Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summertime shenanigans, or dodos and dollars

Like a certain flightless bird, yours truly has been unable to fly away while the summer passes. Instead, I've been otherwise occupied, but am now able to, again, spread my wings a bit. (And for those who might be concerned, this is not a harbinger of summer's end. My goodness, we've weeks to go, so just enjoy things, okay?)

But I have been enjoying the ability to find time to read some books long overdue and listen to some interesting conversations on radio and online. The Midrats gang have continued their great looks at various topics, so to anyone not familiar with their online show, check out its site here.

Up here in these northern parts, summer is traditionally the time when anyone and everyone who can heads out of town (myself, of course, excepted). As a result, we Canadians fall prey to the annual phase of 'summer journalism', in which the media finds itself fending fewer experienced resources to cover the news of the day. I'm sure it happens elsewhere, whereupon we're subjected to in-depth looks at the caloric content of smoothies, the relative merits of wearing a helmet while riding a bike or insights on sunscreen prevention. All filler in other times, but - somehow - front page news in July.

Governments are not unaware of the languid nature of media reporting in the summertime, often trying to slip an official item pass us during this time, in the hope no one will notice. And quite often we don't, at least not enough to do anything measurable.

But a month ago the Canadian government floated - no pun intended - a proposal to replace our navy's aged supply vessels in just such a manner. The Navy, and its allies, rely on two Canadian-built vessels, HMCS Preserver and Protecteur, commissioned in 1969-70 to resupply their vessels at sea. If they were working commercial vessels, they'd be considered rustbuckets. But naval supply ships don't bear near the stresses that commercial vessels face, so their lives can extend. Still, these two ships are well passed their primes in terms of their nautical status, to say nothing of being effectively ancient to the Canadian Armed Forces. The issue is that after forty years these ships clearly need to be replaced.

HMCS Preserver off New York (DND photo)

The problem from this observer's perspective is the amount of money that is intended to be spent to replace the two supply vessels, the way it is intended to spent and, of course, the manner in which the whole idea was rolled out.

As reported in The Globe & Mail newspaper a couple of weeks ago, the government feels it must replace them because, according to an internal briefing note, "These vessels are single-hulled, which violates most international environmental standards." Therefore $2.6 billion (Canadian) needs to be spent building new supply vessels, here in Canadian shipyards.

$2.6 billion to replace Preserver and Protecteur is a lot of money. Think about it. Over a billion dollars a pop. And though we've perhaps become inured to military expenditures, this is just wrong on so many levels.

First off, this is not a new problem. We've known for years these vessels had a finite lifespan. You shouldn't wait the deadlines on until international protocols come into play to do something. And you shouldn't reveal a multi-billion dollar expenditure in the summer, when government is in recess.

(In fact, this very issue came up four years ago, at about the same time of the year. I wrote about it in a former blog, when the Canadian government thought the price tag would be $15 billion. You can read my earlier - and very similar - thoughts by clicking here.)

Secondly, as I've pointed out before, a billion dollars for a supply ship seems a bit extreme. Why so much? Because they're to be built in Canada from scratch. Bespoke naval vessels that will employ Canadian shipyard workers and bolster the economy.

Er...so why don't we build the planes for our air force, the tanks for our armoured corps or the submarines for our navy here in Canada? Because it's expensive. And others have done the expensive start up business, so it's often easier to buy "off the rack". (Our fighters and supply planes come from the USA, our main battle tanks from Germany and our subs from Britain.)

Here's an idea that will likely go nowhere beyond here: Instead of a political move to provide some shipbuilding jobs in a country which hasn't been a major shipbuilder for decades, why not bolster the maritime refurbishment industry - already doing okay - by purchasing a couple of vessels from an Asian shipyard and retrofitting them in Canada. The navy would get new vessels faster and the skills acquired in fitting them out could become known to our allies. And if someone brings up the "security" concern (that we must build these vessels in our own shipyards to avoid foreign eyes knowing what we're up to), well they've never seen how much a vessel can change in a re-fit.

Ah, but perhaps I'm thinking too much like Autumn. But there are lessons to be learned.

1 comment:

Sebastian Bruns said...

Daniel: It's good to read from you again!