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Rebuilding our Navy: The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy

Rebuilding our Navy: The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy

Banner photo: the Irving Shipyard in Halifax. Credit: Irving Shipbuilding 

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Canada's naval shipbuilding industry has traditionally been one of "boom and bust" - a brief period of high-intensity shipbuilding followed by decades of neglect, meaning those in the industry are forced to go into a different line of work or seek the same work in other countries. This means that each time we build new vessels, we are forced to do a frantic hiring spree from amongst the population...which may no longer be familiar with shipbuilding practices. This is especially a concern over the last decade as youths increasingly seek out university degrees instead of skilled trades, resulting in a dearth of skilled tradesmen. 

In order to maintain a proficient shipbuilding industry in Canada, it is thus necessary to engage in a shipbuilding strategy that is active for decades, not just years. That is what the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy aims to do. 

With a value of $35 billion, the NSPS is the largest procurement contract in Canadian history. Although the NSPS includes ships for many Federal government departments, the vast majority of the dollars allocated to it will be for the Department of National Defence – i.e. the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). While there are no official indications as to exactly how much of that $35 billion pie will go to each department, most indications put it at $25 billion for the RCN and $8 billion for the Coast Guard for the construction of relatively large vessels, with the remainder going towards other Federal agencies and/or smaller ships.      

The following is a listing of the types and numbers of large vessels planned to be built under the NSPS:

Royal Canadian Navy

Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (Halifax Shipyards) – 6-8

Canadian Surface Combatant (Halifax Shipyards) – 12-15

Joint Support Ship (Vancouver Shipyards) – 2

Canadian Coast Guard (all to be built in Vancouver Shipyards)

Polar Icebreaker (to be named the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker) – 1

Offshore Fisheries Science Vessels – 3

Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel – 1

As seen in the above list, the combat vessels being built in Halifax comprise the majority of hulls to be built. The two vessel types will serve very different and distinct roles.

The Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships

Preliminary rendering of the AOPS, from Government of Canada website

The nearly-6000 tons Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) are meant to replace our current Kingston class Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs), which displace a comparatively paltry 970 tons. This difference is partly the result of the ice-capable requirement for the AOPS, which would bring back to the Royal Canadian Navy a capability that it has lost since the late 1950s, when it transferred HMCS Labrador to civilian control. The mass of an icebreaking vessel is crucial to its icebreaking ability, as ships break ice by essentially riding on top of the ice sheet and letting the ship’s weight crush and split the ice. Thus, the heavier a ship (and the more powerful its engines), the thicker the ice it can break. As a result, even though the AOPS are planned to be armed with just a 25mm cannon, they will have a greater displacement than our much more heavily-armed Halifax class frigates.

Contrary to many pundits’ snide comments, the AOPS are not merely “slush breakers”. While it is true they cannot break as much ice as dedicated icebreakers, their planned capability in this regard is comparable, and in many cases superior, to the ice-capable warships of other countries. With a Polar Class (PC) rating of 5, it is expected to operate in first-year ice as thick as one metre, and as much as 1.2 metres – hardly “slush”.

In theory, these ships can be built in such a way as to crush even thicker ice. However, because the AOPS are also expected to operate in the open ocean waters off our Pacific and Atlantic coasts (as the current Kingston class), their hull forms require a compromise that allow for seaworthiness in such a different environment. Despite this, if the AOPS design and construction is successful, our Navy will have a drastic increase in its capabilities – especially crucial in an age when the Arctic ice is melting quicker than ever (but never completely year-round!), allowing for increased traffic in the region.

But there is at least one legitimate concern over the AOPS. With only six to eight hulls (budget constraints will likely limit the program to six), it is difficult to see how they can effectively replace the 12-ship Kingston class, especially given the need to have regular refit/maintenance cycles that would render a small portion of the fleet unavailable at any given time. It may be that the AOPS’ increased endurance (the requirement is for 120 days) will suffice to balance the lack of numbers, but it is nonetheless a concern.

