Why is it So Hard to Procure a Warship?

Canada is not alone in suffering from serious and ongoing naval equipment design and procurement problems. Some of our closest allies experience similar misery. The Australian Submarine Corporation, for example, is building three ‘air warfare’ destroyers for the RAN. Serious quality control issues are reportedly bedevilling vessel construction, causing major delays and cost overruns. Welding and structural defects, among others, are adding to costs by more than $800 million.

The United Kingdom’s newest destroyers are reportedly facing some major troubles. After years of downplaying the seriousness of propulsion problems with their Type 45 destroyers, it is clear that repeated breakdowns of the innovative new gas turbine systems have “hampered” operations. 

The U.S. Zumwalt-class warship suffers from unique problems due to the great effort expended to make the class ‘stealthy’. Construction, new radar impulse-absorbing materials, unique hull design, stability, and cost (U$3.4 B per copy) are among the reasons construction of 32 hulls was reduced to three in 2009, and may end with two. However, now that the first of class has been in the water, there has been growing concern in the U.S. Navy that “this decision may have been penny wise and pound foolish, as it leaves significant voids in the Navy’s ability to adapt to future threats.” According to NDIA magazine, despite its added weight and space, the Zumwalt-class can operate in shallower, close-to-shore littoral waters than the smaller, cheaper Arleigh-Burke-class, and the stealthy hull design allows them to travel into areas where the Arleigh-Burkes can’t safely go, like the Persian Gulf near Iran or the Yellow Sea near North Korea.

This is a very short version of a much lengthier list of the dilemmas that effect naval procurement around the world. Complexity and costs will only increase in the future, forcing the world’s navies to find ways to build effective fleets without bankrupting their military budgets. It requires only a cursory examination of global experiences to understand why the world’s naval industries repeatedly struggle and fail to produce warships on time, on budget, and problem-free.

April 2016 – HMCS Fredericton on patrol in the Black Sea during Op Reassurance. (Photo: MCpl Sebastian Allain)
April 2016 – HMCS Fredericton on patrol in the Black Sea during Op Reassurance(Photo: MCpl Sebastian Allain) 

The same obstacles keep recurring. Some of the more frequent include: last minute contract and design changes requested by the purchasing governments; system integration complexities due to emerging technologies; strained relationships between civilian and government work forces; and variations in resource cost between the time of requirement identification and contract signing.

To be sure, Canada’s military procurement suffers from a lack of sufficient and qualified staff in specialized areas, but is there a common problem responsible for the naval industry struggling with warship development and production? It seems that most of the world’s naval industries have an almost identical ‘set’ of problems.

Warship Development
Because the period of time from the decision to construct a ship to ‘hulls in the water’, covers several years, it is almost impossible to keep up with technological advances, let alone integrate them, during that time period. A government decides what performance it wants for its ships. The builder responds with the cost of designing and constructing said vessels. The cost is based on the technical requirements of the day and, despite ‘technological maturation’ being written into every contract, the government and its military will always request the newest technologies along the way – but at the same cost of the original contract, of course. So, problem “one” is maturing and advancing technology during the ship design and construction phase.

Another factor during the development period is the ever-changing geopolitical and worldwide military situations, and their impact on defence needs. We know that in the naval arena, there is now at least an equal emphasis on littoral combat, compared with that of blue water. Many terrorist organizations have naval capabilities such as small, high-speed vessels (some as small as jet skis), missiles, and radar. Many coastal countries have even more sophisticated and heavily armed vessels that could pose a threat to traditional navies. Countries sailing larger vessels (frigate and destroyer classes) have adapted their fleets to what we call asymmetrical warfare. Canada and the USA for example, have retrofitted several classes of vessels with remote operated weapons stations (ROWS) and upgraded their missile and close in weapons systems (CIWS) to be more effective in countering the small boat threat. Electronics development has followed pace in the littoral arena.

Particularly in the case of a new design, or first of class vessel, it can take several years of trials between the completion of the ship and its delivery to the Navy. Fine-tuning all of the systems takes a long time.

Dec 2015 – Ordinary Seaman Kevin Fradette, a Marine Systems Engineer on board HMCS Winnipeg, inspects machinery control equipment in the after engine room during Op Reassurance  in the Mediterranean Sea.
Dec 2015 – Ordinary Seaman Kevin Fradette, a Marine Systems Engineer on board HMCS Winnipeg, inspects machinery control equipment in the after engine room during Op Reassurance in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: Cpl Stuart MacNeil)

The complexity of a warship has been described as similar to designing and building a technologically advanced, self-contained city. Add to this engineering masterpiece the rapidly-evolving composite construction materials, stealthy designs, operational technologies such as laser guns, automation (for reduced crewing requirements), sensors and surveillance equipment, ammunition types, communications, and much more – and it now becomes more akin to designing and building a space station (particularly since only a few are built). All of these factors, and many, many more, affect vessel design, and evolving technologies are coming to fruition more rapidly now than any time in history. It is easily conceivable to foresee a shipyard building a warship that is nearly obsolete as it is launched.

Throw into this, a mix of politics, bureaucracies, nationalities, unions, profit-making, and the sheer complexity of the vessels themselves, and we get a gigantic potpourri of reasons that work against the successful completion of a warship.

