VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Royal Canadian Navy will have to continue relying on allies and a private firm to refuel its ships at sea after a project to build a new fleet of supply vessels was hit with more delays.

The service was supposed to receive its first joint support ship next year, but that delivery is delayed because of pandemic-related work issues and technical challenges. As a result, the Department of National Defence is further extending its use of a commercial ship that was converted into a supply and refueling vessel.

The 26,000-ton MV Asterix was modified for use as an interim supply ship by Davie Shipbuilding in Quebec, and it was leased to the Canadian government by the firm’s affiliate, Federal Fleet Services.

Canada arranged a service contract in 2018 for MV Asterix for what was supposed to be a five-year period until the joint support ships were operational. But work on those two ships, at Vancouver Shipyards in British Columbia, was met with delays. As a result, the first joint support ship won’t be delivered until at least 2025, while the second is supposed to arrive in 2027.

Katherine Proulx, a spokeswoman for Public Services and Procurement Canada, the federal department responsible for contracts, said discussions are underway with Federal Fleet Services for continued use of MV Asterix until January 2025. The department hopes to have a new agreement in place by January 2023, when the current arrangement expires, she added.

Under the lease agreement, Federal Fleet Services is providing the ship and a civilian crew to operate the vessel. Royal Canadian Navy personnel are onboard to handle communications as well as the transfer of supplies and fuel to military vessels.

Vice Adm. Angus Topshee, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, said the delays affecting the Joint Support Ship program are disappointing. “But I understand the challenges that everybody is facing as we come out of the pandemic and deal with supply system shortages,” he added.

Topshee said Asterix’s role is important because it allows sailors to continue using their skills in replenishing ships at sea.

“Asterix is extremely helpful because it allows us to put sailors onboard the ship so they maintain the skills with the delivery of fuel to the receiving vessel,” he explained. “And Asterix, even though it only operates in one ocean at a time, does have crews of those sailors and the enablers from both coasts to make sure that both coasts sustain that skill.”

Topshee said the Royal Canadian Navy will also continue to rely on its allies for help in resupplying ships. The U.S. Navy, the Chilean Navy and the Spanish Navy are among those who have used their replenishment vessels to resupply Canadian frigates.

“There’s a network of allies that we can rely upon around the world to ensure that our ships have fuel when they need it,” Topshee said.

According to a Canadian government website, CA$4.1 billion (U.S. $3.2 billion) was set aside to acquire the joint support ship fleet, with CA$3.1 billion (U.S. $2.4 billion) allocated for the purchase of the vessels and initial spares, and the remaining for supporting costs.

The site, last updated Aug. 17, 2021, also noted an amended contract for leasing the MV Asterix came to CA$691 million, including taxes.

David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.

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