Canada-UK frigate development talks make sense

The initial rumour out of Britain that Canada and UK were discussing new frigate plans [see also here] was quickly denied by the Canadian government, but subsequent public statements by a Halifax area MP, probably talking on behalf of the local shipyard, have added some credibility to that rumour. Anyway, when one stops to think about it there is absolutely nothing wrong with such talks, and sovereignty is certainly not under threat as some would have us believe. However, with the new National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) still in its infancy and thus vulnerable politically, it is not surprising that the shipbuilders are worried over anything that might be seen as a threat to a program that will rebuild that industry as well the navy’s and the coast guard’s fleets over the next thirty years.

For the last 50 years, lack of government priority to the timely replacement of those fleets has created a “boom and bust” cycle of government contracts for new ships that, among other things, has lead to the loss of a home-based ship design capability able to look after the navy’s and coast guard’s needs. In fact, the succession of Canadian governments since the mid-1960s has failed miserably to protect the shipbuilding industry and so one would expect that industry to be apprehensive, especially when the new policy already seems to be headed for an uneven playing field.

The idea that Canada and the UK are actively discussing ship designs should not really be of concern to Canadians. It makes absolute sense for a government to understand what other countries are planning. Even though the navy’s present twelve frigates were designed and built in Canada, that achievement would not have been possible without a prior understanding of American and British warship design as well as with considerable American help in getting the program rolling. Without the assistance of Bath Ironworks, Saint John Shipbuilding would not have completed that program on time and on budget. Shipbuilding in its broadest sense has become a truly global industry. The May 2009 Report of Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) Marine Industries Working Group report, entitled Sovereignty, Security and Prosperity: Government Ships Designed, Built and Supported by Canadian Industry, stated “Canada’s Marine Industries are broader than the ship construction that occurs in shipyards. They include project management, ship design, and systems integration and equipment supply involving many hundreds of Canadian companies...” For instance, in designing and building a modern ship, the [report indicates the] following levels of effort are typical:

  • Ship construction – 35-40%
  • Mission systems and equipment – 3-35% (based on intended operational capabilities)
  • Platform systems and equipment – 20-35%
  • Design – 5-10%
  • Project management – 5-10%

Few counties now produce all the equipment that goes into a modern ship. Module and component part fabrication can take place in several regions or countries with final assembly done in one or more yards. The Canadian frigates are a good example of this feature of modern shipbuilding; although the modules were built in Canada, equipment came from many other countries and parts of Canada. Cries that not designing and building new ships entirely in Canada threaten Canadian sovereignty are not only naive they also show a marked lack of understanding of the nature of shipbuilding today. Such cries are probably made more for political effect than out of any real concern for the quality of the end product.

That said, there is an historical aspect of Canada-UK cooperation in shipbuilding, which is worth looking at because it helps understand the fragile nature of the Canadian shipbuilding industry and its dependence on government contracts to remain viable. As Mike Young explained in his recent CNR article on the history Canadian naval technology, the navy’s technical experience in shipbuilding has been heavily influenced by the British Royal Corps of Naval Constructors (RCNC). In fact, until the early 1960s Canadian naval engineers were almost entirely trained in the Royal Navy. And after that, the two navies remained close in many naval engineering fields. Only after the Canadian navy began using more American equipment (with the ships still built in Canada) did closer cross-border technical links develop. For many reasons, it also made more sense for the Canadian navy to rely on the United States for higher technical education – a decision that has served Canada well.

Even though major warships have been built in Canada since the Second World War, it was only possible because of borrowed British technical expertise. There are exceptions, such as [the icebreaker] Labrador, the auxiliary oiler-replenisher ships (AORs), and the current fleet of frigates, but for most of it’s 100 year history the navy has been able to compensate for its lack of “home-grown” design and naval architectural capability through British assistance. Other than Labrador and possibly the AORs, the Canadian navy has not copied or adapted USN warship designs. Early in the Canadian Patrol Frigate program there was talk of building a Canadianized version of Oliver Hazard Perry-class, but the end result was distinctly Canadian. Although parallels exist between Canadian and British destroyers and frigates built during the Cold War (1947-1989) and Canadian shipyards generally built to British standards, the actual ships have always been Canadian. Operational requirements, especially for sea keeping, endurance, and habitability, have been based on Canadian criteria and not British. Actual designs are influenced by numerous other factors, not least of which were the weapons suits and the propulsion system. When Britain supplied those to Canada it was natural that British and Canadian warships had many similar design characteristics.

A short review of the design history of the post-Second World War Canadian fleet explains all this. The fleet that Canada kept after the war was essentially of British design. Also, the Canadian naval technical staff was thoroughly Anglicized and several RN engineers and constructors (naval architects) were serving on loan in Ottawa, so it made sense to turn to Britain rather than to the United States for ideas for modernization and for new ship designs. Despite the parallel design hierarchy in Canadian and British warships during the early Cold War, similarities diminished as increasing amounts of American equipment were used by the Canadian navy. This was not an erosion of sovereignty or a reflection of new political linkages; it was simply a function of the decision to modernize the fleet to meet changing threats and operational requirements.

