03/21/2012 08:55 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Plan for Arctic patrol vessels remains controversial

Canada's proposed Arctic offshore patrol vessels are under the microscope again after one senator said plans to build the ships should be scrapped to save money.

The $4.3-billion investment will build six to eight light naval icebreakers.

Last week, Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, former chair of the Senate Defence and Security Committee, said the ships aren't good enough to use and called it a "dumb idea."

Kenny said the vessels are too small, too light and too slow.

Rob Huebert, a former navy officer and a University of Calgary military expert, thinks Kenny is wrong.

Though Heubert did say he would make a few changes to the design.

"What I would add to it is a capability at later times to add a more combat-robust role," Heubert said.

"In other words, copy the Norwegians who've built into all their coast guard vessels, all their navy vessels, the ability to add missiles, to add torpedoes and other units as the international environment requires it," Heubert said.

The Arctic ships are the compromise result of the 2006 Conservative election promise to build military icebreakers to enforce Canada's Arctic sovereignty.

Ship size

Initially, the plan was to build three heavily armed ships capable of cutting through multi-year ice, but the federal government cut the budget and that left a problem with the size of the ships.

"The size issue is where I agree with the senator," said Ken Hansen, a former naval officer who is a research fellow at Dalhousie University's Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.

"If you're going to be operating in the Arctic, you need as large a ship as you can possibly manage, to get the most fuel and the most internal capacity to store your garbage, your sewage water ... all other things that you can't dump in the Arctic."

Both experts agree the ships are needed, have basically good designs, but they say not everyone in the navy agrees Canada needs Arctic and offshore patrol vessels.

"There is a very traditional element within the navy that wants no part of these ships," Hansen said.

"So it serves their purpose to have the senator say 'get rid of them' and that would then allow them to conserve the money for the combat ships, which is where the core value of the navy is perceived to lie."

The ships will be built in Halifax and are scheduled to be in the water sometime in 2014 or 2015.