Setting a New Course for the NSS
At the turn of the 21st century, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was well on its way to becoming a potent, well-balanced navy...
The combat fleet included 12 recently commissioned multipurpose Halifax-class patrol frigates with Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), and point Area Air Defence (AAD) capabilities, and carrying a Maritime Helicopter (MH). Also just commissioned were 12 moderately-capable Kingston-class Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDV) with limited Mine Counter-Measures capabilities. They joined the four recently (1987-94) modernized and upgraded Iroquois- or Tribal-class ASW destroyers, which now fielded Long-Range (LR)-AAD capability.
With the older Provider-class Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) ship having been paid off in 1998, the surface fleet was still ably supported by two ageing single-hulled Protecteur-class AORs that had been commissioned in 1969 and 1970.
And most promisingly, the RCN was set to be joined by four Victoria-class (ex-Royal Navy Upholder-class) diesel submarines (SSKs) considered to be the quietest in service anywhere, which just been acquired (after unexpectedly harsh defence cuts in Britain) from the UK Ministry of Defence in 1998 for a quarter of their build cost.
... and then the current changed.
Overworked and Neglected
Throughout the 90s and the first decade of the new century, the RCN’s surface fleet was constantly over-tasked and in-demand, and the subject of many a Department of National Defence (DND) news release praising their ‘front line’ role in various conflicts or missions, from the 1991 Gulf War through to their ‘role’ fighting the Taliban (wait... they have a navy?). Unfortunately, while quick to praise their efforts and garner the political laurels, the various political parties forming the Government of Canada over the past 25 years basically let the RCN surface fleet rust out through lack of any timely replacements. Various programs to replace capability have suffered from both a lack of funding and a serious lack of procurement acumen.
Only too late, after many good shipyards that had previously built RCN ships closed through lack of orders, and the industrial knowledge base drifted away, has there been any political realization that the shipbuilding industry needs steady orders to produce navy vessels in a timely and affordable fashion. This has, belatedly, been slowly addressed through the tortuous National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, however, the NSPS (now apparently being shortened by PSPC to drop the “procurement” out of the shipbuilding strategy) seems more geared towards ‘built in Canada at an outdated fixed cost’, and ensuring various regional entities get their piece of the procurement pie – first Industrial Regional Benefits then Industrial and Technological Benefits – than in meeting RCN/national requirements for the right equipment to adequately protect our maritime sovereignty. Will this latest name contraction to the National Shipbuilding Strategy signal a shift from the “longer timeframe for less capability and more cost” scenario te NSPS was being criticized for?
The centrepiece of the RCN, HMCS Athabaskan is the lone surviving Iroquois-class destroyer (slated to be paid off in 2017 after 45 years of service) and was already experiencing engine and maintenance issues in 2015 from being pushed well-past the regular 35-year warship service life. HMCS Huron was paid off in 2005 due to personnel shortages, and sunk as a target in 2007 (just 13 years after the expensive upgrades). Both Iroquois and Algonquin were paid off in 2015 after experiencing age and non-economically repairable damage-related issues.
Even though RCN Commander Vice-Admiral Mark Norman noted to FrontLine (issue #1, 2015) that “Athabaskan has been kept in service, so we’ve kept that legacy [Long Range, Area Air Defence] capability alive”, from 2017 through to 2025-26 when the first LR-AAD configured Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) is hopefully commissioned, the RCN will face a ‘significant’ gap for nearly a decade – and additionally loose its current skill-set for intercept as point-AAD drills just can’t replicate LR-AAD challenges and live training exercises.
As for the Kingston-class vessels, their low speed (15kts max) suggests they may not be the most effective patrol vessels. Originally 100% reserve-crewed and -operated, they had not been fully utilized until, as cuts took their toll, these vessels began to receive extensive taskings.
The limited number of remotely operated modular payloads, which were always meant to be supplemented during the mid-life refit, have obviously limited their performance. A C$100 million mid-life refit of the nearly 20-year-old vessels was deemed unwarranted, and some or all will likely be retired once the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) start entering service.
The premature retirement of HMCS Iroquois and Algonquin enabled a revised 60/40 regular/reserve force crewing model for the MCDVs to continue sea opportunities for the displaced crews, and the RCN Commander acknowledged “we are running them flat out now and that’s paying enormous dividends and really working well.” The MCDVs are also being tasked for limited Northern Arctic operations during the short ice-free summer . The max 17kt speed of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) will present many of the same limitations as the slow MCDV.
