Purpose Built for Arctic Patrol
CHRIS MACLEAN
© 2012 FrontLine Defence (Vol 9, No 2)

Still on the drawing boards, the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) program is already running into heavy weather. The AOPS concept has come under criticism, often not for what the ships are being designed to do, but for what they are not being designed to do. They won’t break heavy ice, so the criticism goes, but they aren’t being designed for that mission – Canada is renewing its icebreaker fleet to carry out that role. For its own mobility requirements, the AOPS is, of course, designed to deal with first-year ice.

With an endurance of 6,800 nautical miles, the AOPS will patrol and carry out a variety of missions anywhere in Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone and be able to stay at sea for up to four months.

Some criticize the fact that the AOPS will not be heavily armed, others dislike that they are being armed at all, but they are not being sent into combat. The armament they carry will be sufficient to get another ship’s attention, which is the intent.

The AOPS is faulted for being slow, but with fast helicopters and a continuous stream of real-time information from satellites, aerial surveillance and other sources, they may not need to be particularly swift. As ships of the Royal Canadian Navy, the AOPS will carry the communications, command and control equipment necessary to link effectively with other Canadian assets in the North.

The six or eight AOPS slated for construction under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy will probably do exactly what they are being designed to do: provide a real Canadian presence in the open waters of the Arctic, where other marine traffic will be, and serve as general purpose patrol vessels in northern Atlantic and Pacific waters during the months when the Arctic Ocean is ice-bound.

The AOPS class being designed now will support Canadian sovereignty in the North far into the future. If climate predictions hold true, the Canadian Arctic is going to be a busy place in the 21st century. According to forecasts, shorter ice seasons will create new, ‘across the top’ transportation routes for global shipping. Longer ice-free seasons and increasing world-wide demand for commodities will push Canada to open vast new areas for energy and ­mineral resource extraction.

Adventure tourism is already beginning to strain search and rescue capabilities in the High Arctic, as ill-prepared adventurers ­literally get in over their heads.

Along with exciting economic opportunities, the newly accessible Arctic will bring unprecedented challenges to Canada’s long-standing assertions of northern dominion. Control of vast stretches of ice and ocean must be enforced or our laws will simply be ignored. Without the physical means to back up our assertions, ships of other nations will increasingly push the boundaries until they no longer exist.

Because the AOPS will be a unique, indigenous design, it is doubtful that other governments will purchase either the plans or the finished product, but the investment in a domestic Arctic naval design capacity will pay dividends for civilian work. Commercial exploitation of the Canadian North will call for a range of supply ships, drill rigs and other marine platforms able to operate at the perimeter of the older ice pack.

The AOPS is being designed in Canada to handle our unique requirements. The sailors that crew them will assist with environmental monitoring, participate in search and rescue missions, board and search suspicious ships, and send landing parties ashore – an extensive combination of new and traditional naval assignments. Far from being an anomaly in the ‘real’ navy, the AOPS class may provide an excellent environment for career development.

Is the new AOPS design right for the job? Like every other new ship class, the Arctic ­Offshore Patrol Ship will answer that question in a few years, when they come in to service.

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© FrontLine Defence 2012

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