Politics

Canada's navy looks to fill fleet gap with purchase from U.S.

The Royal Canadian Navy may purchase a soon-to-be retired ship from the U.S. to replace its two supply vessels forced into retirement since a government ship-building program has been delayed by several years, CBC News has learned.

Canada's 2 supply ships were forced into retirement earlier this month

The Royal Canadian Navy's two aging supply ships, HMCS Protecteur, pictured, and HMCS Preserver, were forced into retirement earlier this month. (Marco Garcia/Associated Press)

The Royal Canadian Navy may purchase a soon-to-be retired ship from the U.S. to replace its two supply vessels forced into retirement, since a Canadian government ship-building program has been delayed by several years, CBC News has learned.

The navy is counting on the government to deliver new ships as part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, commander of the Canadian navy, said at a news conference on Friday.

But that program is not expected to deliver new supply ships until the end of the decade.

With the navy's only two supply ships forced into unscheduled early retirement this month, Norman said the navy is now considering other options to fill the gap.

Norman would not say what those options are, but CBC News has learned one of them is a plan to secure access to a surplus U.S. navy supply ship.

The Canadian navy's two ships responsible for resupplying Canadian warships with fuel and food were permanently forced out of service earlier this month due to fire and rust. Even before that, many countries had banned HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver from entering their waters because the ships have single hulls — if they were damaged, fuel could spill into the waters.

The Canadian government has promised to build two new support ships under the Joint Support Ship Project at a cost of $2.6 billion. The first ship was once expected to arrive in 2012, but that date has since been pushed back to 2019 as part of a larger $39 billion ship-building strategy.

If the navy doesn't find a replacement for the two retired boats, that would leave Canada's fleet without the capability to refuel its ships. The navy would become a territorial defence fleet at that point, some experts say.

Canadian navy officers have turned to the U.S. navy to fill the gap, sources told CBC News.

The U.S. navy has two supply ships heading toward early retirement — the USNS Bridge and the USNS Rainier, built in the 1990s — as a cost-cutting move, it was announced this summer.

Leasing the Rainier or Bridge would be a good idea, naval expert Ken Hansen said, because it would provide more capability at a lesser cost.

But Hansen said the government is likely to face a lot of questions over the navy's proposal since it will cost less than the plan to build new ships.

"The fact that this is on the table at all is a testament to how badly this government has bungled much needed equipment," wrote Joyce Murray, the Liberal defence critic, in a statement to CBC News.

In addition to purchasing or leasing one of these two ships from the U.S., the Canadian navy may also buy or lease foreign-built civilian ships and convert them to meet its needs.

With files from CBC's James Cudmore

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