More on ships

It’s story time. Once upon time,* about 25 to 30 years ago, in the mid 1990s, when I was the director of a small, very specialized team in National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) in Ottawa, something like this happened: One of my colleague, who had a title like Director of Maritime Requirements or something similar said to one of his principle subordinates, “Look, now that the 280s (Canada had four Tribal Class destroyers with pennant numbers starting at 280, they were often just called “280s”) are finished their mid-life refit and now that the new frigates are entering service it is time to put a “placeholder” in the DSP for their eventual replacements.” The DSP was (still is?) the Defence Services Programme, it is the internal document which sets out the long range spending plans (maybe hopes is a better word) for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Anyway, the Navy commander (the officer assigned to write the document, not the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy who is nicknamed the Kraken (CRCN)) sat at his desk and consulted the most recently approved planning document which, as far as I can remember, called for a surface fleet of 25 combat vessels and four large support ships plus numerous minor war vessels (like minesweepers) and training vessels. The officer then prepared a memorandum for the joint planning staff which said that the Navy would need 25 new combat ships, to be procured between about 2015 and 2035, in five “batches” of five ships each** at a total cost of about $100 Billion, in 2025 dollars. He didn’t say much beyond that, actually, he was just intending to “reserve” some money a generation or so in the future. His memorandum sailed, smoothly, past his boss and the commodore but questions came from a very senior Air Force general: Where he asked, did the $100 Billion come from? That was an outrageous number, he said.

A meeting ensure where the Navy engineering people came and said, “$100 Billion is a very reasonable guesstimate. Our brand new frigate are costing $1 Billion each when they come down the slipway. They will each have cost the taxpayers two to three times that by the time we send them to be broken up thirty or forty years from now. Adding in the inevitable costs of new technology and inflation, which we know is higher for things like military ships and aircraft than it is for consumer goods, then a life-cycle cost of $4 Billion for each ship is very conservative. The admirals and generals huffed and puffed but they didn’t argue ~ they knew that the engineering branch insisted on using life cycle costing, even though no-one but them understood it, and they also knew that arguing with engineers is like mud-wrestling with pigs: everyone gets dirty but the pigs love it.

A decade later, when a new government was planning the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which was all about making the Canadian shipbuilding industry competitive and had very little to do with ships ~ except they would be the “product” for which the Government of Canada would pay top-dollar, the Navy was told it could have fewer ships, in two classes, and someone ~ NOT the military’s engineering branch ~ assigned a cost figure to the project which was, to be charitable, pulled out of some political/public relations staffers arse.

Which bings me to an article by Scott Gilmore in Maclean’s magazine in which he expresses shock at the fact that 15 major warships are, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer [here is the link to his report] going to cost something like $5 Billion each. Remember, please, that 25ish years ago the Navy’s engineers told the HQ senior staff that $4 Billion per ship was a conservative guesstimate. The fact that both Yves Giroux, the Parliamentary Budget Officer and Mr Gilmore, who is a regular Maclean’s columnist, a former foreign service officer who now self-describes as a “social entrepreneur” and is married to Minister of Infrastructure Catherine McKenna, seem surprised leads me to believe that neither understands much of anything about the costs of military hardware or life-cycle costing, either. Mr Gilmore, says that “Canada could buy similar frigates from the Americans, French or even Australians. Our current price tag is between four and five times more expensive than theirs.” That’s arrant nonsense and if Mr Gilmore doesn’t understand that it’s nonsense then he needs a lot of remedial education about procurement and engineering. The life cycle costs of American, Australian, British, Canadian, and Danish warships of similar capabilities will all be similar when adjusted (not too much, actually) for local circumstances. Canada is paying a premium because successive Conservative and Liberal governments-of-the-day have decided that, for valid strategic reasons, Canada needs a healthy shipbuilding industry as part of its industrial base. I eagerly await Mr Gilmore’s explanation as to why that is not true.

Canada is a maritime nation. Canada is a trading nation and it has the longest coast-line in the world. Only the most unbelievably stupid people do not understand that Canada needs a large and capable Navy. And only another group, who are nearly as stupid, believes that we should or actually can rely upon others to build our ships for us when we really need them. Mr Gilmore’s suggestion that we should buy our warships from overseas sounds like something the Canada China Business Council or the governments of France or Spain might advocate, it certainly is not in Canada’s strategic interests.

Warships are expensive. No one denies that. But Canada is a G7 nation, one of the world’s top-ten richest nations, and if we want to stay in those exclusive clubs we need to do a full and fair share of keeping the world safe for global trade ~ and that means keeping the sea lanes open for all. That requires a globally capable Navy. That Navy requires first rate warships. Canada may, as the Parliamentary Budget Officer suggests, require a mixed fleet ~ but not, as his report suggests, three or four Type 26 ships and a dozen of the smaller, less capable British Type 31s that are still in the design stage …

… a more correct “mixed fleet” is 12 of the very capable Type 26 ships and 12 smaller (say 2,500± ton displacement) fast, ocean going corvettes:

What’s the difference? The bigger, much more expensive, Type 26 ships have a very long range, they can stay at sea for weeks at a time, with underway refuelling and resupply, and they are a capable of a full rage of combat missions. Corvettes (and Type 31 frigates) are smaller, have less endurance ~ a corvette can cross the Atlantic or the Pacific with ease, but it is not designed to spend weeks and weeks, even a couple of months at sea without making port. Some corvettes are especially designed for air-defence, and others for e.g. anti-submarine operations and some a general purpose, able to do a bit of everything but nothing as well as a Type 26 can do. But they are much cheaper to buy and to operate ~ that life cycle cost thing again ~ than are the larger, more capable Type 26 Canadian Surface Combatants.

The Canadians shipbuilding industry was allowed, since the late 1960s, to stagnate. Governments are not totally to blame for the poor shape that the shipbuilding sector was in but the federal government is able to offer a support programme to get it back into better shape. Part of that “support” involves having a steady stream of government work ~ year-after-year and decade-after-decade (that’s why that long forgotten Navy commander said 25 ships built over, say, 15 years, in five “batches” of five ships each ~ so that shipyards have some financial stability. Of course, we can buy all our ships from others … from the Americans or from the Chinese, if they will sell to us when it suits us, but is that what most Canadians really want? And would that be in our national interest? I am 100% sure the answer to both questions is: No!

I hope many readers will take note of Mr Gilmore’s opinion and agree that it is rubbish.


* The story is true, in general, but I was not directly involved in any of it. I learned about what happened from three main sources: 1. routine briefings that my bosses (directors-general and branch chiefs) gave, regularly, to we directors, dealing with what was going on in the HQ and in the big wide world; 2. periodic chats with my colleagues, after work on Friday afternoons, in the bar of the Officers’ Mess ~ many of us regarded 2. as a more reliable source of information than 1.; and 3. in the case of the story about the Navy engineers and the Air Force general, by a friend and colleague who was in the room.

** The idea, long before the National Shipbuilding Strategy, was to keep shipyards moderately busy on a continuous basis. The 25 ships would all be similar: the first “batch” of five would be identical, one to the other; the second “batch” would be very similar but with some improvements; the five ships of batch 3 would be similar to the ships from the second batch and those from batch 4 would be rather like their batch 3 sisters. Finally, the batch 5 ships would be product improved. versions of batch 4 ~ they would still be “sisters” of the batch 1 ships, but not, in any way, twins. The idea was that about the time that the batch 5 ships were being delivered the first of the batch 1 ships would be getting ready for a mid-life refit (after 15 to 20 years of service) which would result in it being much more like the batch 5 ships … and so on.

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.

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