Federal officials will immediately begin the search for a warship designer and combat-systems integrator for the massive shipbuilding project to be built by Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax.

The Government of Canada — and not the prime contractor, Irving — will pick the two key suppliers sometime in early 2017 on a competitive bid based on price and "economic contribution to Canada."

The search begins next month for qualified combat-system integrators  —  guns, sonar and communications — and warship designers. A short list is expected this fall.

However, the budget and number of combat ships are still a work in progress.

Officials said in a technical briefing in Ottawa Friday that the plan is for "up to 15" combat vessels and the $26.2-billion budget is an estimate.

Officials said the design phase is expected to take five years with construction beginning in the early 2020s and the first ship in service by the middle of the decade.

The navy is looking for two ship designs to replace the current fleet of Iroquois-class destroyers and Halifax-class frigates.

In October 2011, Ottawa announced Irving had won the right to build the warships and Arctic offshore patrol ships (AOPS).

Irving is set to begin cutting steel on the AOPS in the fall.

Since the initial announcement, the AOPS budget has increased and the number of ships on order has decreased.