VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada will buy at least six patrol ships to assert its sovereignty claim in the Arctic, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday backed away from an election pledge for navy icebreakers that would ply the waters of the Northwest Passage all year round.
Harper said smaller ships were more versatile than the heavy icebreakers the government initially promised to buy, and there was little need to patrol inside the passage during winter, when heavy ice keeps foreign vessels away.
Canada’s claim over the Arctic Northwest Passage that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is disputed by countries, including the United States, that consider much of the region to be international waters.
Echoing language he used in the 2006 federal election campaign, Harper said Canada needed to assert its claim in the face of increased international interest in the area because of resource development and global warming.
“Either we use it or we lose it. Make no mistake about it, this national government intends to use it,” he told a ceremony in Esquimalt, British Columbia, home port to Canada’s Pacific navy fleet.
Global warming has become a factor in the debate, because less ice in the Northwest Passage would make it more attractive for shipping.
Harper’s Conservatives had campaigned on promised to build three troop-carrying ice breakers and a deep sea docking facility and to install equipment to detect foreign ships and submarines passing through the region.
But Monday’s announcement called for six to eight patrol ships at a cost of C$3.1 billion. The ships will built in Canada and are expected to enter operation in 2013 or 2014.
Harper said the government still intends to build a deep water port in the Arctic, but is not ready yet to say where it will be built and when.
Harper said the ships will be capable of breaking ice up to 1 meter (3 feet) thick, and dismissed a reporter’s description of the craft as “slush breakers.”
He said the vessels would patrol the whole passage when the ice is less thick and move to the entrances during the winter.
With additional reporting by David Ljunggren