The Canadian resupply ship Preserver is one of two ships that will be replaced by joint support ships. (Master Cpl. Eduardo Mora Pineda)
OTTAWA — Canada will have to rely on its allies to resupply its warships at sea for a two-year period because of ongoing delays in the construction of a new fleet of support ships for its Navy.
Canada plans to spend CAN $2.6 billion (US $2.5 billion) on two new joint support ships (JSS), but government procurement officials have confirmed that the vessels will not be ready until 2019-2020. The Royal Canadian Navy will be calling on its allies to fill the resulting capability gap.
The Navy operates two vessels, Protecteur and Preserver, to resupply warships at sea. Navy officers acknowledged during an Oct. 11 technical briefing on the status of the JSS project that Protecteur and Preserver will be retired around 2017 and that the Navy will be without a resupply capability for 18 months to two years.
Construction on the new joint support ships is expected to begin in 2016.
The original JSS project called for a contract to be awarded in 2008 with the first vessel delivered in 2012. But that procurement was derailed in August 2008 after the Canadian government determined that various bids from shipyards did not meet the requirements of the new fleet.
The project was restarted under the government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. Seaspan Shipyards of Vancouver, British Columbia, was selected to build the vessels.
At the Oct. 11 technical briefing, Navy and government procurement officers downplayed the capability gap, noting that it is not unusual for allied nations to be called on to help resupply warships at sea.
But opposition Parliament members said that raises questions about the Navy’s ability to conduct operations on its own. Delays with JSS construction is a sign that Canada’s military procurement system is facing major challenges, they add.
“The Canadian Navy’s capacity to conduct independent marine operations during this period will be greatly reduced,” warned Jack Harris, the defense critic for the New Democratic Party.
The Royal Canadian Navy has been trying for more than 14 years to move forward with a project to replace its resupply ships. Many of the systems for Protecteur and Preserver are nearly obsolete, according to naval officers. Spare parts are no longer readily available, and the skills needed to operate and maintain systems that were already mature in the 1960s are becoming increasingly rare.
In addition, the tankers, more than 40 years old, do not conform to environmental protection regulations of some nations since they do not have a double-hull.
“We have to get exemptions, nation-to-nation specific exemptions in order to operate in some waters,” Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice Adm. Mark Norman explained in an interview with Defense News.
He noted that the Navy examined using supply ships from private companies. “The problem with that is on how long that would take, how much it would cost and the restrictions that exist on the employability of a commercial vessel in a military support role,” he said.
Norman also said the challenge with asking allies to provide resupply at sea is that some countries are already dealing with a limited capability to resupply their own fleets.
Brian Carter, president of Seaspan Shipyards, said the company would be ready to start cutting steel in mid-2016 on JSS.
In June, Canada selected the German Navy’s Berlin-class design for the ships. The Berlin-class ships are 20,200 tons and almost 600 feet long. The Canadian versions would carry two helicopters and be equipped with medical facilities.
Canada will negotiate a contract with ThyssenKrupp for the Berlin-class design, which will then be turned over to Seaspan. Although two ships are planned, there have been suggestions that a third JSS could be built if there was enough money left in the project budget.
Seaspan had faced a problem 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 the company could handle only one of the projects at a time.
The Canadian government’s decision to proceed with the construction of the JSS first will mean that the arrival of the new icebreaker will be delayed, government procurement officials acknowledged.
The icebreaker was expected to enter into 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.
Instead, Louis S. St-Laurent will be kept in service until 2022. An estimated $55 million will be spent on refits to keep that vessel operating, according to Coast Guard officials. The new icebreaker, to be called John G. Diefenbaker, will cost around CAN $720 million and should be ready by 2022.
Questions have also been raised about the capabilities of the proposed Joint Supply Ships, including projected cost and requirements for extra funding to make sure capability is adequate.