Shipbuilding and Independence

The unexpected press release announcing the termination of procurement processes for two new types of ships for the Canadian Coast Guard and Navy was no doubt a heavy blow. And for the perennially under funded Coast Guard, the indefinite delay for the twelve new patrol ships they'd been counting on must be a bitter thing indeed.

The Navy, however, might just have dodged an expensive bullet. The Joint Support Ship (JSS) program was never a good idea. It is no surprise that the program could not be afforded at the desired cost, since it is a typically Canadian attempt to reinvent the wheel with a homegrown "Made in Canada" solution. Canadian shipwrights are as gifted as any in the world, and our technology is first-class. All that matters not, however, when the very concept of the ship itself is fundamentally flawed.

The two Protecteur-class Auxiliary Oil Replenishment (AOR) ships possessed by the Canadian Navy today are almost forty years old. These large ships serve a vital role in the fleet, serving as mobile pit crews for our warships at sea. They can sail alongside a frigate or destroyer and refuel its tanks while underway, and have enough storage space aboard to maintain a stockpile of spare parts and ammunition to help keep those ships fully functional while deployed. These vital supplies, along with well-equipped medical and dental facilities, allow our warships to stay on station longer, free of the need to return to port for fuel and provisions. The Protecteurs are, however, starting to show their age, with operating costs climbing as they break down and spare parts become harder to find. After four decades of honourable service, these fine ships should be retired and replaced with alacrity.

The JSS concept should have been just that - a modern replacement to an already proven class of vessels. While retaining the storage space, health care facilities, and fuel bunkers, they could have been fitted out with more modern engines, powerful defensive weapons with the computers to match, and would have benefited from decades of experience at how to make ships easier to maintain, harder to detect, and more environmentally friendly. These hypothetical new AOR ships would have made a substantial contribution to improving the Canadian Navy's effectiveness while having the undeniably appealing fringe benefit of helping sustain Canada's struggling shipbuilding industry.

The JSS's, however, were doomed by the bureaucratic realities of "capability creep." Canada is in the enviable position of being secure within its own borders; our military is mainly for use abroad. In recent years, there have been several embarrassing incidents where the Canadian Forces have been unable to move troops and equipment to where they were needed. The ability to pick up a unit and drop it somewhere else in the world, with everything it needs to function along with it, is known as strategic lift, and Canada has chronically lacked it. The Air Force has recently taken delivery of four giant C-17 transport aircraft that are ideal for moving troops and equipment, whether this means infantry and tanks to Afghanistan or our DART team to disaster areas around the globe. These planes give the Canadian Forces strategic airlift, and the Navy wants a way of providing strategic sealift.

The men at the top of the Navy are of course realists, and they know that even the most hawkish Canadian government is ultimately answerable to a notoriously gun-shy electorate. The need for new AORs is obvious and palatable to any political party; they are, after all, support vessels, not mean, scary warships. Therefore, the AOR replacements are a near-sure thing, insofar as much as any Canadian military expenditure can ever be considered certain. Given that, and the Navy's desire to grab a piece of the strategic lift pie, a decision was made to incorporate as much troop carrying capacity as possible into an AOR design.

This was a mistake for any number of reasons. Fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that a compromise between an AOR and a troop ship capable of supporting an amphibious landing is exactly that: a compromise that does neither job well or economically. An AOR is already a large vessel; it has to be in order to hold enough fuel to do its job. Trying to shoehorn in enough empty space to carry troops, vehicles, equipment and the communications gear necessary to serve as a floating headquarters is unrealistic, as the inability of either received bid to come in at the three billion dollar budget for the program attests. You can have a good ship on budget or a totally new kind of hybrid ship for lots of money, but reinventing the wheel costs, and the Canadian military can't afford it.

Then there is the problem inherent to packing too many vital functions onto one platform. It would be rather embarrassing for Canada if we ever found ourselves needing to send troops abroad to one place while fuelling a task force somewhere else. Not even the fastest ship can yet be two places at once, and if Canada truly believes that it needs to be able to support squadrons at sea while putting troops ashore, it is incumbent upon us to try and ensure we can do both of those jobs simultaneously.

On top of these very real limitations is the sheer absurdity of the idea. Does anyone at National Defence Headquarters really think it would be a good idea to approach a potentially hostile shore in a ship that is essentially a sluggish gas can packed with ammunition?

Canada needs AORs, and it needs them soon. A replacement for such vessels should be designed and ordered as soon as is feasible, and would be an ideal contract for cash-starved Canadian shipbuilders. And if the government agrees with its admirals that Canada needs the ability to ferry troops to distant lands, several of our allies, including the Americans, the Dutch and the Spanish, are currently producing vessels that would be near perfect for Canada's troop carrying needs. Already designed, they can carry troops and vehicles, offload them into landing craft, and remain near the coast to provide command and control, medical facilities, and serve as a supply warehouse, all while offering a hanger deck sufficient to carry several medium-lift helicopters, an item the Navy has already ordered. In order to take advantage of our allies' efforts, however, the government would have to waive its restrictive "Buy Canada" policy.

Obtaining a larger number of more specialized vessels, including some from our allies, might ultimately cost more than what the government had hoped, but we'd get much more bang for the buck. On top of that, of course, is the fact that currently, we're getting exactly zero ships for what the government had hoped, so either the ships will have to be less capable or more money will have to be spent. Given the late date and the urgent need to replace the AORs with at least two new hulls as soon as possible, a purchase of foreign-built ships might be the only economical option that will balance both fiscal and operational realities. This would be bitter political pill to swallow, and would risk putting Canada's shipbuilding industry out of business. Canadian-built AORs and foreign-purchased troop ships, if required, would seem to be the best solution to a serious operational shortfall. It's not perfect, but if we're to have a Navy worthy of its traditions, there are few other options. Canadians should welcome this opportunity, however unsought, to reconsider the best way to equip our Navy for the 21st Century.