Industry briefing questions Ottawa's choice of guns, defence systems for new frigates

The Department of National Defence has faced some tough, pointed questions about whether it has chosen the right radar, main gun and close air defence systems for the navy's new frigates, which will soon hit the drawing board.

'Unsolicited' presentation claims the frigate's main guns are nearly obsolete

An artist's rendering of the British Type 26 frigate, selected as the design for the new Canadian frigates. (BAE Systems Inc./Lockheed Martin Canada)

The Department of National Defence has faced some tough, pointed questions about whether it has chosen the right radar, main gun and close air defence systems for the navy's new frigates, which will soon hit the drawing board.

An unsolicited defence industry slide deck presentation, obtained by CBC News, questions each of those key components in the planned $60 billion modernization of the fleet.

It was circulated earlier this year and put in front of the senior federal officials in charge of the program.

The defence industry briefing presentation points out that the Lockheed Martin-built AN/SPY-7 radar system — an updated, more sophisticated version of an existing U.S. military system — has not been installed and certified on any warship. A land-based version of the system is being produced and fielded for the Japanese government.

The briefing calls it "an unproven radar" system that will be "costly to support," and claims it comes at a total price tag of $1 billion for all of the new ships, which the undated presentation describes as "an unnecessary expenditure."

Lockheed Martin Canada and British-based BAE Systems Inc. were chosen earlier this year by the Liberal government to design and help build 15 new warships to replace the country's existing patrol frigates — the backbone of the navy.

Old guns, inadequate defence systems?

The briefing raises concerns about DND's choice of a main gun for the frigates — a 127 millimetre MK 45 described by the briefing as 30-year-old technology that will soon be obsolete and cannot fire precision-guided shells.

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The briefing also singles out as inadequate the Sea Ceptor close air defence system, which is meant to shoot down incoming, ship-killing missiles.

Given the Canadian government's past missteps with military procurement — buying used equipment or opting for developmental systems that take years to get into service — a defence expert said the caution being expressed by the industry now is legitimate, but in some respects it's coming years too late.

"There's a risk anytime you try to do something new for the first time," said Dave Perry, an analyst who specializes in procurement at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

The navy struggled for years to get second-hand British submarines up to Canadian standards. The air force also sat on its hands while the manufacturer of the CH-148 Cyclone helicopters worked out all of the developmental bugs.

The presentation, Perry said, essentially tries to re-litigate decisions made by federal officials over three years ago, when the government's request for proposals was mapped out.

'The ship has sailed'

"This is calling into question whether the government set down [technical] markers in an appropriate spot or not," he said. "There is always the possibility that these issues can be revisited, but I think at this point the ship has sailed because a competition was run, it did produce a preferred bidder."

The pressure to get the new frigate design right is enormous, given the enormous expense involved and the changing nature of warfare, Perry added.

The briefing presentation apparently was circulated by a rival radar-maker which was not part of the bidding process. Federal officials declined to name the company.

Raytheon Canada Ltd. and its U.S. parent are among the biggest electronics and radar manufacturers in the world. A request for comment sent to their international business division went unanswered last week.

'We did our homework'

The concerns in the briefing were presented last summer to: Pat Finn, former head of materiel at DND; Andre Fillion, the assistant deputy minister of defence purchasing at Public Services and Procurement Canada; and Rear Admiral Casper Donovan, the navy's director general for "future ship capability."

DND confirmed the existence of the briefing presentation but refused to say who received it or which defence contractor was pushing it.

"It is not uncommon for companies to present unsolicited material to our department when they are unsuccessful in a competitive process," spokesman Andrew McKelvey said recently.

"We do not comment on these unsolicited documents as they are provided outside the scope of our established procurement process."

Both the department and the commander of the navy stand behind the decisions that were made and the systems chosen for the new frigate.

"We did our homework. We talked to other navies. We engaged our allies," said Vice-Admiral Art McDonald, who added DND was aware of other options on the market.

Delivering the warships on schedule and on budget in the mid-2020s is a constant preoccupation in the department, he said. He would not say whether the choice of radar system might mean a delay in delivery.

A senior executive at Lockheed Martin Canada said the company's radar system is identical to one selected by the U.S. government and other countries.

Much of the system's hardware, and some of its software, have been used on U.S. Aegis-type guided missile destroyers and cruisers. The difference between the radar system chosen for Canada's frigates and conventional systems is in its array: the Lockheed Martin system sweeps around and above the vessel, rather than only horizontally.

"The work that remains is to integrate it into the ship and integrate it into the ship's combat system," said Gary Fudge, general manager and vice president of Lockheed Martin Canada.

"We worked for two years with BAE during the proposal stage to optimize the ship design with this particular radar."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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