VICTORIA, B.C. — Chile and Spain will provide resupply ships to the Royal Canadian Navy on a temporary basis as the Canadian government tries to fast-track the leasing and conversion of a commercial vessel that can provide fuel and provisions to its warships.
The Royal Canadian Navy's senior leaders have been scrambling over the last six months to put in place such measures because of ongoing delays in the construction of its two new supply ships.
Those two vessels — called joint support ships — won't be ready until 2021. In the meantime, the RCN took its two aging supply ships out of service, leaving it with no way of its own to provide fuel, ammunition and other supplies to its vessels at sea.
The Chilean Navy ship, Almirante Montt, arrived at the naval base here on July 3 and will be available for 40 sea days, RCN spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Desmond James said.
Negotiations are still underway with Spain for the provision of a supply ship to be used for the RCN's Atlantic fleet.
The Royal Canadian Navy estimates it will need to rely on its allies and a leased commercial tanker for at least the next six years.
Defence Minister Jason Kenney announced June 23 that the government was entering into discussions with Chantier Davie Shipyard of Levis, Quebec, about the acquisition of what is being called an "interim" supply ship. Those talks would look at the whether the company can provide a commercial vessel that can be converted to provide refueling and other resupply functions for the Navy.
"An interim supply-ship capability will allow the RCN to operate more freely around the world while also keeping our crews' skills up to date in anticipation of the arrival of the more robust joint support ship," Kenney said.
He noted the government is trying to move as quickly as possible to put in place such a capability but he did not provide any details on when that might happen.
Industry sources estimate that once a contract is signed, it will take Chantier Davie around 15 months to complete conversion of a commercial tanker.
The ship would have a commercial crew, although Navy personnel would operate communications equipment and the replenishment-at-sea systems that can transfer fuel to the warships. RCN personnel would eventually replace the commercial crews.
In the meantime, the Almirante Montt will be available to support training for Canada's Pacific naval forces. Canada is paying Chile CAN $6 million (US $4.8 million) for access to the ship for the 40 sea days, James said.
"The training that will be conducted using the Chilean replenishment vessel, which include replenishment-at-sea operations, is vital to maintaining the individual skill sets and core seamanship abilities within the Canadian Fleet that are essential to deployed operations," he said.
At one point the RCN examined the potential purchase of surplus US Navy ships, but that is no longer being considered because of the cost and the lack of availability of vessels.
The US Navy has also offered assistance and the RCN is working to better coordinate the movement of its ships with the USN's supply ship availability, Canadian Navy officers say.
In November 2014, Vice Adm. Mark Norman, the head of the RCN, estimated that Canada could rely on receiving help for at-sea resupply from its allies for about a year.
"The challenge we have now is that the gap is here today, and in addition to that, it's longer than 20 to 24 months, it's several years," Norman explained to journalists at the time. "No matter what we do, we don't see a long-term, sustainable solution coming from our allies."
The RCN removed from service its two supply ships, Preserver and Protecteur. Both carried fuel, food and ammunition for warships. They also provided medical services and helicopter support and maintenance
Norman noted the retirement of the two ships created "a significant gap for Canada that we need to look to mitigate as quickly and as cost-effectively as we can."
Joyce Murray, the defense critic for the opposition Liberal Party, said the gap in capability was caused by the Canadian government's mishandling of military procurement.
The joint supply ships were supposed to be in the water in 2012, but the CAN $2.6 billion project had to be restarted. Construction of the ships is now expected to begin at the Seaspan shipyards in Vancouver, British Columbia, late next year.
"There were delays and problems caused by the government's incompetent management of the procurement file," Murray said.
Canada has 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.
David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.