VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada's Navy expects to use a commercial ship leased from a private company until at least 2021 for refueling its warships at sea. It's believed to be the first time the service has had to rely on a private company to provide a capability usually handled by its own resupply ships.

Chantier Davie Canada Inc. of Levis, Quebec, has purchased the commercial container ship, the Asterix, and will bring it to Canada next month. The vessel will be refitted to carry provisions and fuel for Canadian naval task groups, company officials said.

It is the first time that a commercial vessel will is to be used to conduct such operations, said Canadian defense analyst Martin Shadwick.

"The Navy really didn't have much choice but to go this route," said Shadwick, who teaches strategic studies at York University in Toronto. "The delays in our shipbuilding put them into this situation."

The Canadian government is in the process of acquiring for the Royal Canadian Navy two Joint Support Ships (JSS) at a cost of CAN $2.6 billion (US $2 billion). Those ships were supposed to be in the water in 2012 but construction has yet to start. Delays were caused by a lack of funding and the need to restart the procurement process.

Construction of the new Joint Support Ships is now expected to begin at the Seaspan shipyards in Vancouver, British Columbia, late next year.

In the meantime, the Royal Canadian Navy removed from service this year its two supply ships, HMCS Preserver and HMCS Protecteur. Both carried fuel, food and ammunition for warships. They also provided medical services and helicopter support and maintenance.

Department of National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire said a contract for services would be put in place for the commercial vessel.

"The key role of the interim provision of service is to provide an at-sea supply and replenishment service to the RCN's Halifax-class frigates for non-combat domestic and international operations," she explained. "It [the ship] could also add significant additional capabilities, such as aviation support, enhanced command and control, provide medical and other humanitarian assistance, as well as carry spare parts, food and cargo."

Lemire also pointed out that the commercial ship would allow the Navy’s personnel to maintain their skills in key areas until the Joint Support Ships, or JSS arrives.

The first ship is expected to be in the water in 2020. The Asterix would be used until the arrival of the second JSS in 2021, she added.

Public Works spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold said discussions are still ongoing with Chantier Davie Canada on contract terms and price for what the Navy is calling the interim auxiliary oil replenishment services.

"No decision on cost or timing of a contract award has been made at this time," said Bujold, whose department oversees Canadian government procurement.

Under the proposed contract, Chantier Davie would provide a civilian crew to operate the ship. Royal Canadian Navy personnel would be on board to handle communications and the actual transfer of supplies and fuel to warships. The Asterix would need to be outfitted with fueling systems taken from the decommissioned Navy supply ships.

Chantier Davie estimates that once a contract is signed with the Canadian government it would take around 15 months to complete the conversion of Asterix so it can be used to refuel and resupply Navy vessels.

Chile and Spain are also providing resupply ships to the Royal Canadian Navy on a temporary basis.

The Chilean Navy ship Almirante Montt arrived at the naval base here on July 3 and provided support for 40 days at sea before returning home.

Canada paid Chile (CAN) $6 million for access to the ship for the 40 sea days of support for the country’s Pacific-based ships, said Royal Canadian Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Desmond James. Chilean Navy Capt. Andrés Rodrigo, who is in command of the Almirante Montt, said the ship will return to Canada to provide additional support. That arrangement will continue until 2017, he added.

A Spanish Navy supply ship is expected to arrive sometime in the fall to support Canada's east coast fleet. Canada's Department of National Defence has not yet released details of that arrangement.

In November 2014, Vice Adm. Mark Norman, head of the Royal Canadian Navy, estimated that Canada's reliance on allies for resupply at sea would only be short term.

"No matter what we do, we don't see a long-term, sustainable solution coming from our allies," he said.

Norman noted the retirement of Canada's two existing supply ships created "a significant gap that we need to look to mitigate as quickly and as cost-effectively as we can."

At one point the Navy RCN examined the potential purchase of surplus US Navy ships but that is no longer being considered because of the cost and the unavailability lack of availability of vessels.

The US Navy has also offered assistance and Canada the RCN is working to better coordinate the movement of its ships with US Navy supply ship availability, Canadian Navy officers said.

Canada has selected the German Navy’s Berlin-class design for the Joint Support Ships. The Berlin-class ships are 20,200 tons and almost 600 feet long. The Canadian versions would carry two helicopters and as well as be equipped with medical facilities. 


David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.

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