Fleet Cost Problems? For a start, stop calling cruisers either destroyers or frigates

The interview with Vice-Admiral Mark Norman on December 2nd by CBC’s James Cudmore (‘Warship Costs could rise to $30b’) is a very brave ‘mea culpa’ on behalf of the navy. The problem is that lots of people said (myself included) that the estimate of cost for the type of ship being sought was a very ‘low ball pitch’. The official response most often was merely silence but at other times angry refutes accused critical observers of being ‘uniformed’. Looks like the admiral now admits that shoe was on the other foot.

This is a two-part problem. The first is that the concept for the new ships as a ‘single-class’ to replace the Iroquois-class destroyers and Halifax-class frigates elevates the common characteristics of both into a ‘highest common denominator’ approach to designing a solution. The power, space and weight requirements for both types of ships drive the calculation of cost to uniformly higher levels, when every effort should be made to finding what the lowest common factors should be in the interest of controlling cost.

The most obvious evidence of this inflation is the size of the ships. At about 5,000-tonnes of displacement, both the Iroquois-class ‘destroyers’ and Halifax-class ‘frigates’ are far larger and more powerful than the previous examples of either type of ship in the RCN’s history. Growth in warship size is a global phenomenon and has been driven by the addition of helicopters, weapons for warfare in three maritime dimensions, long range sensors plus information processing, display and handling for command purposes.

The problem is that in earlier eras it was generally accepted that general warfare capabilities were commonly first found in cruisers and larger warships. The size of cruisers you ask? About 5,000 to 7,000 tonnes for ‘light’ cruisers intended for service with the battle fleet and 10,000 tonnes for ‘heavy cruisers’ built primarily for independent long-range trade protection and attack missions. Destroyers were short-range ‘flotilla’ craft for screening duties with the battle fleet in local waters and frigates were medium-range warships for the protection of trade. They were typically anti-submarine specialists with very limited self-defence means for any other sort of threat.

Today, our ‘destroyers’ and ‘frigates’ are actually more representative of cruisers and their ‘single-class’ replacements will be even more so. Based on the Information to Industry Briefings by the navy on their desired characteristics for the new ships, I estimate that current growth rates will result in a ‘frigate’ of 6,500 tonnes and a ‘destroyer’ of about 8,000 tonnes. These ships will be cruisers in every characteristic but range and endurance. Strangely, the Canadian navy puts little value on fuel capacity and economy of operation preferring instead to rely on operational sustainment at sea from our venerable sustainment ships. Oh, wait. We have none and won’t have but a single ‘interim’ ship in two years and the full replacements in five (or more) years. Maybe the admirals should admit they have underestimated the value of endurance while they are making admissions of error.

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