There is a very interesting thread over on Army.ca which begins with a post by Chris Pook, who often comments here, too, in which he wonders if we should not have a new ship conversion projects (à la converting the Asterix into a useful fleet support ship) to provide us with an ‘Afloat Support Base’ or a ‘Expeditionary Mobile Base.’
Another member, Baz, offers a lot of well informed commentary and there seems to be some support for the idea that an agency like Chantier Davie‘s Federal Fleet Services could/should convert an appropriate commercial vessel into something that could even be used by Davie, itself and ‘rented’ to the Government of Canada (or, presumably a foreign government) when required.
The idea is to go from something like this, a commercial roll-on/roll-off (RORO) cargo carrier …
… to something akin to this, a multi-purpose vessel.
It’s been done before. This vessel…
… the UK’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Argus, was back almost 40 years ago a civilian cargo ship the MV Contender Bezant …
… she was modified a bit in 1982 and rushed into support service for the Falkland War, looking like this …
… and was eventually fully refitted and is now a classic general purpose ship which even serves as a hospital ship, despite being armed for other tasks:
A large ship, say something in the range of 900+ feet and 60,000+ tons can carry lots of troops, vehicles and cargo and serve as a floating hospital and, simultaneously, as a floating support base and headquarters.
A large ship like that might well be a ship that Canada would like to have but I’ll go out on a limb and say that it is NOT a ship that the Royal Canadian Navy needs and I’m sure I’m on very safe ground when I say that it’s NOT a ship the RCN wants to have to pay for. The Navy would, I suspect, like to have the capacity to call on the services of civilian vessels as the UK’s Royal Navy does with four Foreland Shipping vessels which operate under a Private Finance Initiative, which is something like a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement, to provide the British government with a backup to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
I have to wonder if someone in government is looking at the idea of a public private partnership deal with one or more of our major shipbuilding companies to build a general purpose support/multi-purpose vessel (or a few vessels) which can be ‘rented’ by the government on a long term basis for use by several government departments, including Global Affairs and Defence.
It also brings to mind a bigger issue. Most of the world’s navies, including the RCN, use Navy ships, warships for replenishment at sea … that’s why Canada is buying two new Protecteur class Support Ships which should be completed before 2025. But not all navies do that … the British Royal Navy, for example, refuels and rearms and resupplies its combat fleets just like we and the Americans and Australians do except that the ships and crews are civilian, sort of … they are part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary which has a special status, in law, and which goes into combat, and, as recently as the Falklands War (again) sees its ships sunk and its sailors killed in action. Several years ago the government of the day was seized with the issue of ‘alternative service delivery’ which, in many cases, meant contracting out selected functions, even, perhaps, some combat support functions. Perhaps, given that I understand that the Canadian Armed Forces, including the Navy, are having trouble attracting and keeping enough of the people they need, the RCN should look at an alternative service delivery model for replenishment at sea ~ that model might involve something akin to a PPP with shipbuilders and merchant marine service providers.
Now, the issue of both a hospital ship, and a disaster relief ship have been discussed before and in each case I suggested that while each would, certainly, be nice to have they should be national assets, not part of the defence team, and funded by either Global Affairs or the political centre.
Now, I am not arguing for any particular ‘solution’ to any huge problem … but I am suggesting that the government, including the Navy, should take a good look at what we, as a nation, might want to do in a range of situations and how it can be done in the most efficient and cost effective ways. Having the right resources, which might include such soft power building tools as ships that can do disaster relief and provide hospital services, might be highly desirable and it might be better to have these service provided by a private contractor than to have government owned and operated vessels. That might mean looking at renewing the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, it might mean reexamining how the Navy does replenishment at sea, it might mean thinking harder about how government projects are funded and how Public Private Partnerships work.
If I knew any of the answers I would propose one or more; I don’t so, like my friend Chris, I’m just wondering out loud, in text, anyway.