BUSINESS WATCH

New brooms against deadly weapons

Initiatives to sweep warlike implements out of our harbors and sea-lanes should get priority attention

Peter C. Newman January 9 1989
BUSINESS WATCH

New brooms against deadly weapons

Initiatives to sweep warlike implements out of our harbors and sea-lanes should get priority attention

Peter C. Newman January 9 1989

New brooms against deadly weapons

BUSINESS WATCH

Initiatives to sweep warlike implements out of our harbors and sea-lanes should get priority attention

PETER C. NEWMAN

The fate of Canada’s nuclear-powered submarines remains unsettled, but another naval initiative, based on leading-edge technology developed in British Columbia, is about to wedge itself into the headlines. The $750-million plan to build a dozen coastal patrol vessels, equipped with minesweeping gear and manned by Canada’s naval reservists, has given a big boost to the Pacific coast underwater scientists who have patented dramatic advances in the field, first developed for Canada’s offshore oil hunt.

Typical of the small Pacific coast entrepreneurs being tapped to participate in the project is Thomas Barnes, a former RCMP pilot who has always been fascinated by underwater exploration and who is now president of Sea Industries Ltd. Instead of trying to improve on the historical methods of minesweeping, Barnes pioneered a new approach of minehunting, adapting some of the guidance systems used in cruise missiles and fourth-generation flight-control systems. He works out of an untidy converted house at Deep Cove, a tiny inlet on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, with a staff of 12 engineers, and he keeps dayto-day money flowing in by doing undersea surveys for offshore companies, fisheries research and cable inspections.

His Manta “cruise-mersible,” which he operates from a converted timber tug, has the unique advantage of being able to operate effectively in very strong currents and the poor visibility of the coast’s murky waters. It can work independently 2,000 feet in front of its mother ship, relaying through camera scanners every metal object it spots, so that crew members are never in danger. He describes the self-contained system, which can be lifted on and off ships (or transported by cargo planes) as “one of the most sophisticated in the world.” Such boasts could easily be dismissed as self-promotion, except that Barnes’s shack was recently visited by Sir John Fieldhouse, the chief of the defence staff for the United Kingdom, who was impressed with the Manta,

calling it an “exciting technology in which Sea Industries is leading the way.”

At the same time, Iraq, which had its share of troubles with Iranian mines, is negotiating for two Mantas and a possible 28 more. The Canadian navy has already bought one and has given him a contract to enhance its capabilities. (No concentrated efforts have been made by Barnes to access the U.S. market, mainly because of perceived indecision in the Americans’ approach to the mine-countermeasure combat system. To protect his invention, he has the insides of his units rigged with selfdestructive devices in case any outsider tries to discover what makes them tick.) Barnes expects to have sales of more than half a billion in the next five years.

Although mines are seldom mentioned in disarmament talks, they are a profoundly potent threat and have been used in almost every major naval conflict in the 20th century. During the Second World War, 630,000 mines sank 5,900 ships. German subs mined 11 North American ports, including Halifax and St. John’s, and not only closed the harbors at crucial times but forced the U.S. and Canadian navies to commit 100 ships to sweep them clean. They are the most cost-effective weapon

going because they are relatively inexpensive and, once laid, require no commitment of combat forces. The whisper of their presence can cause the other side to expend huge efforts on countermeasures—even though there may not be any mines there at all. During the Korean War, when the North mined Wosan harbor, a frustrated American admiral complained, “The U.S. navy has lost control of the sea to a country without a navy, employing a weapon thought to be obsolete at the time of the First World War, laid from vessels that were in use at the time of the birth of Christ.”

Canada’s navy has no mines and until the Manta came along could only spot them by sending an understandably nervous diver over the side to take a look. The U.S.S.R. is known to possess at least half a million mines, many of them set off by sophisticated combinations of the propeller sound, bow-wave pressure or hull magnetism of passing ships. They can be set to detonate under specific types of ships or be delayed to go off after a dozen or 100 vessels have gone by; one new self-burying model can escape detection by burying itself, crab-like, under the ocean floor.

“It would be so easy to mine any of our harbors and to block off the St. Lawrence,” said Rear Admiral Robert George, head of Canada’s Pacific fleet, who spent several weeks last year aboard French minesweepers. “People say to me, ‘Nobody’s got a grudge against Canada, why would anybody want to do that to us?’ Well,” he added, referring to Japan’s dependence on coal-fired technology, “they wouldn’t necessarily want to do anything to us, but supposing they wanted to stop Japan from producing steel—all they would have to do is close off access [by using mines or the threat of mines] at Prince Rupert and against other coal supplies imported from Australia. The Japanese steel mills would grind to a halt.”

Barnes is only one of 30 West Coast researchers involved in the hunt for the perfect defensive system. Among the leaders is James McFarlane of International Submarine Engineering Ltd. in Vancouver. He has developed an operational “Dolphin,” a radio remotecontrolled device that resembles a snorkeling submarine. Michael Muirhead, who heads his own Western Subsea Technologies Ltd. in Victoria, recently completed a study that documented the industry’s growth potential; he warns that at least one-third of the companies are getting ready to relocate, unless local economic conditions improve.

The problems are undercapitalization, lack of federal research funds and no cohesive policy on high technology by the B.C. government. Said Muirhead: “What we need to do is establish a central West Coast showcase subsea manufacturing and marketing facility to provide design, manufacturing and test facilities as well as a common exposure to the world marketplace.”

In a country with the world’s longest coastline, and a peaceable trading nation dependent for one-third of its gross national product on exports, we could well expect initiatives to sweep warlike implements out of our harbors and sea-lanes to receive priority attention.