The core of the RCN surface fleet, the Halifax-class are currently in the middle of a C$4.3 billion modernization and Frigate Life Extension (HCM-FELEX) program that is designed to replace and upgrade systems by 2018 “to ensure the frigates remain effective throughout their service life” and reflect an increasing emphasis on combined littoral operations. Additionally, to ameliorate the lost flagship capabilities of divesting the Iroquois-class, the RCN Commander noted “we made a decision to enhance the first four of the modernized Halifax-class with some extra space [minor structural reconfiguration] and some monitors and extra accommodation space – so we could bridge the gap in the command and control function.”
As the upgrades are relatively on time and within approved budget, one would think that FELEX is a good RCN success story. But, one look at the Defence Acquisition Guide (DAG) 2015 raises serious questions over the possibility of additional C$410-890 million in post-FELEX Halifax-specific upgrades. In fact, the 2015 Guide lists nine Halifax-specific projects for implementation out to 2035, which is well past the expected 2027-2031 service life of the Halifax-class ships.
Two of these projects are scheduled for completion within a few years. The Multi Role Boat project is looking for new faster, larger Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) to provide multi-functional and improved systems. The Maritime Satellite Communications Upgrade will improve allied interoperability. The reasonable preliminary estimates of C$50-100 million each, plus the fact that such capabilities can be ported to the new CSC when the time comes, makes these projects easily justifiable.
The other seven Halifax-specific projects (StrongBow; Maritime Next Generation Communications Suite; Maritime Tactical Command and Control; Naval Electronic Attack Recapitalization; Naval Electronic Warfare System Surface; Virtual Integrated Shipboard Information Networks and Underwater Warfare (Sensor) Suite Upgrade), are a different story. Valued at an estimated C$310-690 million over the 2024 to 2035 time frame, they only make sense if the RCN and DND expect the NSS to fail and not deliver new CSC ships until 2035 onwards!
DAG 2015 seemingly indicates a lack of communication and understanding between the RCN, DND and the government when looking at the interrelationship between FELEX and the CSC project. Most Halifax-specific projects in DAG 2015 are not scheduled for completion until 2024/2025, and two not until 2035, which seems to indicate the RCN and DND are moving the CSC goal posts 10 years to the right. Or, in other words, the left hand is not talking to the right hand, and vice versa, and the centre just does not have a clue. As a CGAI report by Stewart Webb and Chris Murray (January 2016) notes, “Disturbingly, none of these preparations seem to address the elephant in the room, neglected hull maintenance to extend the frigates beyond” the 2027-2031 time frame. Does this portend a Halifax-class hull-driven retirement debacle (à la Iroquois-class and Protecteur-class) in the making?
NSS Procurement Update
The much touted, agonizingly slow, NSPS was recently pegged at over C$42 billion. Noting his acquisition experience in the UK, the hiring of retired Rear-Admiral Steve Brunton of the Royal Navy as an expert shipbuilding advisor for the Surface Combatant project, may be a step in the right direction.
Clearly, the (new) NSS should not be artificially constrained by outdated budget figures, rather by the ‘best value’ solution best suited for the requirement. Let the competitive selection for an in-service or final development stage design that best meets each requirement be the cost driver, while keeping the penchant for innumerable Canadian-specific modifications to a minimum. If the budget needs a slight top-up to obtain the proper equipment – so be it!
As we put our RCN and Coast Guard personnel in harms way, surely it is incumbent on the GoC to provide them with the right tools for the task. The Auditor General of Canada confirmed this important point: “Cost/capability trade-offs need to be monitored and revisions made to project budgets, if necessary, to make sure that Canada gets the military ships it needs to protect Canadian interests and sovereignty.”
At the heart of the early NSPS delay was the state of Canada’s shipyards. Without a continuous source of contracts for sophisticated navy vessels, all three of Canada’s formerly impressive shipyards had lost most if not all of their navy-specific expertise and had been scrambling for small upgrade and repair contracts to keep at least a few people employed.