This evolution of Canadian naval engineering philosophy can be seen through the various programs to build and modernize the Canadian fleet. For instance, as an interim step in meeting the new Soviet submarine threat in the late 1940s, plans were made to modernize the four Canadian V- and C-class destroyers along almost identical lines to the RN’s Type-15 destroyer modernization program. This interim work was necessary because the new, purpose-built ASW ships (the St. Laurent-class) would not be available before 1956. In the end, only Algonquin and Crescent were modernized and although they did not make a significant tactical difference, they enabled the fleet to begin the transition to the new operational concepts of ASW embodied in the St. Laurents.

The St. Laurent-class, although championed as a true Canadian design, had many features in common with the RN Type 12 and 12M frigates (Whitby- and Rothsay-classes). Dimensions, displacement, and weapons systems were almost identical and they used the same propulsion system. Canada built 20 ships of that basic design with some modifications and Britain built 18 in two batches. The St. Laurents, however, were designed specifically for the Canadian environment, and like their British counterparts served the navy enormously well over their lives. Both navies modernized those classes of ships to keep pace with changing threats and emerging technologies. The hugely successful St. Laurent modification to make nine destroyers helicopter-capable was done to an almost entirely “home-grown” design incorporating a great deal more American equipment. Four others were given improved ASW systems of American design including the ASROC rocket-launched torpedo.

NATO demands for a simplified ocean escort for convoy protection and coastal ASW led to parallel new designs in Canada and in the United Kingdom. The short-lived plan for a Canadian “economy” escort, the Vancouver-class, was similar in both design and concept to the RN Type 14, Blackwood-class frigate. Both were, in fact, scaled-down versions of the St. Laurent- and Rothsey-classes respectively. The 12 British Blackwood-class were built in the late 1950s and remained in service until the late 1970s and early 1980s. Canada chose not to build a “second rate” ASW frigate for several reasons the most significant of which was that the design was not as well suited as the St. Laurents to the Canadian operating environment. Six more St. Laurents (the Mackenzie-class) were built instead. The last two (Annapolis and Nipigon) were built as helicopter-capable ships incorporating the highly successful modifications made to the earlier ships of the design.

However, in the late 1950 as the Soviet threat at sea became more complex and NATO’s contingency plans correspondingly comprehensive; consequently, the Canadian navy started to look for a new class of general-purpose frigates. Initial planning for a notional ship (curiously also called the Mackenzie-class) was abandoned in 1957 in favour of the continuation of the St. Laurent design. However, the concept of a general-purpose frigate emerged again in 1959 with a design that reflected many of the characteristics of the RN Leander-class. Dimensions, displacement, propulsion system, and weapons suits were again remarkably similar but with greater use of American air defence systems in the Canadian ship. Unfortunately, the design became a political football and was cancelled by a new government in 1963.

The December 1964 announcement of four new ASW “flotilla leaders” produced another round of design debates. Initially, the design was for a ‘repeat-Nipigon’ lengthened and with a greater beam to accommodate two Sea King helicopters and to make room for an air defence missile system. The ship would displace about 3,400 tons and have the same Y-100 propulsion system as the St. Laurents and the British family of frigates. There were many design similarities with the RN’s Leander-class except for helicopter capability. [HMS Leander displaced 3,300 tons, was 360 feet in length, 43 feet wide, and with a draft of 29 feet (including the sonar dome).] As it turned out, the propulsion system had to be changed to gas turbine, which not only changed the basic design but also increased displacement and, to the angst of the Minister and the Treasury Board, the cost. In the end, the Iroquois-class destroyers became a more distinctly Canadian-designed warship than initially planned. The DDH 280 experience was really the beginning of a truly ‘national, ship design capability.

Unfortunately, that capability soon died from neglect and the Naval Central Drawing Office was closed down. Had there not been so many government delays in replacing the St. Laurent-class, the Canadian shipbuilding industry would have been in much better shape when the contract to build the CPFs was finally signed in 1984. As a result, it took longer to design and build those ships than ideal, but nevertheless it happened. Now, after yet another long period of government neglect the shipyards are getting ready to compete for a large order of navy and coast guard ships. But once again, there is a steep learning curve to climb and this entails talking to other shipbuilders around the world to catch-up on new technologies, design concepts, and equipment.

The key to any new shipbuilding program, as Mike Young explained, is for the future operators – the navy and the coast guard – to get the statements of operational requirements written correctly and accurately and with the foresight to ensure that the new ships are not obsolescent when built. This process requires that competent authorities talk to their counterparts in other countries. For this reason, we should welcome the Canada-UK discussions on new frigate designs; it is a prudent step in the right direction.