AOPS construction is scheduled to begin in the final months of 2015, with the first ship entering service in 2017.

The Canadian Surface Combatants

One very early preliminary render of the CSC by BMT Fleet Technology LTD. With the recent decision to select an off-the-shelf design, it is highly unlikely the eventual CSC will look like this.

The backbone of our future combat fleet will be the Canadian Surface Combatant, or CSC. As they are not expected to enter service until 2025, there is little that is certain about them. However, we will do our best to provide what is public knowledge regarding the project.

The first priority of the CSC project is to replace our three 40-year-old (and counting) Iroquois class destroyers. Though they were drastically refitted and modernized with new capabilities and systems in the 1990s, their hulls are simply reaching the age where further maintenance would be cost-prohibitive. As a result, many expect the CSC’s first three hulls to be built as a direct replacement for the Iroquois ships. However, because the Iroquois class is oriented for anti-air warfare while our twelve newer Halifax class frigates are more general purpose, two versions of the CSCs have to be built unless we can somehow merge the two ships’ capabilities together into a single ship type.

Whether this pans out will depend on the cost comparisons between a fleet of mixed-type CSCs versus a fleet that is comprised of a more balanced single-type CSC. Generally speaking, air-defence vessels are more expensive than general purpose ships, as the radars and missiles required for the former are much more demanding. However, nearly all modern warships have some sort of effective anti-air system, and the question that has to be answered is whether air-defence technology will advance to the point where a high-end anti-air system that provides coverage over a broad area is only marginally more expensive than a low-end self-defence arrangement.

An additional factor that the CSC program faces is whether it wishes to “future-proof” its vessels. Future-proofing essentially means preparing a ship at the construction stage so that it has the capacity to support yet-to-be-developed technologies. While physical space is one consideration, the most important one is arguable electricity generation. No matter what new equipment (weapons, sensors, etc.) is invented, they will nearly all require more electricity. For example, directed-energy weapons such as electromagnetic railguns and lasers (in development by the Americans) are prodigious electricity consumers. If our ships are to be fitted with them in the future, the electrical arrangement must be ready. Unfortunately, this likely means building in excess electric generation capacity when it is not needed at the time of installation – observers may view it as an unnecessary cost.  

Finally, perhaps the biggest question is whether we wish to design our own vessel from scratch, adapt an existing design, or buy an existing design outright. Designing a large surface combatant is no easy task, and the complexity of today’s ships require extensive planning and detailed design work long before the first piece of steel is cut. Going with our own design will create work for naval architects and engineers, but it will be more expensive than buying an off-the-shelf design from another country. As well, creating a design from scratch will take more time than using an existing design, and time is something the aging Iroquois do not have.

Construction of the CSCs is expected to begin in 2020.

Joint Support Ships

To be built in Vancouver, the Joint Support Ships (JSS) are to consist of two vessels, one each for our Pacific and Atlantic fleets. Originally conceived to be a very ambitious multi-mission warship with substantial amphibious capabilities (i.e. transport and transfer Canadian troops from the ship to land), cost considerations have drastically curtailed the JSSs’ capabilities to the point where they are little more than direct replacements for our Protecteur-class replenishment ships, which provide fuel, food, and spare parts for the rest of the fleet when deployed to far-off locations.

Unlike the combatant vessels, the JSS design has been selected and confirmed. We will be building them using the German Berlin class design by ThyssenKrupp Marine, with suitable changes to adapt them for Canadian use. One such adaptation is expected to be the incorporation of some amphibious capability in the form of one or two landing crafts, enabling the delivery of small amounts of cargo and people to and from shore. Another alteration will be the installation of the Phalanx Close-in-Weapons-System, currently in use by the RCN, while the original German version has only machine guns. These ships should be capable of carrying two or three of the new CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters, the long-awaited replacements for the Sea Kings.

