I see some great pictures on the internet of Conservative leader Rona Ambrose visiting the Irving Shipyard in Halifax …

… she’s meeting workers and talking to executives. That’s a good thing. It’s good that a Conservative leader is taking an interest in the business of building warships.

There’s a problem.

The last Conservative government set out a National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, but, really, it wasn’t about ships, it was a budget plan for a national industrial support programme, tied to warships only because national security and defence projects are exempt from the international trade rules that, normally, prohibit subsidizing industries. So, in reality, it is a programme to subsidize shipyards so that they can modernize themselves, on the taxpayers’ dime, and then build some warships. The “some” is important because, according to everything I have read, there is not, never really was, enough money for all the ships envisioned. That’s not something we, Conservatives, can blame on the Liberals.

None of the ships are unimportant.

If we are going to have a blue water navy: one that can deploy, on its own, anywhere in the world, then we must have at least two, preferably three replenishment ships. The “plan” was to have Seaspan Marine in Vancouver build two replenishment ships based on the proven, German Berlin class design (below) …


… this project became urgent when the last of the Canadian Protecteur class replenishment vessels had to be scrapped after an accident at sea. Canada is currently “renting” its replenishment at sea capability from Chile and Spain. But, the project also became far less urgent when the new government agreed, just weeks ago, to move ahead with an offer from Davie to repurpose a container ship into a replenishment ship, pictured below, and operate it for the Navy on a lease basis.


I discussed this just a couple of days ago.

Now, it is my understanding ~ but I was never a naval officer ~ that some countries, like the UK, employ replenishment ships, in combat, that are crewed by civilians, part of a “fleet auxiliary” service …

HMS Ark Royal RAS with RFA Wave Knight
Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal conducts a Replenishment at Sea (RAS) with the supply vessel RFA Wave Knight in the North Sea.

… those British Royal Fleet Auxiliary replenishment ships (pictured above), our old Protecteur class ships, the proposed new Queenstown class (based on the Berlin class) vessels, and the new Project Resolve ships all look rather similar and all do very similar things, but the tactical doctrine for replenishment at sea is somewhat different in the RN than in the RCN and our doctrine does not support employing civilian vessels in the same way we would us one of our own, RCN, replenishment ships.

Doctrinal problems aside, and doctrines can be changed if necessary, the key thing is that it appears that we might be able to get three Project Resolve type ships for the cost of one, much less two, Queenstown class ships. If my guess is correct, if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to tighten the screws on the defence budget, then it may make sense to reconsider the need for the Queenstown class replenishment ships, for the immediate future, if Davie can deliver on Project Resolve … two or even three times in a row.

Seaspan Marine has plenty of work without building the replenishment ships but, if the Queenstown class was delayed, for a decade or more, then there would be some capacity, on the West Coast, for other work.

The big problem, it seems to me, is the Canadian Surface Combatant project. As I understand it, and I am happy to be corrected, the project us intended to build 15 of the surface combatants to replace the 16 Tribal class destroyers and Halifax class frigates in the Irving yards in Halifax. The new ships are meant to be built following the launch, also from the same Irving yard, of the Harry DeWolf class patrol vessels, shown below …

canada aops

… again it is my understanding that the Navy wants eight of the DeWolf class vessels for a total of 23 surface combatants. Current reports suggest that Canada will be lucky to see five of the DeWolf class ships given the money currently available. Does that mean we need 18 of the even more expensive destroyer/frigate replacements, instead of just 15?

Again, current speculation in the media and in online fora, occasionally by people who ought to know, is that there is nowhere near enough money for even 15 of the new surface combatants which are thought to be derived from either the Danish Iver Huitfeldt class frigate or the European FREMM (Frégate européenne multi-mission) ships, pictured below.

Now, I, an old, retired army colonel, am not about to tell anyone what sort of ships the Navy ought to have, the government has well qualified officials and experts on contract and admirals and commodores to do that. I have no knowledge of naval architecture or marine engineering, but it does seem to me that if we cannot afford to build all the ships we want then it might be sensible to build enough of the ships that we can afford.

Let’s say that we want 23 ships at a cost of $nn,nnn,nnn,nnn … but that $nn billion will in fact buy only 17, total, of the DeWolf class and new surface combatant ships. Do we shrug and try to do more with less … again? Or do we build even fewer of the desired ships and add some others that are smaller, slower, less capable (but still able to do many of the “day-to-day” jobs the government gives to the RCN, like fisheries patrols and anti-drug operations in the Caribbean) but would be only, say, 25% of the cost to build and even, proportionately, cheaper to operate? Could we, should we buy, say, only four of the DeWolfs and eight of the destroyer/frigate replacements (only 12 of the desired ships, in all) and then 12 of a smaller, slower class of ships that we might call a corvette? or, perhaps 4+10+10, if there is money available, giving us enough “bottoms” in the water to meet all the assigned tasks, albeit not all as capable as our admirals tell us we ought to have?

There are many modern, ocean going, corvettes out there …

… ranging from the small, 450 ton, Swedish, Visby class vessels (left picture) up to and bigger than the 2,000 ton ships in the German Braunschweig class (on the right). I assume there is something out there that could meet Canada’s minimum price/capability requirements.

It seems to me that both Conservatives and Liberals agree that the Royal Canadian Navy must be returned to an operationally effective state, which means that many new ships of several types are needed, starting soon. I think (maybe just hope) that both parties also agree that enough funds must be found to meet the Navy’s minimum operational requirements over the next 35 to 50 years. If that’s the case then the Conservatives, as the official opposition need to keep pressing the Liberals to go ahead and keep their campaign promise to “make investing in the Royal Canadian Navy a top priority,” (page 70 of the platform document) and “to invest in strengthening the Navy, while meeting the commitments that were made as part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy,” (Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of National Defence).

Canada deserves no less.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

18 thoughts on “Ships

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