The first ‘combatants’ preceding the CSC build, the minimally-armed (short-range 25mm gun) constabulary AOPS are a politically-driven procurement foisted on the RCN by the previous government. There seems to be little drive to protect Canada’s vast and perennially neglected (except by every other country), Arctic Ocean maritime space, with its increasingly accessible natural resources. Even the UK is building a £200 million Polar Research Ship capable of 60-day operation in sea ice. Polling has indicated that Canadians want the government to assert our northern sovereignty.
The current AOPS is watered-down from the 2005 election promise of three armed naval icebreakers with full Polar-1 classification capable of year-round operation in all ice states.
Ideally, three armed Coast Guard (CG) Polar-1 rated icebreakers, instead of the currently planned six AOPS with barely adequate Polar-4/5 classification and one lone, unarmed, Polar-2 rated icebreaker, would have been more efficient for asserting sovereignty in our increasingly accessible Northwest passage shipping route through the Canadian Arctic. While the Americans have two heavy icebreakers to our lone remaining ship commissioned in 1969, the Russians have 12 heavy Polar-1 icebreakers (half of which are nuclear-powered for extended operation), plus dozens of smaller vessels whose operations have often extended into Canada’s Arctic region. If politicians seriously care about our Arctic, this Polar-1 icebreaker capability gap should be cause for serious concern.
As the Liberals review the old NSPS, there may still be time to increase CG funding and modify the icebreaker design, which is still in its initial design phase, and add a Polar-1 derivative. Better use of all three shipyards (Irving on the East coast; Davie in Quebec; and Seaspan on the West coast) could allow a speedier replacement of the ancient Louis S. St Laurent and the three 35-year old R-class icebreakers. Armed Polar-1 and Polar-2 rated Coast Guard icebreakers – utilizing RCN-crewed refurbished 76mm guns, fire control radar and basic Combat Management Systems from the paid off Iroquois-class or post-FELEX Halifax-class ships to keep costs to a minimum – would provide a very useful capability. These would allow a reduced number of constabulary reservist-crewed AOPS for asserting a northern Arctic sovereignty presence during the summer. The government would then have scalable options, available all seasons, to respond to the increasing likelihood of incursions of our Northern waters by unwanted commercial shipping or by cruise ships needing assistance.
The Canadian Surface Combatant project had become a weak link in the old NSPS, with many complaints. The early strategy of choosing between Most Capable Design (MCD) and Most Qualified Team (MQT) was quietly abandoned after MQT was identified by multiple press sources as clearly being written to favour only one team: Irving / Lockheed. A change to “Most Competitive Procurement Strategy” was announced in May 2015.
Another problem with the CSC procurement model was the separate Warship Designer (WD) and Combat Systems Integrator (CSI) streams, which greatly increased potential for unforeseen system integration issues while at the same time obscuring authority and therefore accountability. A recent FrontLine article and graphic by former ADM(Mat) Alan Williams illustrated the lack of transparency in that model. Two weeks after the article was published online, the current Liberal government announced it was combining WD/CSI streams. Assistant deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement Canada Lisa Campbell asserted this “was a big step for us [as it will help rein in costs, and] we’re not talking about a custom build anymore. We’re talking about existing designs [which were determined to meet Canadian needs] ... and in our view that is likely to have an impact on diminishing all sorts of risks,” and helps speed up the process. The change is still subject to industry feedback and final Cabinet approval and, of course, there will still be some modifications to suit Canadian requirements, as in every large so-called “off-the-shelf” procurement to date.
Based on the short-list of pre-qualified WD/CSI firms on the NSPS website, we can further narrow this down to companies with a Design Reference Point LR-AAD design that is robust enough to defeat both missile saturation attacks as well as simpler ASW requirements.
Defence Review Implications
With the ongoing Liberal review of military capabilities, its re-evaluation of major procurement projects, plus the recent budgetary shift of C$3.72 billion in capital procurement funds five years into the future, it would seem that sorely needed ship replacements are slipping further into the future. By better utilizing Canada’s third major shipyard (which admittedly had been facing financial hardship in previous years), some of the scheduling problems could be ameliorated.
With the new NSS, will the roadblocks be lifted to end further delay? It is hoped that the marine industry will not be abandoned by the Canadian defence procurement process once again, and that accountability will be restored to procurement processes.
Mark Romanow is an independent defence analyst/writer based in Edmonton, Alberta.