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Building work has begun on the first of six new patrol ships for the Royal Canadian Navy. Combining the roles of traditional Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) and Arctic ice patrol ship, Dan Entwisle says the Harry De Wolf Class is attracting controversy long before the first one enters service.

The Canadian navy has a tough job to perform. With massive coastlines on two oceans and an ice-bound Arctic maritime area to patrol, its surface ships can expect to be involved in anything from anti-submarine warfare and air defence to maritime security, search and rescue and fisheries protection.

Canadian navy chiefs hope the AOPS concept will at least solve some of their problems. AOPS stands for Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship, and the planned class combines the roles of traditional lightly armed OPV with the strength and capability of an ice breaker.

Things however have not quite gone to plan.

The project was valued at $25Bn with critics claiming that was too much for the type of vessel Canada would get. The design is based on a Norwegian patrol ship, and Norway paid a lot less than Canada did.

For more detail on this and a bit of dry Canadian TV analysis, watch this:

There is also the question of combining the roles of conventional OPV with a ship designed to patrol Arctic waters. The De Wolf class is being built with a traditional ice breaker bow, but the hulls are constructed to a standard known as Polar Class 5. In the world of Ice breaking, that makes them light-weights, if you assume Class 1 to be the best there is, a Class 5 ship is capable of only light ice breaking, giving rise to the accusation that these ships will really be “Slush Breakers” suited to summer only use in Polar Regions.

At getting on for 6,500 tonnes, these will be big patrol ships, as large as fully-fledged warships like frigates. It is argued that they are bigger than is needed for the traditional offshore patrol role.

Are these shortcomings really Canada’s fault?

Any warship, no matter how expensive and how capable is a compromise between the ideal, the achievable and the affordable. Are six ships that are just about adequate in the ice breaking and patrol role, better than six patrols that cannot operate in the arctic at all? Does size really matter when it comes to an OPV? There is an argument that bigger is better, and the size of the De Wolf class does give them some significant advantages.

The ships have been designed to operate some of the biggest maritime helicopters available, either the Sikorsky Cyclone - a Canadian military version of the S92 - or the Cormorant - Canada’s version of the Agusta-Westland AW101. Both have long legs, big payloads and a proven track record in maritime patrol and search and rescue. There aren’t many OPVs around the world that can boast such extensive aviation capability and although the De Wolf’s aren’t hard core ice breakers, they will be able to bring organic long range helicopter cover to some pretty remote areas. That has to be a good thing.

There is plenty more to like about these ships.

The highly configurable BAE MK38 gun looks like it will be a useful bit of kit:

There is what the designers call a “Multi-Purpose Operational Space” - an adaptable planning and command centre that can be used for a variety of tasks from co-coordinating search and rescue missions, to overseeing minor military operations. Again, a pretty decent facility for an OPV.

In line with current fashion there will be four integrated stations for RHIB rescue and patrol boats. This type of embarked vessel is becoming increasingly sophisticated and there is no-doubt the 35-knot examples chosen will be up there with the best.

The De Wolf class will also accommodate standard shipping containers with all the adaptability they offer. There is space for small trucks and all-terrain tracked vehicles and a 20 tonne capacity crane.

An expensive compromise that is neither fish nor fowl, or an acceptable solution to a unique set of geographical and political circumstances? The answer to this last question will only be answered in 2018 when HMCS HARRY DE WOLF enters service with the Royal Canadian Navy.

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