With so many factors to prevent the timely design and cost-effective construction of high quality and effective warships, how are they overcome?

First and foremost, no country – and Canada is a prime example – can ramp-up an idle naval industry every few decades to build a couple of complex warships. If that industry is not operating in the construction and design of such vessels as an ongoing business, quite obviously expertise and manpower will be lost. Therefore, in addition to domestic construction, a naval industry must solicit business from around the world. As well, they must maintain in-depth and in-house expertise in war vessel design and construction such as design, development, production, integration and integrated logistic platform support, propulsion and naval combat systems.

In 2012, Daewoo Shipbuilding of South Korea has done just that. Specializing in building naval hulls, the company won a £452 million contract to build platforms of the RN’s 37,000 ton, Tide-class tanker fleet, in South Korea. The ships were designed by U.K.-based BMT Defence Services, and first steel was cut in 2014. Once built, British shipyards are “outfitting” them (completing the integration of high-value military systems), to satisfy the political requirement of high-value jobs at home. They are expected to enter service in 2016.

However, designing and building a fleet of highly complex warships is quite a different business from building tankers. The modern warship is a highly integrated system of complex systems, and the hull represents a modest part of the cost, maybe 10% to 15%. Platform systems (propulsion, power generation and distribution, safety, navigation) and combat systems (such as sensors, weapons, command and control) have become more and more sophisticated, and are evolving at about the same speed as our cell phones and personal computers. Moreover, all these systems, and the platform itself, are intimately interrelated. The performance of the ship doesn’t depend on the performance of every single component but on the quality of the whole integration.

Oct 2015 – (from left) HNLMS Tromp (Netherlands), ESPS Cantabria, and HMCS Athbaskan (Canada’s only remaining destroyer) conduct a Replenishment at Sea (RAS) during Exercise Trident Juncture. NRP Vasco da Gama (Portugal) sails across in the background.
Oct 2015 – (from left) HNLMS Tromp (Netherlands), ESPS Cantabria (Spain), and HMCS Athabaskan (Canada’s only remaining destroyer) conduct a Replenishment at Sea (RAS) during Exercise Trident Juncture. NRP Vasco da Gama (Portugal) sails across in the background. (Photo: LS Peter Frew, Formation Imaging Services)

Hence, it clearly appears that problems occur when there are too many chefs in the kitchen. The new government apparently recognized this when it decided to combine the Warship Designer and Systems Integrator components for its new Surface Combatant ships.

In-depth and in-house expertise in all aspects of war vessel design and construction, is a requirement of any efficient warship project. This includes a complete capacity in design, development, production, integration of the platform and all systems onboard.

However having a “whole warship integrator” at hand is not sufficient for solving this difficult equation. The customer (the government and the Navy) must have a clear idea of the final product; be able to balance operational requirements and affordability; and exert a strict but flexible control of the project.

None of the world’s naval industries are immune to problems, of course. The Americans are having problems integrating all the new technological advances into affordable platforms. The Australians are under time pressures, especially for their soon-to-be-retired replenishment ships, and the British are involved in expensive recapitalization at a time of national restraint. Canada’s problems continue apace in the areas of political will, funding, qualified personnel – and an oblivious population.

Key Considerations
In Canada, the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) was essentially a good idea until politics reared its ugly head. Here are some key aspects to consider:

Ensure a continually operating naval industry by combining the construction of all government fleets. Next, go out and sell, sell, sell, the benefits of building or modernizing naval vessels in Canada. For example, based on the modernization of the Halifax-class frigates, Lockheed Martin Canada successfully competed against international companies to win a contract from New Zealand for the mid-life upgrade and modernization of its two Anzac-class frigates.

Diversify. Successful companies around the world are designing and building oil rig platforms, commercial vessels, coast guard vessels, tugs, ice-breakers and much more. It is vital to keep your naval industry active in order to retain a trained workforce. As Canada is finding, it takes years to build up such a highly skilled workforce.

Consider the benefits of building some or parts of your ships, offshore. Will jobs be lost? Perhaps not if enough benefits accrue to the shipyard for completing the work.

Be Flexible. Warships today need to have modality, growth margin, and flexibility built in to them. This allows for evolving technology, political requirements, and the changing face of combat.

Dec 2015 – HMCS Winnipeg sails under the Al Qantarah Bridge in the Suez Canal during Operation Reassurance.
Dec 2015 – HMCS Winnipeg sails under the Al Qantarah Bridge in the Suez Canal during Operation Reassurance(DND Photo: Cpl Stuart MacNeil)

The Future for Canada
In truth, it will be impossible to remove the political and monetary aspects from warship development, especially in Canada. We have cutting edge technology capability and private industrial willpower, but this abuts the national political and civil servant monolith. We can hope that governments are elected who value the need for a modern and effective navy. This in turn depends on the Canadian population, who need to be continuously educated as to the importance of a strong Canadian navy.

James Parker was a Canadian naval reserve officer for 27 years, serving in the Sudan and Afghanistan. He has been recently volunteering his time and expertise at the Southern Africa Wildlife College, helping train rangers in the anti-poaching fight within the Kruger National Park.