Replacing the Royal Canadian Navy’s aging destroyers, oilers

If you want an example of a hard-working navy then look no further than the Royal Canadian Navy who still manage to do so much (CMF, SNMG1, etc.) despite having a fleet of aging ships.

Dear Lord! The Protector-class oilers are nearly as old as I am. (Guess on a postcard, please.) Political considerations mean that the replacements will likely have to be ordered from a Canadian builder, which rules out the economies of scale offered by joined the UK’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary in procurement of the MARS tanker.

The Iroquois-class destroyers are also showing their age – launched between 1970 and 1972, and commissioned in ’72. These workhorses have been in commission for over 40-years and a replacement is long-overdue. Again, domestic political considerations mean that any replacement will have to be built (or led) by Canadian yards. This prevented the RCN from procuring either the Royal Navy’s Type 45 or the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class.

So what will Canada buy… and when?

Canadian government to make decision on shipbuilding projects in the fall

The Canadian Coast Guard is also designing a new polar-class icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, to replace its existing heavy icebreaker, the Louis S. St-Laurent (pictured), which is due to be retired in 2017. Photograph by: Handout/Fisheries and Oceans Canada , Postmedia News

OTTAWA — The federal government will decide in the fall whether resupplying Canada’s navy or Arctic sovereignty is more important.

The Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Coast Guard have been in fits in recent months as each has major shipbuilding projects scheduled to be ready for construction at the same time around 2015.

But the Vancouver shipyard slated to build them can only handle one project at a time, meaning work on either the Navy’s new resupply ships or the Coast Guard’s new polar icebreaker will have to be delayed.

Senior officials briefing reporters on background on the government’s $35-billion national shipbuilding strategy Friday confirmed the conflict and said a decision is coming.

“It is clear that the decision will require that the production and delivery schedule for one of the projects be adjusted to accommodate the construction of the other,” said one Public Works official who could not be identified. “The final decision as to which project goes first will be made in the fall of 2013.”

There are major ramifications associated with putting off either project.

The Navy’s existing 50-year-old resupply ships are environmentally unsound and prohibitively expensive to maintain, while the Coast Guard’s existing heavy icebreaker is also near the end of its life.

In addition, a delay to either project will have financial repercussions because of inflation and other increased costs, which means the government will have to either put in more money or accept fewer or less capable ships.

National Defence, the Coast Guard and the Public Works department will spend the summer assessing the potential impacts of delaying either project so an informed decision can be made.

“The decision will be based on a comprehensive assessment that will consider operational impacts such as the need to include ship-life extension and refit costs for existing vessels,” the Public Works official said. “The assessment will also include the readiness of each ship design, schedule optimization and risks.”

One Coast Guard official, who also could not be identified, said a study is already looking into what work will need to be done to keep the 44-year-old Louis S. St-Laurent heavy icebreaker in the water past its 2017 retirement date.

“That’ll involve some investment in that vessel if we are to keep her in service should we not be the first of the large shipbuilds,” he said.

University of Calgary defence expert Rob Huebert said the Louis S. St-Laurent is nearing the end of her life and desperately needed, but so are new resupply ships, especially as Canada looks to increase its military presence in the Pacific Ocean.

“So there isn’t an obvious clear answer as to which should go first,” he said. “The answer is both of them should go first, but you can’t do that. So there’s going to be some real hard decisions.”

The government officials maintained, however, that both the Navy and Coast Guard are not contemplating stabbing each other in the back to make sure their ships are chosen first.

“It’s important to understand that we’re working on this together,” said one naval officer. “It is the government’s fleet … We’re just at the beginning of the detailed work on that, and we are working together to produce it and to come up with the best options, the best solution for Canada.”

Meanwhile, the officials maintained confidence the shipyards in Vancouver and Halifax responsible for overseeing the majority of work associated with the $35-billion shipbuilding plan will be able to scale up and begin cutting steel soon.

Physical work on the first offshore fisheries and science vessels is scheduled to begin in Vancouver in 2014 and 2015, respectively, while the navy’s new Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels are to start coming together in Halifax in 2015.

A schedule for work on the first replacements for the Navy’s existing destroyers and frigates, which will also be built in Halifax, hasn’t been decided yet.

The government also announced $488 million for about two-dozen smaller Coast Guard lifeboats and science vessels earlier this week, contracts for which will be bid on by shipyards that aren’t part of the larger shipbuilding work.

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