This week, Canadians were treated to the unusual sight of a clearly peeved top soldier suggesting it would be awfully nice if the federal government actually started building some of the new ships it has so long bragged about providing our long neglected navy.

It's all well and good to have a $35-billion National Shipbuilding Strategy, Chief of the Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk told a Royal Canadian Legion audience in Halifax on Tuesday. "But we need to start cutting steel."

This means let's start building real hulls for ships that can actually go to sea one day, instead of just talking strategy and debating objectives, as Ottawa politicians and bureaucrats have been doing for so long already.

Why should we take special note of this story? Isn't this just the usual special interest griping from the military brass, and a soon-to-be retiring general at that?

Well, it's really important because the sheer scale of this $35-billion program is quite unprecedented. For size, complexity and impact on our economy, it is the largest defence program in our peacetime history, and it will determine Canada's military response and maritime strategy for decades to come.

This shipbuilding also dwarfs the trouble-plagued procurement of the new F-35 fighter jets that have been so much in the news.

So, the thought of something going wrong on a project of this magnitude is horrifying for admirals and government ministers alike.

Big delays already

And so much can go wrong. Rebuilding a navy is far harder than re-equipping our air force or army.

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The shipbuilding delay is 'my greatest concern when it comes to modernizing the military,' Gen. Walter Natynczyk told the Royal Canadian Legion this week. (Canadian Press)

Aircraft and heavy weapons can be bought off the shelf from proven suppliers. But for reasons of politics and shipbuilding interests we have had to build all our naval vessels at home (used British submarines aside).

That's why, perhaps, Natynczyk spoke out when and the way he did. Because, in naval history, two factors — delay and cost overruns — always trigger a spiral of events.

Delay drives up costs, rising costs provoke new debate over what can be afforded, further debate equals yet more delay, which in turn means still higher costs until, in the end, the government usually just cuts back the number of ships ordered.

Are we heading that way again? The Harper government has repeatedly insisted that the ship program was a model for all other defence procurement and that everything is on track.

But its own records, tabled in Parliament following the recent budget, show big delays already occurring.

Most notable are those involving the six to eight Arctic patrol vessels, which the government pledged back in 2008 as a key protector of our northern sovereignty.

None are under construction yet. The first won't hit the water for six more years, and they won't all be operational until 2023 — 15 years after first proposed.

Nothing in writing

If that seems rather sluggish, consider as well that not a single contract has yet been signed with the two big shipbuilders supposedly tapped to build all the other vessels — the destroyers, frigates, and large joint support ships.

The government announced in January, to great fanfare, that the historic Irving shipyards in Halifax would build the Arctic patrol ships along with 15 frigates and destroyers, while Seaspan Marine of Vancouver would build two large joint support ships.

Halifax has been euphoric ever since, anticipating a bonanza of 11,000 direct and indirect jobs and there is a popular impression that the project is underway. It is not.

In fact, there is nothing in writing between government and builders on the full costs of the ships, the timescale for construction, or even final ship designs.

This means the $35-billion figure is little more than a vague estimate. Perhaps as meaningless as those now discredited early F-35 projections.

Too long in the tooth

"We haven't awarded any contracts yet," Terry Williston, who led the government team that selected the two shipyards, was quoted saying recently. "There's a tremendous amount of difficult work to be done in order to get those contracts."

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces deal to build new ships for Coast Guard and navy at the Seaspan yards in North Vancouver in January 2012. No contract signed, however, and budget cuts have now intervened. (Andy Clark / Reuters)

That difficult work, and the resulting uncertainly, will likely soar even more now given the new cuts to the defence budget as well as Ottawa's apparent reluctance to take on big-ticket items.

This budget reality certainly worries the military. It's a hard time to pitch for more defence spending, and many people will argue that billions should be spent elsewhere rather than on an aging navy that most of us don't pay much attention to.

Some in the government may sympathize with that point of view. But the problem is that oceans impose their own harsh reality on navies.

Ships take a battering at sea and technology keeps changing, so most warships need replacing after 30 years at the most.

Our three destroyers were launched in the early 1970s — the Trudeau era — while our two surviving large supply ships are almost half-century-old relics so rickety they're considered too environmentally hazardous to enter many foreign harbours.

Send in the navy

Another issue here is the trend among allied nations to build ships that are much more multi-purposed than were the norm during the Cold War era, and our navy is under pressure for our allies to stay current.

The tasks keep increasing. In the past 15 years, our ships have been deployed on far more distant operations and in an increasing variety of crises, from support of land operations in Afghanistan and Libya to the rescue of civilians in Mediterranean conflicts and in Haiti.

It now seems the government is preparing for future emergencies by quietly negotiating the establishment of small overseas mini-bases — in places such as Kuwait, Jamaica, Singapore and South Korea — in order to "pre-position" supplies.

Although downplayed in Ottawa, these pocket-bases may be a sign that a new strategic rationale for the Canadian military is slowly emerging, one that anticipates even more calls on the navy in future.

Certainly every government that takes office soon learns emergencies can arise at any time and that it is almost always the navy you call on first, as it is the easiest way to show the flag abroad, a diplomatic plus, without necessarily putting boots on the ground.

That's a very valuable option to have. But governments are always reluctant to pay for it upfront without feeling they've squeezed every nickel of savings by demanding changes from ship designers and builders.

That's why delays and cost overruns are so endemic to (peacetime) naval shipbuilding, and why the navy almost always gets fewer ships than first promised.

It is also why those big contract negotiations yet to come will likely become extremely heated and politically controversial over the next little while before we get anywhere near cutting steel.