Canada faces another delay in building new navy ships

The Royal Canadian Navy will have to wait another two years for the delivery of new support ships, the federal government announced Thursday, meaning Canada will have to rely on a civilian vessel and the goodwill of allies to resupply its naval fleet in a foreseeable future. .

The first of two new support vessels being built by Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver will not be delivered until at least 2025 – two years later than the most recent estimate.

The new delivery schedule, if it holds, is now six years later than originally planned.

By then the navy will have been without a permanent supply ship for an entire decade.

The second ship will face a similar delay and is not expected again until 2027.

Navy officials have previously stressed the importance of having purpose-built support ships for overseas operations, given the limitations of dependence on allies and the civilian ship’s inability to operate in areas of war.

Even then, the new timeline is not a certainty. Delays and cost overruns have hampered much of Canada’s decade-long, multi-billion dollar effort to replace its aging navy and coast guard fleets.

Providing the update on Thursday, officials also could not guarantee that Canada would end up with the two support ships.

They say the project’s budget, originally set at $2.3 billion but later updated to $4.1 billion, is currently under review.

Seaspan has already started work on the second Joint Support Ship, as the ships are known in military circles, and MoD procurement chief Troy Crosby said the government’s stated goal remains the purchase of two of these vessels.

However, Crosby added, “this is something we are currently evaluating and will provide an update once we have a better understanding of the exact cost impact.”

It was also not immediately clear what effect the new delay will have on other shipbuilding projects Seaspan is working on, which includes a new polar icebreaker to replace the coastguard flagship by 2030.

Canada has been without a permanent supply ship since 2015, when the navy was forced to retire its two existing vessels ahead of schedule after one caught fire at sea and excessive corrosion was discovered on the other. .

The government initially relied on allies to fill the void before agreeing to lease a converted civilian container ship from Quebec-based Chantier Davie. This deal was at the heart of the failed prosecution of retired Vice Admiral Mark Norman.

The former army second-in-command was accused of leaking cabinet secrets about the lease agreement with Davie, but the breach of trust charge against him was stayed in 2019 when prosecutors in the Crown concluded that they had no reasonable chance of securing a conviction. Earlier this month, the Crown also dropped its related case against a federal official. The two men had claimed their innocence.

While the initial five-year lease between Ottawa and Davie for the MV Asterix was launched in January 2018 and is due to expire next year, officials said the government is currently negotiating an extension.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press in 2020 showed the Navy expects to continue to rely on the Asterix and its allies to help resupply Canadian fleets at sea even after the two Joint Support Ships are built.

Canada originally planned to buy three new naval support ships when it launched the project more than a decade ago, but cost overruns cut the order down to two.

Navy officials continued to indicate that two support ships were not sufficient to meet the long-term needs of the maritime force, as government policy requires the army to be able to operate two fleets. at sea at the same time.

The fear is that the navy will be crippled whenever one of the two so-called Joint Support Ships is out of commission, either for repairs or some other reason.

When asked if the government was considering buying the Asterix directly from Davie, as some observers have previously suggested, the senior official responsible for military procurement at Public Services and Procurement Canada said no.

“Discussions and negotiations at this time are only about extending the contract as we currently know it,” said Simon Page, the department’s assistant deputy minister.

Royal Canadian Navy Commander Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee said the force will continue to rely on Asterix and its allies for resupply assistance at sea, but he acknowledged both stopgap solutions have drawbacks. and limits.

These include the fact that the Asterix is ​​not designed for “high-risk environments”, Topshee said. It also means that the navy cannot currently meet the government requirement that it must be able to operate two fleets at sea at the same time.

“Can we handle? Yeah,” Topshee said.

“Is that ideal? No, that’s why we’re building the two support ships together.”

The new delay is the latest blow to the federal government’s efforts to replace the aging navy and Canadian Coast Guard fleets – an effort that has already spanned more than a decade and is now expected to cost around $100 billion.

While officials blamed a combination of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues, many issues predate both and have been attributed to both the government and the shipyards.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 30, 2022.