Three factors were used in deciding whether to buy an off-the-shelf design like the Berlin class or to design our own: operational capability, affordability, and construction cost and schedule risks. While both options would likely have the same outcome for that first criterion, the latter two factors favoured the option that can demonstrate it's the better option. Obviously, given that the Berlin class has already been built while the competing entry has not, the choice was a easy one. The existing design was deemed to be cheaper and more likely to be completed on time and on budget than building a new design.

That is not to say the design will be outdated just because it has already been built – while the first Berlin class was commissioned in 2001, the latest vessel only entered service this year. This last vessel, the Bonn, incorporated many lessons learned from the first two ships. This, combined with the even further advancements in naval technology since Bonn’s construction, means that our version of the Berlin class will have all of the latest equipment without having to worry about whether they would work or not.

In summary, the Royal Canadian Navy is engaged in a very long term recapitalization program that will see the replacement of nearly all of its ships with new vessels that echo the older ships’ roles. If all goes well, the Navy will even acquire new capabilities to meet the threats of a new century.

Polar Icebreaker

To replace the aging Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Louis St. Laurent, the Canadian Coast Guard is set on procuring the heavy icebreaker CCGS John G. Diefenbaker. The Diefenbaker is to be built to Polar Class 2 standard, making it capable of almost year-round operations in the Arctic. With 36 of 42 megawatts from her diesel-electric generators dedicated to her propellers, she will be the world’s most powerful non-nuclear-powered icebreaker.

The Diefenbaker will be the flagship of the Coast Guard fleet, and serve as the Canadian Government’s long-term enforcement presence in the North. Although she is not expected to operate in the Arctic during its coldest and most heavily-iced months, she is able to withstand the crushing pressure of heavy winter ice, allowing her to stay the winter in the North if required.

There are two main issues surrounding the construction of the Diefenbaker, one pertaining to the ship design, and the other to the Vancouver shipyard where it will be built.

The main concern for the ship design is in regards to its propeller arrangement. There are two options available: a traditional three-fixed-shafts setup as in the 45-year-old Louis St. Laurent, or two fixed shafts with one rotating “azipod” between them. An azipod can point its propeller in any direction, thus significantly increasing the ship’s maneuverability. The concern here is over costs, as the azipod option would be more expensive due to the mechanisms involved. The designer of the Diefenbaker, STX Marine, claims that the cost is only marginally more than the traditional three-shaft setup – the magnitude of that cost difference remains to be seen.

The other concern relates to the Vancouver shipyard. In essence, it is an issue of scheduling conflict. Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards is supposed to build both the Diefenbaker and the aforementioned Joint Support Ships. The problem is that the shipyard is not large enough to build both ships at the same time...and both ships’ predecessors, the St. Laurent and the Protecteur class, are already long overdue for replacement! Further complicating the issue is that it would more efficient to build both Joint Support Ships one after the other than to interrupt them with the icebreaker, but that means the icebreaker would not be built for even longer. Another issue that would affect the decision is the state of readiness of each ship’s designs, which appears to favour the JSS since it’s a proven design. At this point, the Vancouver yard is still undergoing significant renovations and modernization to enable it to build the ships, so there is still a little bit of time for the decision to be made. The Government of Canada expects decide which ship will be built first in Fall 2013.

Offshore Fisheries Science Vessels (OFSV) and Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel (OOSV)

These two vessel types will also be replacing existing vessels. The three new OFSVs will replace four existing vessels, while the OOSV will be a one-for-one replacement for the CCGS Hudson. These will be the Vancouver yard’s very first ships to be built, with steel cutting to begin as early as 2014. They are the smallest of the large vessels being built under the NSPS – as such, they have not received anywhere near the same level of scrutiny by the media, and the lack of available information on government websites reflects this. Thus, despite the fact that they are the first ships to be built under NSPS, there are no drawings or details available. Thus, we regretfully are not able to provide more information on them at this time.

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