The Harper government's $7.4-billion plan to buy Arctic offshore patrol ships is headed toward a 'titanic blunder,' because the ships are not adequate for working in the region, a couple of independent think tanks say.

A 50-page report denouncing the plan was released today by the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The report is also critical of the government's plans for a refuelling station at Nanisivik in Nunavut.

In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the plan to purchase six to eight Arctic offshore patrol ships.

The report says that if the government sticks to its current course, the effects will be a disaster for two reasons.

The report says the type of ship the government has ordered is a compromise: Harper had promised to buy double-acting vessels which could sail in both directions, with a hull built for navigating the open ocean and a stern for icebreaking.

arcticpatrolships-300

An illustration from the Department of National Defence, from 2009, of what an Arctic offshore patrol ship could look like. (Department of National Defence illustration)

"For cost-saving reasons, that plan for double-acting vessels was cancelled. They will now be single-acting vessels so the bow has to fulfil both the open ocean function and the ice-breaking function, and as a result, we have a low speed ship," said Michael Byers, one of the report's authors.

"That might make a little bit of sense in the Arctic, but it severely compromises the ability of these ships to fulfil an offshore patrol role."

The ships ordered will be modelled on the KV Svalbard, an ice-strengthened ship owned by Norway.

The report is critical of this plan, saying an ice-strengthened ship is not as good as an icebreaker.

Irving Shipbuilding out of Halifax was awarded a contract this year to design the ships. It has completed $9.3 million in preparatory work, and the company is now in the design phase for the ships.

"The Arctic offshore patrol ship hull will not be strong enough to allow operations in the Canadian Arctic except during the late summer and early fall," the report says.

The report says the proposed ships also do not have the range needed to patrol the Arctic.

The current plan is for the Arctic offshore patrol vessels to have a range of 6,800 nautical miles, while the Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers can go between 20,000 and 30,000 nautical miles before they need to be refuelled. If the ships are stationed in Halifax, it is 2,800 nautical miles away from Nanisivik, a refuelling station near Arctic Bay, Nunavut, which has yet to be built.

The report also denounces the plan because it says the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago and Canada has a good relationship with Russia, implying these ships are no longer needed. The report goes on to say that remoteness, small populations, low levels of shipping activity and major geopolitical developments have combined to reduce security threats to Canada's Arctic.

"Our underlying point is that in the absence of any threat that currently requires even a light gun, why are we building purpose-built Arctic vessels for the navy to essentially duplicate functions that could be fulfilled by the coast guard?" asked Byers.

The report says the biggest security threats to the Arctic are drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. It says the proposed vessels are too slow to handle these kinds of incidents.

The report also says relying on the Nanisivik port will be risky, as access to the port can be blocked by drifting late-season ice, which happened in Iqaluit last spring.

The report makes three recommendations:

  • Cancel the procurement of naval Arctic offshore patrol ships.
  • Build six to eight purpose-built high-speed offshore patrol ships.
  • Rebuild the coast guard icebreaker fleet and consider that the vessels need to perform a ‘constabulary’ role.

The report suggests leaving Arctic duties to coast guard icebreakers.

"The strategy for procuring these new ships, the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, was established and is being implemented through extensive consultations with the marine industry and with consistent third party monitoring," said Rona Ambrose, Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, in a news release.

Kerry-Lynne D. Findlay, associate minister of National Defence, said she is confident the patrol ships will give the Navy "an unprecedented capability to operate in Arctic ice conditions and enable them to have persistent northern presence during the Arctic navigable season."

The first offshore patrol ship is scheduled to be ready by 2018.

Read the full report below: