if it were approved, would go to one of three shipyards. Each of the three —Saint John Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., of New Brunswick, Versatile Davie Inc., of Lauzon, Que., and Versatile Pacific Shipyards Inc. of Vancouver —received $450,000 in federal funds in 1984 to draft detailed construction proposals based on the Coast Guard design.

Those companies, like the staff of the Polar Icebreaker Project, are anxiously awaiting a cabinet z decision. McCloy, who has I invested 12 years of his cau reer designing a ship that may never leave the drawing board, acknowledged: “This is driving us round the bend, just sitting, waiting day after day after day.” Then he adds: “You would have to say, though, this is the closest we have ever been.”