Auditor General Finds Aging Icebreakers, Aircraft Hindering Arctic Ocean Surveillance

After more than a decade of delays and inaction, the ships, planes and satellites that Canada relies on to monitor the rapidly expanding Arctic are set to be retired before being replaced.

“The federal government has failed to take the necessary steps to address long-standing gaps affecting Canada’s Arctic Ocean surveillance,” said a report released Tuesday.

“Federal agencies responsible for Arctic safety and security are not fully aware of maritime activities in Arctic waters and are ill-equipped to respond to increased surveillance requirements.”

Inspector General Karen Hogan found that sea ice extent has shrunk by 40% over the past 50 years, with a corresponding tripling of ship traffic, with more than 450 passes.

As such, Canada’s Arctic is threatened by unauthorized encroachment, illegal fishing, and marine pollution. Similarly, Canada’s ability to respond to incidents such as cruise ship groundings in poorly charted waters is limited.

“More traffic means more possibilities and more risks,” Hogan said.

The federal government first paid attention to these issues in 2011, writes Hogan. Work planning and gap assessments followed regularly, but little action was taken.

As a result, Hogan found that the expected useful lives of all six Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers would expire before new icebreakers could be delivered. These vessels had to extend their life through modifications and upgrades in order to remain in service.

Still, two of them, Louis Saint Laurent and Terry Fox, will be permanently docked, just as the new icebreakers are expected to enter service.

“There is little room for further delays to avoid gaps in icebreaking capabilities,” the report said.

To ensure continued icebreaking, three second-hand commercial icebreakers had to be purchased and converted.

The same is true for satellites and airplanes.

Peeping from space, the RADARSAT satellite has a useful life expected to last until 2026. The Canadian Space Agency says it won’t be able to put a replacement craft into orbit for his next decade, and the system operated by the Defense Ministry won’t be operational until 2035.

The Aurora planes that patrol the skies are expected to last until 2030, but will not be replaced until at least two years later.

Three of the eight patrol vessels destined for the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Coast Guard have been delivered, but that program is also behind schedule, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the Arctic Naval Base, built on the site of an old mining port on the northern tip of Baffin Island, is of little use. Hogan writes that due to budget cuts to the design, his Nanisivik naval facility, which will open in 2025, will only be used for four weeks a year.

“…the facility will not effectively support vessels operating in the Arctic,” the report said.

Canada can no longer afford to shortchange its northern frontier, Hogan said.

“The ability to monitor the Arctic requires tools, and tools are aging. Continued delays materialize the gap.”

Bob Weber

canadian press