Building warships, think locally act globally

18358724_1369657473087563_3914969596689182139_oBuilding warships, as this article from the United Kingdom Defence Journal makes clear, is an international business … Canadians are involved in supplying “key elements of the engine and propulsion system in the new UK Royal Navy” Type 26 frigates. We know, for example, that part of the Asterix, Chantier Davie’s project to convert a civilian ship to a military tanker/resupply ship, was built in Finland and shipped to Levis, Quebec for final assembly. And, it is reported in the Strategic Defence Intelligence blog, that BAE Systems will offer a variant of the same Type 26 frigate that Canadian companies are helping to build to Australia for its SEA 500 Future Frigate project. That’s how modern ships are built ~ even the hull may be built in one (lower cost) area because the skill (and money) is is system integration. Even US warships have many foreign sourced components … it is the norm for the rest of the world.

What is not “the norm” are the kinds of intellectual property problems that continue to bedevil the Canadian Surface Combatant project. These problems are not, particularly, the fault of the current Liberal regime, the contracts for the new Canadian warship development were awarded by Stephen Harper’s government, but the extreme case of political risk aversion is part of a long standing problem that, I believe, began when the 24 hour television news stations became popular in the early 1990s. Prior to that ministers and officials had been willing and able to “get their hands dirty” in contract work in order to advance a government project. Sure, there were questions in the House, asked in high dudgeon and with enormous faux moral outrage, but ministers answered in the same (actually, usually, good humoured) vein and journalists, by and large, understood that the point of the question was to remind the government that the opposition parties were watching the progress of major government projects and were prepared to criticize when possible … both to score partisan political points and to help hold the government to account for its spending choices. When news outlets needed, desperately, to fill valuable, revenue generating minutes and seconds with something, anything, the daily questions became grist for the mill and ministers and “communications” staffs began to treat questions and answers with, quite frankly, more respect, tinged with fear, than either deserves. The upshot was the officials began to worry about preventing questions, by removing the minister from the firing line, if possible. And that, I suspect, is part of what many people see as a flawed contracting system for the newest Canadian warships.

It is not too late, I have speculated (second link in the preceding paragraph) to fix the RS62006_Type-26-landscape-lpr-1021x580intellectual property issue but it is also an opportune moment to consider a  case for planning combined procurement in, say, 2050. Australia, Canada and the UK expect to put new frigates* in the water in the 2020s. All three navies will need to replace those ships in about or before 2060. By 2050 work should be ongoing on detailed design specifications. It would not be unreasonable for defence and procurement ministers in both countries to form a small, fairly low ranked team,** right about now, to begin defining requirements. It would not be unreasonable, either, for a few other allied or friendly nations to consider joining such  combined procurement effort … if local, domestic, jobs can be protected, which is likely still, 30+ years from now,  to remain a key political consideration for any and all countries involved.

It is something for the next Conservative government to consider as one possible way to get “more bang for the (national defence budget) buck.”


* Actually the Type 26 frigate, at nearly 7,000 tons, will displace more than our now retired Tribal class destroyers and will approach the displacement of a 1950s light cruiser

** 996dMaybe just three not too high ranked officers (lieutenant commanders) based in one of the capitals to write a “lead line” paper in this decade, then, in, say, 2030, a combined requirements definition team headed by, say, three commanders growing, by 2050 into three (or even more) national, but closely coordinated, project management teams.

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