National Defence aims to save time by cutting steel on resupply ships early

The Department of National Defence wants to get an early start on cutting steel for the navy's new support ships, hoping to keep the multibillion-dollar project from slipping farther behind schedule.

Plan would see some work on the two support ships begin in Vancouver later this year

HMCS Preserver is pushed by tugs in Halifax harbour in 2011. One of Canada's former supply ships, HMCS Preserver, was decommissioned in 2015. Canada has been without a permanent support ship since that year when both Preserver and THE HMCS Protecteur were taken out of service. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Department of National Defence wants to get an early start on cutting steel for the navy's new support ships, hoping to keep the multibillion-dollar project from slipping farther behind schedule.

The plan would see some work on the two support ships begin in Vancouver later this year, taking advantage of a lull in the construction of two science vessels for the Canadian Coast Guard.

While the science vessels would still be delivered first, officials are hoping the head start will prevent another 12-month delay to the Protecteur-class joint support ships, as the naval vessels are officially known.

Defence officials are now talking to counterparts from other federal departments about the plan, which was initially pitched by Seaspan Shipbuilding in Vancouver.

Seaspan is responsible for building the two Protecteur-class vessels as well as four science ships and a polar icebreaker for the coast guard.

"The final shipyard proposal for the construction of the joint support ships will be presented for government approval in the coming year," Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an email.

The MV Asterix, a new supply ship, made its way to its new home port in Halifax in December. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

"Discussions are underway on an early start to construction of the ships in 2018. This would result in the delivery of the first ship in about four years, with the second ship being delivered one year later."

Decade-long odyssey

The plan is the latest twist in what has been a decade-long odyssey to equip the military with new support vessels, which are considered some of the most essential ships for a modern navy.

Canada has been without a permanent support ship since 2015, when the navy was forced to retire its existing vessels due to an unexpected fire and corrosion.

The gap will get a little smaller Tuesday when the Royal Canadian Navy formally welcomes to the fleet the converted civilian freighter MV Asterix, which will be leased to the government for five years, with a five-year option.

Navy commander Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd was set to participate in a ceremony Tuesday in Halifax, after which the Asterix is expected to participate in a major U.S.-led exercise before heading to Asia.

But defence officials have said Asterix, which is owned by Quebec-based Davie Shipyards, won't be deployed into harm's way and is not a true military vessel like the Protecteur-class — an assertion that Davie has refuted.

"This ship has a robust force protection capability for when it deploys outside of Canadian waters," said Spencer Fraser, head of Davie's sister company, Federal Fleet Services. "So to say the ship is defenceless is a complete exaggeration and misnomer."

Layoff fears in Vancouver

Construction on the first support vessel was supposed to start in 2016, with delivery slated for 2019. But the project has been plagued by delays and cost uncertainty; the government says its $2.3-billion budget is also under review.

The most recent concern was a warning from Seaspan that it might have to lay off workers during a gap in construction between the third and fourth science vessels, which are completely different designs.

That prompted fears that experienced workers would move to other shipyards and be unavailable when it came time to ramp up production on the last science vessel and the support ships.

Starting some work on the support ships would prevent layoffs, said Seaspan vice-president Tim Page. It would also keep the scheduled delivery of the support ships to 2022 and 2023, rather than 12 months later.

"This opportunity will support the needs of our navy customer and enable us to retain the shipbuilding knowledge and experience of our workforce," Page said in an email.

A view of the Seaspan shipyard in North Vancouver, B.C. Science vessels, naval supply ships and a polar icebreaker are to be built here. (Seaspan)