The German navy has pulled into Halifax with its latest warship to give Canadian sailors a sneak peek at what they can expect within a few years.

The Canadian government has bought the blueprints for the Federal German Ship Bonn and the navy is hoping a promise to supply two to three of the joint support ships (JSS) comes through by 2018.

Bjorn Laue

Fregattenkapitan Bjorn Laue, is the commander of the 20,000-tonne supply ship FGS Bonn. (CBC)

The navy's quest for new supply ships has been a lengthy voyage, subject to dramatic course changes and even sudden reversals.

In the early summer of 2013, the federal government announced it was buying the blueprints of an existing supply ship from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems Canada.

Construction on the new vessels, based on a German design, will begin in late 2016 with an in-service target of 2019 to 2020 — almost two years later than the last estimate contained in the spring of 2012 federal budget.

That delay could mean the navy's existing supply ships are removed from service before the new ones arrive. That might force Canadian warships to rely on other allies for fuel and ammunition when deployed overseas.

Canadian sailors are previewing the FGS Bonn, because they'll be working on vessels similar to it in the future. 

"The Canadian JSS team asked us to come here so they can show the sailors and officers what they will get in a few years,'' the Bonn's commander, Fregattenkapitan Bjorn Laue, told CBC News in an interview aboard the 20,000-tonne supply ship.

Ships to carry food and fuel

The dark grey hull of FGS Bonn sticks out at the navy's dockyard on the Halifax waterfront — not just because of its distinctly un-Canadian navy colour, but also because of its huge size.

The Bonn looks like a merchant ship, complete with large cranes that can easily lift any two of the 73 sea containers the ship can carry. Large platforms, or gantries, hold heavy lines that can pump fuel into warships sailing on either side of the Bonn.

The ship can also carry two to four helicopters and a mini-hospital, built into several sea containers, can be lashed to the deck.

"It was a originally a kind of merchant design but changed for the military," said Laue.

Despite its merchant ship beginnings, the military ships are armed.

"Yes. We have some small guns," said Laue.

Unlike a merchant ship, the Bonn has four 27-mm automatic cannons and Stinger surface-to-air missiles to protect it from missile and aircraft attacks.

FGS Bonn is only lightly armed because it’s not a fighting ship. Its main mission is to supply destroyers and frigates at sea with fuel, ammunition and food.

Aging vessels banned from some waters

Canada's navy is now supplied by two aging vessels that are approaching five decades of delivering food and fuel to the fleet.

HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver are banned from travelling into the home waters of many countries because the ships have single hulls that could allow fuel to spill into the sea if they were damaged.

The new JSS ships, dubbed the Queenston class by the federal government, will have double hulls that would better contain fuel if the ship runs aground or is damaged in battle.

Despite a firm commitment and projected funding from the federal government, the procurement of JSS ships has been rough over the years.

The JSS project started in 2004 with a promise of supplying the navy with two or three all-Canadian designed, state-of-the-art vessels. Those ships were to have the capability of  ferrying hundreds of soldiers and their equipment to a potential hot spot and landing them ashore. The Queenston class doesn't have that feature.

The 2004 JSS vessels should now be in the Canadian fleet but the program was put on hold in 2008 because of rising costs. There is a fear in the navy that any more delays might mean the fleet would be without any supply ships while it waits for the German-designed, Canadian built vessels.

But the German ambassador to Canada says not to worry.

"The Canadian supply ships can be used until 2018 and that leaves plenty of time to build the new ships,'' German Ambassador Werner Wnendt told CBC News in an interview aboard the Bonn.

The Queenston-class ships are part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy and will be built by the Vancouver Shipyards in British Columbia.