Design Decision: The German Navy's Berlin-class fleet replenishment vessels, like the Frankfurt-am-Main, will be the basis for Canada's new supply ships. (Brian Burnell via Wikimedia)
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Canada has selected the German Navy’s Berlin-class design for its new fleet of supply ships, setting in motion the eventual construction of two vessels that are critical to maritime operations.
But the timing of the ships’ delivery to the fleet is still in question, since the shipbuilder is also on the hook to build icebreakers for the Coast Guard and can’t build both ships at the same time.
The selection of the German design comes after more than 14 years of attempts to replace the Royal Canadian Navy’s aging fleet of vessels that resupply warships at sea.
“Now we have a picture of what the ship will look like,” said Rear Adm. Pat Finn, chief of staff for the Defence Department’s Materiel Group. “This is really a clear step forward to provide a key capability for our Navy.”
The Royal Canadian Navy had been examining two designs for its Joint Support Ship (JSS) program. One was an original design from BMT Fleet Technology of Ottawa, while the second was of the Berlin class from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems Canada, also of Ottawa.
Finn said the final selection was based on operating capability, affordability, cost and risk.
“Across those areas, the Berlin-class came out ahead,” he said.
Canadian government officials noted that the Berlin-class design is proven, which reduces the risk of unexpected problems that comes with a new design.
The JSS procurement is estimated to cost at least CAN $2.6 billion (US $2.5 billion).
The JSS is considered essential for the Navy since the ships will be used to supply a maritime task group at sea with fuel, ammunition and food. The service operates two vessels, Protecteur and Preserver, to do those roles, but they are more than 40 years old.
The Berlin-class ships are 20,200 tons and are almost 600 feet long. The Canadian versions would carry two helicopters and be equipped with medical facilities. The German Navy has three of the ships in service, with the last delivered in 2012.
A contract will be negotiated with ThyssenKrupp for the design, which will then be turned over to Seaspan/Vancouver Shipyards of Vancouver, British Columbia. Seaspan will build the two Canadian vessels, and Finn said he expects a contract for that to be in place by 2015.
He said once construction begins, it will take about 36 months to build the first ship.
But the selection of the JSS design doesn’t solve the problem Seaspan faces with competing building schedules for both the JSS and the Canadian Coast Guard’s planned Polar-class icebreaker. Both are to be built at the yard, but construction of one of the vessels will be delayed since Seaspan doesn’t have the capability to build both at the same time.
The new icebreaker was expected to enter full Arctic service in 2017, in time for the decommissioning of the Coast Guard’s largest and most capable icebreaker, the Louis S. St. Laurent.
The first of the joint support ships was supposed to be delivered by 2018.
The Canadian government has acknowledged that one of those ship projects will be delayed.
Vice Adm. Paul Maddison, head of the Royal Canadian Navy, acknowledged the urgent need to replace both the icebreaker and the supply ships. He said he preferred that the JSS be built first but the decision has yet to be made by the Canadian government.
Maddison also said, however, that he did not see the current supply ships lasting beyond 2020. He did not provide details on what the Royal Canadian Navy might do to deal with such a situation but did say he was confident the Defence Department would “find a way to innovatively mitigate any capability gap that opens.”
Finn said officials from the Defence Department, the Coast Guard and Public Works, the government department that oversees procurements, will meet to decide on the “sequencing decision” of which ship would be built first.
He said he expects the officials to “come to a collective recommendation for the government of Canada in the next few months.”
Brian Carter, president of Seaspan Shipyards, said the company is waiting for the government to decide which of the projects will go first.
“It’s a purely operational thing for the government, so we have no preference one way or another,” he said. “We’re ready to support whatever they send our way.”
He said whichever ship is designated first, the company would be ready to start cutting steel in mid-2016.
The JSS procurement has had its share of difficulties over the years. The project was derailed in August 2008 after the Canadian government determined that various bids from shipyards did not meet the requirements of the new fleet.