Once it enters into service next year HMCS Max Bernays will be able to do a lot of things for the Canadian military. Fighting, though, will not be one of them. Like the two other Harry DeWolf-class ships already on duty, the Max Bernays, which was handed over to the navy on 2 September and will patrol the Northwest Passages, is essentially, “a big empty ship”, according to Rear-Admiral David Gardam, a former commander Canada’s Atlantic naval forces. The most important people it takes on board, he said, will be the “doctors, dentists, scientists, marine biologists, police and fisheries officers, environmentalists and many other personnel with an interest in, or a mandate for, the development and sustainment of Canada’s (N)orth”.
That the admiral did not mention the sort of people Canada would be sending into action to fight its enemies was no oversight. Canada’s three existing and three planned Arctic patrol ships (a further two may be built for the coast guard) will have enforcing sovereignty as their most important mission. That sounds more dangerous than military brass consider it to be: instead of turning back Russians at the maritime border, think lending a hand in things like search-and-rescue operations and scientific expeditions, monitoring shipping or enforcing maritime rules. Any participation in purely military activities, such as the recent Operation Nanook, a major military exercise, will be on a solely support basis.
To be sure, Norway’s Svalbard-class of naval vessel, upon which the Harry DeWolf ships are modelled, perform similar tasks and are somewhat more heavily armed, but the assumption is that the Canadian vessels will be encountering mostly civilian activity on their patrols. Giving them big guns would only take up space and add expense to a programme that is already well over budget.
Similarly, despite their reinforced hulls, and their classification as Arctic patrol ships, Harry DeWolf-class ships will see little action as icebreakers. That has disappointed proponents of a more muscular Canadian posture in the North, but the idea is that the Harry DeWolf-class ships will sail the Northwest Passages at times of year when it is open to ship traffic, making the extras needed for them to be able to break ice an unnecessary expense.
Currently, the Max Bernays is undergoing sea trials and is expected to be ready to enter service some time next year. The first of its predecessors, HMCS Harry DeWolf, entered service in 2021 in time to take part in Operation Nanook. This year it was slated to do so again, together with the HMCS Margaret Brooke, the second vessel in the series. However, after two of its four generators ceased functioning, the Harry DeWolf was scratched. Should the failures prove to have been a design flaw, the Harry DeWolf-class’s biggest threat may turn out to come from within.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
Featured image: Royal Canadian Navy
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