Torpedoes In A Salmon War -- B.C. Premier May Sink High-Tech U.S. Navy Base

NANOOSE BAY, B.C. - To passing pleasure boaters, Winchelsea Island looks innocent enough - a few acres of windswept rock in the Georgia Strait, topped by a cluster of whitewashed, single-story buildings.

But boaters who get too close soon learn something serious is going on here. The island is ringed with razor wire and frequented by helicopters and the occasional nuclear submarine. Uninvited visitors are shooed away by guards in patrol boats.

Those nondescript buildings, just north of Nanaimo, are jammed with electronics rivaling the Starship Enterprise. Winchelsea Island and its nearby shoreside operations are command central for near-daily tests of torpedoes, sonar and other high-tech naval gadgets, most of them property of the U.S. Navy.

Recently, this obscure base a few miles north of the U.S.-Canada boundary has become the focus of the Battle of Nanoose Bay, an odd conflict in which the navies of both countries are fending off political salvoes fired by an odd alliance of peace activists and British Columbia's populist premier.

The navy folks go about their business around Winchelsea Island, quietly firing torpedoes at electronic targets, perhaps yearning secretly for a clean shot at the loose political cannon who dragged them into a regional squabble over salmon.

In an effort to force a resolution of the continuing U.S.-Canada salmon dispute, B.C. Premier Glen Clark set this Friday as the deadline to shut down the little-known naval base called the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges.

Last week, a Canadian court granted the base a reprieve while it sorts out the legal arguments. But the future of CFMETR, as it is known in British Columbia, remains very much in doubt.

CFMETR occupies 300 acres of prime waterfront real estate. While owned and managed by Canada, the base is used primarily by U.S. Navy units attached to the Keyport submarine base in Kitsap County.

The Nanoose facility has a very limited mission - testing of devices used in anti-submarine warfare. This is done mostly at an offshore range, code-named "Whiskey Golf." It's a 5-mile-by-15-mile rectangle of open water thoroughly wired with 30 submerged monitoring stations, each linked by cable to Winchelsea Island. Another, slightly larger test area is adjacent to "Whiskey Golf."

For more than 30 years, the U.S. Navy has been shipping torpedoes here in canvas-draped trucks for sophisticated sea trials.

Canadians, who think of themselves as international peacemakers, have mixed feelings about the base. Many are apprehensive, if not antagonistic, about the presence of nuclear submarines. Why, they ask, do Americans need to test their torpedoes in Canadian waters?

"Those submarines pose an enormous and unnecessary risk to the community," says Jean McLaren, a 70-year-old grandmother and former director of the Nanoose Conversion Campaign. For more than a decade, the group has been staging protests at the base, promoting conversion of Nanoose Bay to something more peaceful.

Their protests attracted little public attention until recently, when Clark stepped in. In his second year as leader of the B.C. government, Clark was looking for a way to pressure the U.S. to quit intercepting Canadian salmon runs on the B.C. boundaries with Alaska and Washington state. CFMETR has no known effects on salmon, but it looked like political leverage.

While the onshore buildings sit on federal property, Whiskey Golf occupies seabed owned by the province and leased to the Canadian military. By canceling that lease, Clark would essentially render the base useless - to U.S. and Canadian forces alike.

Canadian federal officials challenge Clark's authority to do this. If he persists, they threaten to simply expropriate the range.

Gord Buckingham, the Canadian Forces base commander, says the base plays a critical role for both nations' national security.

Neither nation has fired a torpedo in battle in decades, but the end of the Cold War may actually heighten the military importance of submarines and anti-submarine warfare, he says.

Dozens of countries - from Argentina to Bosnia and Iran - have one or more submarines capable of firing torpedoes, and the Russians are selling more on the world market, he says. This poses a threat to U.S. and Canadian naval ships and coastlines. Officials cite the Falkland Islands War, when Argentina kept the British Navy busy with just one diesel-powered sub.

As a result, both navies have a keen interest in refining their anti-submarine techniques.

"What we have here is unique for North America," Buckingham says. "The 1,200-foot depth and relatively soft, silty bottom are ideal for testing and retrieving torpedoes."

The base also benefits from its proximity to other major U.S. bases at Keyport, Bangor and Whidbey Island, and Canadian bases at Comox and Esquimault, B.C.

Mike James, a retired U.S. submarine officer who now works as a civilian technician at CFMETR, acknowledges that torpedoes could be tested at other locations, including Behm Canal, near Ketchikan.

"But Behm Canal is more constricted and not as deep," he says. "It would cost millions to re-create this facility."

At Nanoose Bay, the Navy tests torpedoes with both electronic simulations and, less frequently, with real submarines, James says. "Now and then you need to shoot at the real thing," he says.

Both tests raise hackles among some Canadians. When tests are under way, boaters are chased out of the Whiskey Golf area and forced to detour miles out of their way. One feisty boater was arrested after he "mooned" a military helicopter.

Critics claim the base is a safety hazard. Two years ago, a 70-foot yacht was sunk in a collision with a Chilean navy submarine, and the owner still has not been reimbursed.

The sub/yacht collision occurred miles away in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and had nothing to do with CFMETR, officials say. The yachtsman's legal case is still pending.

Military authorities insist Nanoose Bay has an excellent safety record. During offshore tests, the area is closed simply for safety reasons. "You don't want to be floating out there when one of these torpedoes comes to the surface," says one Canadian.

And all the test torpedoes carry dummy warheads, Buckingham says. "No explosives are allowed on the range."

While it remains important, the CFMETR has scaled down due to tighter budgets, officials say. Submarines show up only occasionally, and personnel have been cut to just 80 - most of them U.S. and Canadian civilians.

The local establishment appears to support the base, which brings a multimillion-dollar payroll to an area that needs jobs. "Clark's threat is impotent and ill advised," reads the headline of a local editorial.

But local citizens express mixed feelings. One letter writer argues that the base is a waste of tax dollars, another that it would make an excellent marine park. Others insist the Nanoose mission is strictly defensive and peaceful. "Let the peaceniks fund their own Nirvana," writes another.

Either way, Clark has raised far more ruckus on his own turf than south of the border, where the Nanoose dispute has received little attention. Last week, Canadian officials told the press Clark had stated privately that he regretted bringing up the issue.

Base officers certainly feel that way. For 30 years, they've gone about their business very quietly, which is how they like it. Now, whatever the courts decide, Clark has blown their cover.

Ross Anderson's phone message number is 206-464-2061. His e-mail address is: