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Canada Needs News Ships Now

Canada has got some real problems.

In 2014, Canada lost its last two refueling supply ships, the HMCS Protecteur by fire, and HMCS Preserver as a result of corrosion. Consequently, for the last three years, the Navy has been unable to effectively deploy a task force and its ability to protect our shores has been limited.

This loss reduces mission options, curtails the radius of action for the navy’s warships and erodes skills.

Without resupply and refueling capabilities, the Navy is unable to do what the government needs it to do. This includes protecting our exports, preventing smuggling, providing humanitarian and disaster relief, enforcing domestic laws, projecting force and supporting our allies.

A less agile and robust navy means the government cannot effectively protect Canada, a country heavily dependent on trade, from threats in the maritime domain.

After losing the Preserver and Protecteur and being left without back-up, everyone down to the most junior sub-lieutenant knows Canada needs four supply ships - two on each coast. Having four refuelers provides the necessary buffer for required maintenance, training and unforeseen accidents so that at least one ship is always available on both the Pacific and Atlantic to support a naval task force.   

Last spring, both the Senate and the Commons Defence committees looked at the existing naval capability gap as it relates to support ships and agreed unanimously that this needs to be fixed - NOW.

So how is our government responding to this situation?

Renting from other countries

Without our own refuelers, the only immediate relief was going cap in hand to other countries and renting. We only managed to get rentals for 40 days on the Pacific from Chile in 2015 and 40 days on the Atlantic from Spain in 2016. This minimal amount of refueling support (80 out of 2190 operational days) meant the government has been unable to deploy a naval task group or sustain operations off-shore for most of the last three years.

Build New Joint Support Ships

Vancouver based Seaspan is waiting for a contract to build two Joint Support Ships (JSS) but there are three issues: timing, costs and compliance. 

Timing: On November 7th 2017, Andy Smith, Deputy Commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard testified before a parliamentary committee that Seaspan would not finish their first four vessels for the Coast Guard until 2023, and only then will they start on the supply ships. These new refuelers will not join the fleet until 2026 and 2028 - which means Canada will have experienced another ten years of risk without the navy being able to effectively protect Canadians. 

Costs: The government has set aside $2.6 billion for the new supply ships but like the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, there is no mechanism such as a fixed-price contract to control spending. The Parliamentary Budget Office, whose estimates often prove better than the government’s, has indicated that this it is likely the costs will be as high as $4.13B if the two ships are going to be built at Seaspan as planned. This is a staggering price tag given that Davie has just completed building a more capable vessel for a quarter of the price and is offering to build others with fixed-price contracts. 

Compliance: On top of all this, Seaspan is using a 26 year old German design (why so old?) that currently does not meet NATO interoperability standards. Surely they can find a more modern design that meets all NATO agreements.    

Lease interim supply ships

In 2015, the government accepted a proposal from Davie, a Quebec shipyard to provide Canada with a supply ship, the MV Asterix, a 26,000-tonne vessel - that meets all of the requirements of the government, the Navy, and NATO.  

The government has opted to lease the ship for five years at a cost of $650m including operating costs such as crewing, port fees, licenses, and insurance, rather than acquire it outright for a sail-way price of $659m.

In the coming weeks, the Asterix will undergo sea trails with the Navy, but this is only a quarter of the solution. The Navy needs four support ships, not one, as history has shown.

Address naval capability gaps responsibly

Since the establishment of the National Shipbuilding Strategy, Davie is the first shipyard in Canada to deliver a vessel to the Navy on time and on budget - and without any of the $500 million in subsidies provided to Seaspan and Irving to upgrade their facilities. For a fixed price the government can acquire all four supply ships the Navy needs from Davie for the $2.6b that it has set aside, and have one ship on each coast by 2019 and the two additional ships three years later.

This is a better option than spending twice as much for two ships with a 26 year old design that will not be available for ten years.

Moreover, there is a real capability gap that creates an unacceptable security risk for Canadians. The shocking reality is that the Minister of Defence has failed to come up with a solution to having both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets dysfunctional for the next ten years because they lack an effective re-supply capability and the back-up necessary to ensure that it works.

The government needs to move decisively and build the next three supply ships at the Davie yard and get Seaspan going on the long delayed polar class icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. This will protect the jobs at Seaspan while providing Canada with the capability to effectively resupply its naval fleet for the next 40 years. Furthermore, it will save taxpayers billions of dollars and reduce the risk to Canadians by ensuring the Navy has the supply vessels it needs sooner than later.

If the Minister was doing his job, he would bring a plan similar to this to Cabinet before parliament resumes later this month.  

[Senator Kenny is the former Chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence]