The Canadian navy is about to get its first new large warship in two decades. But HMCS Harry DeWolf, the first of up to eight Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels, is all but unarmed. Her only organic weapon is a 25-millimeter cannon on her forward deck.
After a long break in major naval procurement, in the 2010s the Canadian government announced a maritime rearmament program. The 20-year, $70-billion National Shipbuilding Strategy includes 15 new frigates based on the U.K. Type 26 plus a pair of fleet oilers and several other auxiliary vessels.
The first new ships under NSS are the Arctic OPVs, six of which will sail for the navy and two for the coast guard. Lead vessel Harry DeWolf could join the fleet as early as this summer.
At $400 million apiece, the Arctic patrol vessels are 339 feet long and displace more 6,600 tons of water, and have the closely spaced structural ribs and thick skin that you’d also find on an icebreaker. They have accommodations for 65 crew, space for small boats, a vehicle bay for trucks and snowmobiles and a flight deck big enough to handle the navy’s CH-148 helicopter.
The navy plans for the OPVs to spend their time chasing smugglers and unlicensed fishing boats, rescuing people and responding to natural disasters in ice-choked waters. “They’re very useful,” Polmar said.
They’re especially useful as the world warms, summer ice gets thinner in northern waters and sea passages open up across the Arctic region. To support the new OPVs, Canada is building a new naval base on Baffin Island in the country’s far north.
The OPVs aren’t designed to do battle with missile-armed warships and submarines or defend against air attack. Of course, they shouldn’t have to, normally. After all, no other country routinely deploys armed surface vessels in the Arctic. Submarines, however, have patrolled the region since the 1950s.
A single 25-millimeter cannon isn’t exactly a war-winning weapon. In a pinch, however, the Canadian navy could bolt additional weapons onto the Arctic OPVs’ decks. The latest anti-ship missiles carry their own guidance radars and come in containers that workers can install on almost any reasonable-size warship.
Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and author of Combat Fleets of the World, highlighted the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile, a stealthy, subsonic anti-ship weapon with a 100-mile range. The U.S. Navy is adding NSMs to its Littoral Combat Ships in the hope of giving those lightly-armed frigates a fighting chance during wartime.
Arctic weather can be rough on missiles. Ships and weapons need special seals and high-grade metals in order to function in extreme temperatures. Owing to its Nordic origin, the NSM probably is one of the better weapons for Arctic warfare, Hendrix said.
Coincidentally, Canada based its OPV design on a Norwegian vessel.
Adding surface-to-air missiles is a bit trickier, Wertheim explained, as they usually require integrated fire-control sensors that you can’t easily add to an existing ship without cutting open the vessel’s hull.
Still, Hendrix for one thinks Canada’s approach to patrolling the Arctic is the right one. Buy an inexpensive, lightly-armed, ice-capable patrol ship—and worry about arming it only in the event of a major conflict. “There is this escalating competition in the Arctic and it sound like the Canadians are taking the right step.”
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