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Liberal slams underfunding, East Coast bias

September 18, 2013 -  Victoria Times-Colonist

By Cindy E. Harnett and Sarah Petrescu

The underfunded Pacific fleet was dealt a "catastrophic" blow when the West Coast's only destroyer and a replenishment vessel - both based in Esquimalt - collided during naval exercises, says Sen. Colin Kenny.

The Pacific fleet's only destroyer, HMCS Algonquin, sits at CFB Esquimalt with a gash after its port-side helicopter hangar was ripped open during the Aug. 30 collision during towing exercises en route to Hawaii.

"It's a catastrophic thing, in my mind, for the Pacific fleet," Kenny said during a Times Colonist editorial board meeting on Wednesday.

Algonquin is out indefinitely. The damage to HMCS Protecteur, a refuelling and supply ship, was less serious and the vessel has returned to duty.

Also out is HMCS Winnipeg, a Halifax-class frigate severely damaged when it was rammed by a American fishing trawler at CFB Esquimalt on April 23.

Substantial exterior and structural damage to the ship's bow and stern will have it in repairs until the end of the year. The navy cannot release the estimated cost of repairs due to an ongoing legal claim against the owners of the U.S. trawler.

During an event on frigate HMCS Ottawa on Tuesday, Commodore Bob Auchterlonie would not comment on the docked and damaged ships, their effect on operations of the Pacific fleet or the ships' futures.

"We have no area air defence in the Pacific now," said Kenny, a Liberal appointed to the Senate in 1984 by Pierre Trudeau, then prime minister. "We have no command and control in the Pacific now." And while Protecteur was out of action, Canada had "no capacity to refuel, re-arm or resupply in the Pacific ... because those two vessels bumped into each other in a towing exercise."

There's no money to replace Canada's three aging destroyers, which provide protection for the rest of the fleet during an air attack, Kenny said.

"A frigate is not useful in terms of commanding other vessels, but a destroyer is designed to be a command and control vehicle, so this is catastrophic," said Kenny, former chairman of the Senate committee on national security and defence.

"The fact we don't have at least two of these on each coast just absolutely hamstrings the navy."

Canada's navy comprises 12 frigates, 12 coastal patrol vessels, three destroyers, two supply ships and four submarines. The supply ships are 44 years old.

Two years ago, the federal government announced a massive replacement program: $25 billion worth of combat ships to be built on the East Coast by 2041, and $8 billion for five coast guard vessels and two or three navy resupply ships to be built in Vancouver and Victoria. However, the newest of the warships would be years away.

After the Aug. 30 collision, the planned deployment to the Asia-Pacific region, where the ships were scheduled to attend an international fleet review in Australia in early October before making diplomatic stops with the Department of Foreign Affairs, was cancelled.

Instead, Protecteur will join five other Esquimalt-based ships in an exercise off the North American coast in October and November.

"They couldn't practise with our friends and allies, and that's absolutely tragic," Kenny said.

"What you are seeing in a very clear picture is the lack of preparedness of the Canadian Forces and how desperate the navy is because it is so underfunded."

Moreover, it is the Pacific fleet, now without a destroyer, that should be the government's focus - something the United States and other countries know already, Kenny said.

"Everybody who is taking a look at what's going on around the world sees development in the Pacific as being a serious issue, and Canada has most of its fleet on the wrong coast," Kenny said. "They haven't addressed the issue because the [former] minister of defence [Peter MacKay] comes from Nova Scotia."

Two investigations are underway to determine what led to the collision.

charnett@timescolonist.com