Will Halifax lose shipbuilding work?

Military analyst Ken Hansen says federal government is rethinking Arctic patrol boat order.

There has been much local anticipation for the federal shipbuilding contract, which earmarks $25 billion in new ship construction to the Irving Shipyard in Halifax. Everyone, from the premier down to real estate speculators, has celebrated the contract as the foundation for the success of the local economy. But now a prominent military analyst is suggesting that the federal government’s plans are about to be re-worked, taking an important part of the shipbuilding contract away from Halifax, and possibly dooming the entire local enterprise.

The Halifax work is to come in two stages. First, Irving is to build up to eight Arctic patrol boats for the Coast Guard. These are relatively small vessels, but will allow the yard, which currently does only repair work, to retool for ship construction, and to otherwise enlarge capacity in anticipation of the second stage of the contract. That second stage, which would come some years out, after Irving has expanded operations, is building 12 very large frigates.

But now Ken Hansen, who is team leader for the Maritime Security Policy Program at Dalhousie University, and who studies Canadian naval operations, says the building of the Arctic patrol boats might be taken away from Irving. If so, much if not *all* the local work might be at risk, he tells The Coast, as the Irving yard may not be able to tool up for the frigate work.

Under the terms of the contract, the Arctic patrol boats were intended to be small, fast craft operated by Canada’s existing Coast Guard. Unlike the US Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard is not currently a part of the military, and with the exception of joint operations with the RCMP, Coast Guard boats are unarmed or lightly armed.

Bu t, says Hansen, the US is applying diplomatic pressure on the Canadian government to turn the Arctic fleet into a true military force. And, says Hansen, Canadian military officials have presented a memo to prime minister Stephen Harper calling for militarizing the Coast Guard, and specifically the Arctic fleet. That means ditching the small Arctic boats and replacing them with large, heavily armed ice breakers. Those ships are currently built by the Seaspan Shipyard in Vancouver.

Asked for a copy of the memo, Hansen says it is secret. “But I talked to the person who wrote it,” he says.

Hansen agrees that if the plans for the Arctic boat change, it could mean that Halifax ultimately loses all the shipbuilding work, including for the frigates.

Here’s how “harbour watcher” Mac MacKay, who alerted The Coast to Hansen’s fears, puts it: “Much scrambling is in order, and much uncertainty is ahead for Halifax---in my prediction, lasting for two or three years at least. Worst case scenario: a major strategic alliance with a proven foreign hi-tech shipbuilder and the farming out of the really lucrative work. Best case scenario? Nothing in sight.”

Hansen says he agrees with MacKay’s analysis.

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