Navy support ships

I am on record as being a bit of a fan of Chantier Davie‘s Project Resolve which gave us one working AOR (fleet refuelling and supply ship) and which proposes to convert and lease another. On the other hand, I am somewhat less of a big fan of Senator Colin Kenny, although I acknowledge that, over the years, he has kept at least some government attention focused on defence.

Senator Kenny has written an opinion piece for the Waterloo Region Record which I find largely well reasoned and mostly agreeable ~ except for his favoured course of action. “Canada has got some real problems,” Senator Kenny opines, and I agree, because “In 2014, Canada lost its last two refuelling supply ships, the HMCS Protecteur by fire, and HMCS Preserver as a result of corrosion. Consequently, for the last three years the Navy has been unable to effectively deploy a task force, and its ability to protect our shores has been limited … [and] … This loss reduces mission options, curtails the radius of action for the navy’s warships and erodes skills … [and, further] … Without resupply and refuelling capabilities, the Navy is unable to do what the government needs it to do. This includes protecting our exports, preventing smuggling, providing humanitarian and disaster relief, enforcing domestic laws, projecting force and supporting our allies.

Senator Kenny, harking back, I suspect, to an official (1990s) paper which said that Canada’s Navy needed four support ships, says that “What Canada needs is four supply ships — two on each coast. Having four refuellers provides the necessary buffer for required maintenance, training and unforeseen accidents so that at least one ship is always available on each coast.” That, of course, is debatable and the final word always goes to the government of the day. My, personal, recollection is that back in the 1990s, when I was still serving, the Navy did, indeed, say that four supply ships were needed … but, “not so,” said Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, “Canada needs two supply ships and, maybe, a third to “buffer”” as Senator Kenny says. Prime Minister Harper, in the 2000s, agreed with that position and Asterix was approved, late in the last mandate, to be that “buffer” about the time that both HMC Ships Preserver and  Protecteur were retired. But I think Senator Kenny is, technically (and operationally) correct.

Over on some observers point out that people in the Navy, especially people in the difficult and expensive (and valuable in the civilian marketplace) engineering and technical occupations, are the real problem: more difficult to solve even than a lack of  money or an abundance of political indifference. One notion, which I support, is to get rid of the Harry DeWolf class of Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships. One member says to transfer them to the Coast Guard. I have suggested that we go one step further and revitalize the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Marine Division and send these constabulary ships to that constabulary force. I think one more way to economize on ships’ crews might be to follow the Davie crewing proposal to one logical conclusion and crew ALL (four) of our support whips with civilian mariners, as the Royal Navy does with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Perhaps it’s not the best choice but it seems to me to be one choice that works. I believe it deserves both study and a fair trial. Given the delays before the new Queenston class support ships will be delivered, I think there is time for both.

Senator Kenny sees two options:

  1. “Build New Joint Support Ships
  • Vancouver-based Seaspan is waiting for a contract to build two Joint Support Ships (JSS) but there are three issues: timing, costs and compliance.
  • Timing: On Nov. 7, 2017, Andy Smith, deputy commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard, testified before a parliamentary committee that Seaspan would not finish its first four vessels for the Coast Guard until 2023, and only then will they start on the supply ships. This means the new refuellers will not join the fleet until 2026 and 2028.
  • Costs: The government has set aside $2.6 billion for the new supply ships but there is no mechanism such as a fixed-price contract to control spending. The Parliamentary Budget Office has indicated it is likely the costs will be as high as $4.13 billion if the two ships are to be built at Seaspan as planned.Compliance: On top of all this, Seaspan is using a 26-year-old German design (why so old?) that does not meet NATO interoperability standards.

2. Lease interim supply ships

  • In 2015, the government accepted a proposal from Davie, a Quebec shipyard, to provide Canada with a supply ship, the MV Asterix, that meets all of the requirements of the government, the Navy, and NATO.
  • The government has opted to lease the ship for five years at a cost of $650 million, including operating costs, rather than purchase it outright for $659 million.

While I suspect that his cost figures may be somewhat biased, I think he would be, broadly, on the right track if he proposed to do some of each: continue with the contract to have Seaspan build two Queenston class AORs, and lease another iAOR from Davie. There are some important technical and operational differences in what Davie has built and is proposing and what Seaspan is contracted to build. There is, I think, room for both in a fleet with four support ships. But he suggests, and this is where I think he goes wrong, that: “For a fixed price, the government can acquire all four supply ships the Navy needs from Davie for the $2.6 billion that is already budgeted, and have one ship on each coast by 2019 and the two additional ships three years later … [and he, says] … This is a better option than spending twice as much for two ships with a 26-year-old design that will not be available for 10 years.

I do not agree.

Senator Kenny’s proposal to cut the Seaspan/Queenston contract ignores the primary purpose behind the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which is to revitalize a Canadian industrial, sector, not, especially, to build ships. Plus, as I said above, Asterix and the Queenston class ships have different technical and operational characteristics which makes on more capable but, also, more expensive than the other.

In sum:

  • Senator Kenny is on the right track but he went, as the saying goes, “a bridge too far;” but
  • Canada does need four AORs: but only two of the expensive Queenston class and two less capable ships from Project Resolve; and
  • The critical manning problems can be addressed by ~
    • Transferring the Harry De Wolf class AOPS to a revitalized RCMP Marine Division (that may, actually, make things worse in the short term as skilled technical people would also move to the RCMP but it would help in the mid to long term), and
    • Examining alternative systems for crewing the AORs.

3 thoughts on “Navy support ships”

  1. How about?

    Transferring the maintenance of navigation services from the Coast Guard to a private supplier (s) such as Federal Fleet Services.

    Remaking the Coast Guard as a Constabulary Force, augmenting its existing Fisheries and Oceans role, and transferring the AOPS to it.

    Proceed as you suggest with the AORs based on some sort of civilianized crewing system – either privately employed or government employees.

    I note that maintenance of navigation services on land (ie highways maintenance) is privatized in Alberta.

  2. Transferring 7000 ton warships, even if armed only very moderately, aint going to happen. Not the least bit realistic. Senator Kenny has it totally right. Totally doable if there were only political will.

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