Way ahead for the Joint Support Ship becoming clearer

Defence Industry Daily (13 Oct 10 – “Canada’s C$2.9 B “Joint Support Ship” Project, Take 2”) and Dave Pugliese's Defence Watch (20 Oct 10 – “Joint Support Ship Less Capable But Air Force Can Pick Up the Slack Says DND”) indicate that the Department of National Defence has decided to adjust the scope of the Joint Support Ship to that of a modernized AOR, somewhat more capable than the current Protecteur-class. Furthermore, the acquisition strategy has evolved to restricting the selection to proven designs with the German Berlin-class and the Spanish Cantabria-class [an enlarged version of the Spanish Patino-class] being the only two contenders. These classes will be further investigated to determine whether their designs can be adjusted to meet Canadian requirements.

The good news is that an already built design significantly reduces the technical and operational risks. Hopefully they will also reduce the cost risk, though it remains to be seen  - given the intent to build them in Canadian yards, which have not built warships of this size and complexity in decades. Technical and cost risks may still escalate depending upon the extent of the "Canadianization" that is being contemplated.

The bad news is that this decision signals that the government is curtailing the scope of options for international operations that it set out in its Canada First Defence Strategy. The Canada First Defence Strategy outlined a requirement for the Canadian Forces to have the necessary capabilities to make a meaningful contribution across the full spectrum of international operations, from humanitarian assistance to stabilization operations to combat.

Pugliese’s article indicates that Ian Mack, the Defence Department’s Director General Major Project Delivery (Land and Sea), says (the main) part of the reason for the scale down was money. But he (Mack) also noted that new military capabilities on the air side - and as well the use of leased transport ships by DND - also allowed for changes to be made to the JSS project.

While I have no doubt that the lack of money was a major contributing factor to adjusting the requirement for the JSS, I am not convinced that the use of C17s and C130Js, nor the leasing of transport ships will provide the same capability that the JSS was envisaged to provide. Simply put, all of these means of transportation require the use of well-developed infrastructure. The experience in Haiti after the recent earthquake underlines that this sort of infrastructure will generally not be available during a humanitarian disaster. The recent disagreement between Canada and the United Arab Emirates over landing rights and forward strategic basing also indicates how tenuous access to developed infrastructure can be. Furthermore, a quick review of the number of developed ports and medium to large aerodromes in Africa and South East Asia reveals just how scarce this sort of infrastructure is.

All this to say that a timely Canadian response to future humanitarian and stabilization operations will continue to be modest, rather than meaningful, well into future generations.