Rebirth of the navy

MARC CLARK May 30 1988

Rebirth of the navy

MARC CLARK May 30 1988

Rebirth of the navy


Seventeen years had passed since the last launching of a new Canadian warship. And last week there was a final onehour delay in the christening of the new $350-million, 4,750-ton patrol frigate HMCS Halifax. The government aircraft carrying Mila Mulroney, wife of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, from Ottawa for the Saint John, N.B., ceremony had arrived late. But at 12:40 p.m. on May 19, she snipped a ribbon that sent a bottle of champagne crashing into the bow of the Halifax. As silvery foam spread across the ship’s grey hull, the ship’s whistle sounded and a crowd of 2,500 hardhatted shipyard workers, civilian guests and sailors cheered. The naval officers present, resplendent in their white uniforms, had good reason to be happy. Frustrated by the struggle to maintain the outmoded ships in Canada’s 23-vessel fleet, the officers and men could take heart from an event that was intended to signal the rebirth of the Canadian navy.

Indeed, the launching of HMCS Halifax—the first of 12 new frigates on order at a total cost of $10 billion—was tangible evidence that the Canadian military has the political support it needs to continue a shopping spree unmatched in Canadian peacetime history. After years of criticism about neglect, Canada’s sailors, soldiers and airmen have reason to believe that they will soon acquire some of the best war machinery that money can buy. The opposition Liberals and New Democrats reject some aspects of the Conservative government’s defence policy, notably the Conservatives’ plan to spend $8 billion on a fleet of nuclearpowered submarines. But all three parties are committed to a massive increase in defence spending.

One reason for the political unanimity: opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of Canadians believe that the Armed Forces need new weapons. As a result, said Liberal defence critic Douglas Frith, politicians of all stripes have concluded that, in the 1980s, “good defence is good politics.”

Still, if the Tories have their way, Canadians will hear less in the next year about the similarities in defence policies than the differences. Conservative strategists say that they are

looking forward to seeing Tory candidates debate military affairs with their opponents during the next election campaign. Said one Conservative tactician: “Our polling shows that the public supports defence expenditures and that they realize that, for the first

time in a long time, the Canadian Forces is not a hodgepodge of outdated equipment and uncertain direction. We intend to remind them of that.”

That campaign has already begun. In a flurry of election-style swings across the country, Brian Mulroney

has boasted of his government’s plan to bolster the Armed Forces. Mulroney has attacked previous Liberal governments for allowing the military to decline and ridiculed New Democrats for their pledge to pull Canada out of NATO and Norad, the military alliances with Europe and the United States that have been the twin pillars of Canada’s military policy since the Korean War.

In fact, the revival of the military began under the previous Liberal government. In the first half of his tenure, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau showed little support for increasing spending on the Armed Forces. But in 1980 and 1983 Trudeau authorized the military to proceed with the two largest defence purchases in Canadian history: a $5-billion contract for 137 CF-18 jet fighters and a $4.9-billion purchase of six naval frigates in a series later extended by the Mulroney government to 12. For his part, Frith complained that the Conservatives have successfully managed to mask the frigates’ Liberal origins. Said Frith: “The myth that they have created—that Liberals are weak on defence, and Conservatives strong—has great staying power.”

Still, Mulroney can point to the harbors at Halifax and Esquimalt, B.C.— the bases for the navy’s 23 warships—to make his point. The newest warship currently in service, the Algonquin, has been afloat for 17 years. The oldest, the frigate Assiniboine, was built in 1956. That contrasts with an average age of 10 to 15 years of ships in other NATO fleets. When remaining work on the Halifax is finished and the ship is commissioned for service in October, 1989— like most vessels, it was launched with the basic structure complete but without engines, weapons and other equipment—it will be equipped with a comprehensive array of missiles and rapidfire antiaircraft guns. Said Cmdr. Daniel McNeil of the Assiniboine: “I have vacuum tubes in my cabin dated 1955 and test parts dated 1954—and we still use them.”

If the Liberals are open to charges that they let the navy rust away, NDP officials acknowledge privately that they are equally vulnerable on defence issues. Party leaders agonized for months about a long-standing policy to pull Canada out of NATO and Norad. Then, this spring, they decided that if the party ever formed a government, it would not act on the policy until after the next election it faced. NDP Leader Ed Broadbent faced a dilemma. Public opinion polls have shown that more than 80 per cent of Canadians support continued participation in the two alliances, but rank-and-file New Democrats overwhelmingly want the coun-

try to pull out. One Conservative strategist said that some of those NDP members are likely to become party candidates, and that Tory candidates will make a special effort to expose rifts between local candidates and party leaders on defence matters.

Meanwhile, Conservative candidates will be able to point to an impressive list of hardware ordered since Defence Minister Perrin Beatty tabled a white paper on defence last June. Among the items: six more frigates at a cost of $3 billion to supplement the six ordered by the Liberals; and 1,122 heavy trucks

to be built by the Lavalin Inc.-owned UTDC of Kingston, Ont., for about $250 million. Items not yet ordered but on the military’s shopping list include an additional 13 CF-18 fighters, six more Aurora antisubmarine patrol planes to supplement the 18 already in service, and up to 51 EH-101 antisubmarine helicopters to replace shipborne Sea King helicopters.

By far the most expensive and controversial element of the Tory defence strategy is the plan to buy nuclearpowered submarines. Senior officers have nearly completed an evaluation of two competing sub designs, the British Trafalgar and France’s Amethyste, and will likely recommend a choice to cabinet next month. But a Conservative official familiar with the project said that cabinet will not consider the military’s

recommendation until after the conclusion of the economic summit meeting of Western leaders in Toronto June 19 to 21. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand will both be at the summit. Said the Conservative: “Frankly, we wouldn’t let the military finish the evaluation until we have the political window to make the cabinet decision, and the collective political wisdom is to wait until after the summit rather than run the risk of disappointing one of the major participants beforehand.”

In the meantime, the proposal to

buy nuclear submarines remains controversial, both at home and abroad. NATO officials in Brussels noted that last year’s white paper announcing the plan to buy nuclear-powered submarines also declared Ottawa’s intention of withdrawing their commitment to send a Canadian brigade to Norway in the event of an international crisis. Said David Fouquet, European editor of the Londonbased Jane’s Defence Weekly. “Some people in NATO definitely fear that Canada might potentially be wasting a lot of money on a prestige venture, while sacrificing a vital alliance mission—the defence of Norway.” But James McCoy, a naval analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, praised Ottawa’s decision to buy the subs as “a tremendous asset to the whole NATO concept of reinforcing Europe.”

£ A poll of 1,508 Canadians conducted this month for Vickers Shipbuilding & Engineering Ltd., builders of the British contender, found that 47 per cent support the purchase of nuclear submarines—and an equal number oppose it. But other polls conducted for the government indicate that when the pollsters imply that nuclear submarines could help uphold Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic—where experts suspect that foreign submarines make regular voyages—three-quarters of the respondents said they would support the purchase. Encouraged by that support, the Tories seemed determined to press ahead with the purchase of a submarine fleet, giving Canada’s sailors something else to cheer about.


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