POLITICS

HMCS Regina shakes out drug smugglers in quiet mission still worth cost: expert

03/05/2013 03:10 EST | Updated 05/05/2013 05:12 EDT
UNDATED, Unknown Country - A Canadian naval frigate returning with a single "tangible result" from a counterterrorism mission in the Arabian Sea should be seen as a worthwhile expense at a time when Ottawa is making piecemeal defence cuts, says a defence expert.

The HMCS Regina is homebound after an eight-month voyage where the highlight was disrupting a ship of suspected drug smugglers who hastily fled the advancing warship while tossing their illicit cargo into the depths.

The vessel departed from port in Esquimalt, B.C., last July and was Canada's contribution to a multinational flotilla — Combined Task Force 150. Some 260 sailors were tasked with upholding maritime security in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.

Less than two weeks before docking, Cmdr. Jason Boyd described a positive yet largely uneventful mission save for ferreting out the boat that apparently dumped its 450 kilograms of hashish before his crew could make the seizure.

"It was a challenge every day to be able to find that tangible thing that you can take away from the mission," Boyd told reporters by teleconference from the ship off the coast of Hawaii. "To be able to get that interception at the end, it meant a lot for the team ... to say we did something."

The ship, joined by a Sea King helicopter and an unmanned aerial vehicle, has travelled more than 60,000 nautical miles. During the voyage its crew also boarded 19 vessels, assisted a Yemeni fishing boat gone adrift and made port stops including visiting children at an orphanage.

Though the endeavour may have been quiet overall, it could be considered a valuable training exercise and international partnership effort with relatively low cost compared to the $240 billion to be spent on equipment over the next several decades, said a University of British Columbia professor.

Prof. Michael Byers, who specializes in defence procurement, noted the contrast between the federal government's big-ticket spending and on-going operational cuts.

"If you're seeking to trim budgets, do you trim the actual missions and training and seek to have your vessels tied up in port?" Byers said in an interview. "Or do you make use of what you have and look for cross-savings in terms of big spending procurements? I think the government has done a rather poor job of budgeting."

Byers pointed to cuts to naval discretionary spending during the past five years, such as the initial cancellation of fisheries patrol, while the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan was draining the budget.

Last week, a new set of estimates was tabled in Parliament suggesting the Defence Department will slash as much as $1 billion from something known as military "readiness," which pays for soldiers, sailors and aircrew to be ready to deploy to trouble spots around the world.

The cuts are expected to come in the federal budget expected at the end of this month.

Byers said it is worth examining, however, whether Canada's navy should be engaged in such long-range missions on an ongoing basis or whether they should be restricted to moments of need.

"The fact that it seems to be quiet now doesn't necessarily mean it was quiet in the past," he said, adding that, in fact, maintaining a presence in the region could be the reason for greater stability.

"The counter argument is this is a lot more expensive than practising off the B.C. coast."

Boyd explained the mission was aimed at preventing the transport of illicit weapons and drugs in key shipping regions over six million square kilometres of international waters.

Had his crew actually caught up with the drug smugglers, he noted they had no legal power to actually apprehend the suspects.

"It's not any less important, this mission. But it's certainly a different mindset when you're doing a mission ... where you're forward deployed," he said. "You're in-theatre as the eyes and ears of government."