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Canadian Navy Could Use Space and Lasers to Battle Pirates on the High Seas

Canada already does a fair bit of aquatic policing, busting cocaine smugglers in the Caribbean and running counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations in and around the Indian Sea and in the Gulf of Aden.

by Justin Ling
Feb 10 2016, 4:45pm

Photo by Cpl Michael Bastien/MARPAC Imaging Services

Canada is looking to get serious about patrolling the high seas, and that means fighting pirates.

A new report from a government research office says that, to do so, Canada should invest in lasers, spy satellites, and drones.

The idea isn't as crazy as it sounds.

Canada already does a fair bit of aquatic policing, busting cocaine smugglers in the Caribbean and running counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations in and around the Indian Sea and in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia. An aging naval fleet has made this mission increasingly difficult.

But Canada's new Liberal government has said it intends to double-down its financial commitment to build a new navy and to make maritime patrol a priority, meaning that these missions might become much bigger.

In the party's platform, the Liberals vowed to reinvest in its navy to ensure it "is able to operate as a true blue-water maritime force."

The new report, Maritime Non-state Actors: A Challenge for the Royal Canadian Navy?, was penned by David Rudd, a strategic analyst with a government research body which advises the Canadian military.

That report makes some recommendations for how Canada could reboot its naval fleet to help hunt pirates and naval terrorists.

Related: Canada Wants Drones to Bomb Terrorists, Track Pirates, and Spy on Protesters

The ideas range from satellites trained to surveil and monitor the rogue boats, to creating a dedicated class of low-cost ships that could be used exclusively for this sort of maritime policing.

"On the less-than-lethal side, water cannon or directed energy weapons (i.e. microwave projectors, long-range acoustic devices, portable laser 'dazzlers') can be used to warn malefactors before they approach the ship," the report says. "These need to be backed up by lethal effectors: medium-caliber automatic guns mounted on the ship."

Those non-lethal weapons would be useful if Canada needs to ward away ships belonging to an allied country, as it has had to do in the past.

The report notes that this sort of hardware is actually cheaper than traditional weapons found on Canadian ships.

"The emergence of more powerful lasers to destroy incoming target may also be worthy of consideration, not least because of the alleged cost-effectiveness of such systems," writes Rudd.

While the report says that lasers might not function well in fog, rain, or sea spray, it adds that the US Navy has used similar lasers and that each shot from the weapon "costs less than a dollar."

In cutting costs, it also notes that high-power spy satellites can "empower smaller fleets to cover a wide ocean space."

Canada is in the process of building six brand new, state-of-the-art ships, designed to patrol the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the high Arctic; as well as roughly a dozen warships. The two projects are worth some $25 billion CAD ($18 billion USD) and are just part of the Canadian Navy's planned renaissance. But, given that the shipbuilding programs are already plagued with cost overruns and delays, penny-pinching options are becoming valuable.

Anti-piracy efforts, of which Canada has been a player, have been effective in recent years, as the United Nations has pushed member states to tackle the problem, which has disrupted global shipping routes and proved to be an effective funding source for outfits like the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia.

A report from the International Maritime Bureau says that, in the first six months of last year, 250 crews were taken hostage in successful naval hijackings.

Rudd's report notes that the role for anti-piracy efforts could only grow, as a multi-national territorial dispute simmers in the contested South China Sea. The Canadian government seems to agree.

"Due to Canada's expanding commercial engagement across Southeast Asia, freedom of navigation in this important maritime artery for international commerce and, particularly, energy supply, remains in Canada's national interest," reads a briefing report prepared for the incoming government of Justin Trudeau, obtained through access to information laws.

While the briefing note says that Canada "does not take sides" in maritime disputes, an internationally-mediated dispute resolution could insert a role for international navies.

Canada could also use its new navy muscle to tackle migrant smuggling worldwide.

The government already contributes tens of millions of dollars to combat trafficking and smuggling in Southeast Asia after a pair of migrant ships landed on its Pacific coast, bound from Sri Lanka, in 2010.

The European Union has already used some naval power to try and stop smuggling ships off its coasts, but it's done little to stem the tide. Just this month, Germany and Turkey said they would be requesting that NATO officially contribute ships to address the issue.

Related: How Canada is Helping Nab Thousands of Kilos of Blow in the Caribbean

Canada has also dispatched its navy to bust drug-smuggling routes throughout the Caribbean, and regularly nets millions of dollars worth of contraband. The report notes that some of those trafficking efforts are becoming increasing sophisticated, including by the use of submersibles to elude capture and ferry the drugs — "narco-subs," as the report refers to them.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling