The world wants Canada's backyard
by Simon Kent (feat. Rob Huebert)
November 3, 2012
TORONTO - The Russians are coming. So are the Ukrainians, the Chinese and the South Koreans.
These are just four of the countries building new generation icebreakers so they can join the great polar resource rush in what amounts to an unprecedented challenge to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.
Russia alone plans to have 30 new ships by 2030 with a mixed fleet of diesel/electric and nuclear powered vessels.
The keel of the first conventionally powered icebreaker was laid two weeks ago at JSC Vyborg Shipyard in St Petersburg. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended and left no doubt about the significance of the occasion.
“We’re about to build a great fleet for a great country…. there will be more orders,” he told shipyard workers.
The ship is destined to work at high latitude zones of the Northern Sea Route, according to Russian press reports.
It is one of the Project 21900M icebreakers capable of transiting 1.5-metre thick ice and will act as ice escort for large-tonnage bulk cargo ships, towage, fire fighting operations and cargo transportation of its own.
Three icebreakers of this type alone are expected to be delivered in May, June and October 2015. They will be the first new-build additions to the Russian icebreaking fleet since 1976 when the old USSR took delivery of a vessel from the Wartsila shipyard in Finland.
China has also announced plans to design and build a polar research icebreaker of its own. It will compliment those already purchased and currently being built by Ukrainian yards. China began its polar presence in 1984.
Meanwhile Canada’s $720 million proposal for a lone, conventionally powered icebreaker is progressing at a slower rate. No steel has been cut as plans are still to be finalized ahead of a projected late 2013 keel laying.
Professor Rob Huebert, a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI), says that while the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, as the ship will be known, is an undoubted national asset, there is no time for project slippage.
“We are getting there,” Dr Huebert said, “but it must be said at a slow and steady rate compared to the Russians.
“Their massive ship building scheme is as much an exercise in job creation as it is about asserting a future Arctic presence.
“Russian shipyards virtually collapsed when Communism ended and it has taken them this long to rebuild and take orders.
“It seems the Russians are very keen to rebuild their Arctic fleet as a priority. That, if anything, should be a major concern for planners in Canada because it is a clear signal of their intention to lift an Arctic presence.”
Dr Huebert says the Russians are far from alone. All the Arctic coastal states are renewing their fleets through enhanced coastguard and naval assets.
These countries are Canada as well as Denmark, Norway, Russia, Greenland and the United States – with China and the Ukraine actively seeking part of the action.
Canadians should get used to that scenario.
“With massive Arctic ice melt and retreating polar ice caps, traffic through the Northern Sea Route is building. This is an acknowledged fact,” Dr Huebert said.
“Prime Minister Harper, to his credit, has helped push the Canadian icebreaker program ahead but I wonder how long it will be before somebody at the highest level realizes that the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker will be need some company sooner rather than later.
“Two more ships of her size will at least give Canada the capability to always have one on call.”
The new Canadian ship will replace the 43-year-old flagship CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, which is expected to be decommissioned in 2017. She is already near the end of her working life and only last summer had to accept a tow from a U.S. icebreaker after breaking her main propeller.
Our only other heavy icebreaker, CCGS Terry Fox, is scheduled for decommissioning in 2020.
Why the global interest in icebreakers?
“Arctic trade and resources sum it up,” Dr Huebert concluded. “Cargo traffic between Asia and Europe on the Northern Sea Route has reached the one million tons mark and will keep growing.
“Ice breakers keep that shipping lane clear.
“Just as importantly ice breakers maintain the mineral and oil research platforms that are growing in the Arctic, driven by half a dozen international oil companies.
“The world wants to know what’s under the polar ice and the only way to find out is to get an icebreaker there with research scientists on board.
“All of this is happening right now, right in Canada’s backyard. “Which is why we as a nation should be there too.”