JSS adrift in a strategic black hole*

[*Moderator’s Note: This article appeared originally as part of the ‘Plain Talk’ series in the Fall 2010 issue (Vol. 6, No. 3) of Canadian Naval Review.]

Is the announcement of a new $2.6 billion project to acquire two Joint Support Ships good news or bad news for the navy?

The plan is to replace the navy’s two auxiliary oiler-replenishment (AOR) ships with two Joint Support Ships (JSS) – and possibly a third – the primary role of which will be to support the navy’s task groups. The government announcement said the new ships will “also provide a home base for the maintenance and operation of helicopters, a limited sealift capability, and logistics support to forces deployed ashore.” This is not what was in the original plan.

In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the change to a multi-polar world with more regional conflicts, the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien laid out a plan for multi-purpose combat-capable forces. For the navy planners, this directed them to look closely at a future in which joint and combined operations would play a key role.

In the late 1990s, the navy was working on a project for an afloat logistics and sealift capability. This project called for three or four 35,000 tonne ships, each able to carry 8,000 to 10,000 tonnes of fuel, 500 tonnes of JP 5 aviation fuel, 300 tonnes of ammunition and 230 tonnes of potable water. It was to have 2,500 lane metres of deck space and a container system, and be able to carry four maritime helicopters, with an elevator system to move the helicopters between the hangar deck and the cargo deck. It was to be able to support a joint force headquarters of 75 people, and it needed to be able to operate independent of a jetty, using either a lighterage system or a well deck.

This amalgamation of capabilities was supported by the short-lived government of Paul Martin which, in its April 2005 “International Policy Statement,” charged the army, navy and air force with becoming better integrated, interoperable with other government departments as well as allies, and more “responsive by enhancing their ability to act quickly in the event of crises,” arriving on scene faster whether at home or abroad.(1) A month later the navy published a follow-on to its 2001 Leadmark policy paper which fleshed out the government’s strategic direction.

This is what Securing Canada’s Ocean Frontiers had to say about support ships:

“Canada needs support ships because our ocean areas are vast and the Navy must be able to operate in remote ocean areas that are located far away from Canadian port facilities. Support vessels let us make the most out of our fleet, enabling the Navy to keep its ships at sea and on patrol, instead of in port and re-supplying. Internationally, the distances involved in transoceanic passages, combined with the difficulties and risks inherent in relying upon foreign nations to re-supply a nation’s warships overseas, make seagoing support ships essential to any internationally deployable joint CF force. Support ships give Canada independence. … Additionally, the Navy must look to expand this capacity. As an enabler of Joint CF operations abroad, the Navy must also develop capabilities to support CF joint operations by: expanding its capacity to host a deployable joint forces headquarters, and expanding its medical and materiel support capacities to provide logistics and personnel support to forces operating ashore.”(2)

But by 2006, when the JSS project was announced, the original plan had shrunk. The ships would now be 28,000 tonnes, the number of lane metres of deck space had been reduced to 1,500, and the need to operate independently of a jetty was eliminated. However, most of the other capabilities remained. The ships were scheduled for delivery between 2012 and 2016.

In May 2008, the Stephen Harper government produced a new defence White Paper, the “Canada First Defence Strategy.” It provides a general outline for “a modern, well-trained and well-equipped military with the core capabilities and flexibility to successfully address both conventional and asymmetric threats,”(3) but it does not define the navy’s specific role or its priorities.

The government cancelled the JSS project in August 2008, ruling that the proposals by the two teams selected to compete for the contract did not meet the criteria of three ships for $2.1 billion. Now, two years later, the government has approved a project for just two ships at a cost of $2.6 billion with first delivery not due until 2017. Moreover, there is no high-level requirement for any sealift (previously viewed as essential), there are no longer any stern or side ramps, and the number of personnel to be accommodated has been reduced from 320 to 250. With a crew size of 165, not including the helicopter detachment (probably about 50), there will not be many bunks available to provide rest and recuperation facilities, to augment medical personnel or to accommodate a joint task force headquarters. (However, the role appears to have become a low priority, as the Statement of Requirements (SoR) calls for the provision of ‘space and weight only’ for a JTFHQ, no fitted equipment or wiring.) In addition, despite the threat assessment, which includes expected speed and range improvements in anti-ship weapons, an electronic support measures (ESM) system is not required, and the electronic countermeasures (ECM) system will be a stand-alone system, not integrated into the command and control system.

Not only will each ship have less capability than previously envisioned, there will likely only be two of them. The 2006 SoR argued that three was the minimum necessary to meet the requirements, but now the navy is saying it can get by with two.

Reducing the number of ships from three to two will mean the government has to accept a high level of risk that a capable ship will only be available for operations 65-70% of the time. So for one-third of the times when the navy needs to support a task group being sent to far-flung regions of the globe or to provide aid in the event of a disaster, there will be no support ship available. The navy, the allies, the destitute, will have to do without.

The big question is why this has been the chosen course. Was it because the government no longer sees the need for anything more than an AOR+? And if that is the case, what is it that has changed in the strategic environment over the last four years that has caused this revision in thinking? Or was the JSS decision made solely on the basis of cost? And if that is so, what was the trade-off in terms of security and influence that made such a decision acceptable?

So there are several questions that the JSS decision raises. What naval capabilities does the government want and why? Where does the JSS fit into this vision? The ships that are now being acquired are significantly different from the previous plans, and there is no government documentation to account for this change. (The navy is preparing its own strategy document, “Horizon 2050,” but given the government’s lack of direction, it will be interesting to read the navy’s rationale for whatever plans it describes.)

The good news is that the project is finally moving. The bad news is that the ships are not as capable as previously planned. The worse news is that the navy appears to have lost the strategic argument for three support ships. But that’s not surprising given that it’s hard to argue for capabilities if the navy doesn’t know what the government wants.


1. Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, A Role of Pride and Influence in the World: Defence, International Policy Statement, 2005, p. 11.

2. Department of National Defence, Canadian Navy, Securing Canada’s Ocean Frontiers: Charting the Course from Leadmark, May 2005, p. 27.

3. Department of National Defence, “Canada First Defence Strategy,” May 2008, p. 7.