J.L. Granatstein: National interests collide in ship strategy

Canada has national interests, as every other nation does. Lists may vary, but everyone puts maintaining the security of the Canadian people and their territory at the top of the list. Close behind is a strong and well-managed economy that provides goods jobs for skilled and unskilled workers.

But what happens when interests collide? The massive shipbuilding program now getting underway for the navy and the coast guard may provide a clear example.

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The Royal Canadian Navy is a small, highly professional force that helps to protect Canada’s coasts and serves Canada abroad in a multiplicity of roles.

The Canadian Coast Guard, also small, patrols our waters and enforces our laws, and its icebreakers keep trade moving. Both operate vessels that are, in many cases, well beyond their best-before dates, and both need new ships.

The government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy aims to provide Arctic patrol ships, supply vessels and eventually replacements for the RCN’s fine frigates, as well as a large icebreaker and 10 smaller ships for the coast guard. The cost, including the frigate replacement, is estimated at $80 billion, and the process involves re-establishing the nation’s shipyards in Vancouver and Halifax, in effect re-creating a defunct industry. As many as 15,000 jobs are to be created.

But this is Canada, so pork and high costs are inevitable. National Defence and Public Works are deeply involved, politicians’ hands are all over the plans and costs are sky-high. Consider the two joint-support ships to be built in Vancouver for $3 billion. They will likely be fine ships when they hit the water, years late.

Britain’s Royal Navy, however, is buying four roughly similar ships from South Korean builders for $750 million — for all four. Should the RCN ships cost eight times those of the British?

The Dutch navy is buying ships built in Romania; the Danes use ships built in Poland. Why? Because the cost is far less, the quality is good and the work of installing the armaments and communications systems can be done in home waters, creating good jobs.

Take another case — the 10 small vessels to be built on the West Coast for the coast guard for $3.3 billion.

In 2007, the Danes bought similar, larger ships for $50 million each, ships with an icebreaking capacity the CCG ships will not have. Even with six years of inflation factored in, the CCG ships will cost at least three to five times as much.

But, the government will say, the jobs being created on the coasts are good ones, paying well for the skilled workers who are being trained to fill them.

It is true, but will the Canadian public support the RCN and the coast guard when it realizes the massive costs involved to create each job?

Moreover, no government can bind its successors to follow any policy. Jean Chrétien killed the maritime helicopter project when he came to power two decades ago, and the RCN still has no new ones. A future government might well say that the deficit is too high and the ship projects cannot proceed. After all, governments have killed the shipbuilding industry in this country before — after the two world wars and after the RCN frigate program ended in the 1990s.

There are no guarantees in politics, and neither the Liberals nor the NDP seem high on defence spending for anything other than peacekeeping.

We need good jobs for Canadians if we are not to be only hewers of wood and shippers of oil. We need a navy and a coast guard to protect our waters and people, and advance our national interests at home and abroad. But we also need good management of the national finances, and the shipbuilding program seems designed to cost the earth in its efforts to build ships and create jobs.

Interests collide, and if parsimonious voters cry halt, as they will, if an incoming government scraps the building programs, as it will, then Canadian national security will be jeopardized and jobs lost. That hurts us all; that helps no one.

It is time to take a step back, re-appraise the National Shipbuilding Strategy, and get good ships built abroad for much less money. We need the ships; we need the jobs at home to complete and maintain them; and we need a defence program that won’t be so costly that it jeopardizes public support for the navy, the Canadian Forces and the coast guard.

One final point: the United States has national interests, too. If Canada can’t or won’t protect its own waters, the U.S. must.


J.L. Granatstein is a senior fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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