Politics

Liberals non-committal on number of replacement navy frigates

The Liberal government has committed to building "up to 15" warships to replace the country's patrol frigates and soon-to-be-retired command destroyers. But the announcement by Public Services Minister Judy Foote does not remove some of the uncertainty about the multi-billion dollar program.

Minister maps out way forward in frigate replacement program, but won't commit to 15 warships

Public Services Minister Judy Foote, left, shares a light moment with Jim Irving, CEO of Irving Shipbuilding, at the Irving Shipbuilding facility in Halifax on Monday. The federal government will streamline the process of replacing the navy's aging warships by purchasing an off-the-shelf design as a way to save money and speed up the process. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Trudeau government committed itself to rebuilding the country's navy on Monday, but would not guarantee a specific number of warships to replace the fleet's existing frigates and command destroyers.

The long-anticipated announcement that the government would proceed with an "off-the-shelf" design and a single bidding process for new warships is unlikely to put to rest anxiety in military circles about whether sticker-shock will prompt the Liberals to construct fewer combat vessels than previously announced.

"The simpler and faster approach for delivering the next generation of surface combatants honours our commitment to ensure the Royal Canadian Navy is able to operate as a true blue-water maritime force," Public Services Minister Judy Foote said at the Irving Shipbuilding yard in Halifax.

During last fall's election, former defence minister Jason Kenney caused a stir by suggesting the military might get as few as 11 of the advanced warships and the uncertainty only increased as the commander of the navy told CBC News that the original $26-billion cost was no longer valid and expected to be much higher.

The Harper government's Canada First defence strategy, introduced in 2008, called for 15 warships, but over the last few years the phrase "up to 15" has crept into government statements and speeches.

Aside from a shorter procurement process, defence sources say the navy has been anxious to wrestle a firm number of ships out of the Liberals.

The navy has long insisted on a one-for-one replacement of its fleet, which includes a soon-to-be-retired destroyer, two already retired destroyers that acted as command and defence ships, as well as 12 recently modernized frigates.

While Foote would not say what the minimum number of warships would be, she said Canada may be able to fill the need with less than the 15 expected.

Officials were equally vague at a technical briefing later in the day.

"We're talking about decisions for ships that will be in service for half a century," said Pat Finn, the top procurement official National Defence. "There is no need to decide on the exact number of ships today."

The last time Canada built major warships, in the 1990s, the construction happened in two stages and the number was worked out as the process unfolded, Finn said.

"Certainly, we want to bring it as close to 15 as we can, but we also don't need to make that decision right now," he added.

Change to bidding process

Foote also re-announced the government's intention to buy a proven, foreign off-the-shelf warship design and to combine two bidding processes into one.

The original plan established by the Conservative government was to have one bid for construction of the warships and a separate bid to integrate the combat systems.

Foote says government changing the shipbuilding process

6 years ago
Duration 1:33
Procurement Minister Judy Foote announces changes to the Canadian Surface Combatant procurement strategy, saying the new method will streamline the process and provide the much needed ships sooner and cheaper.

Last winter, officials in Foote's department indicated the government was headed in that direction and that it would mean the delivery of the new combat vessels in the early 2020s, rather than half way through the decade.

A few weeks ago, the minister announced the Liberals would not release a cost estimate on the new frigates until they had signed a build contract with the shipyard, likely in 2019.

Even still, she insisted Monday that taxpayers would see the benefit.

"This approach will also be more economical," she said. "We are currently revising our costing model to more accurately set estimates for this and other ship builds. Once this work is complete, we will be able to put a specific dollar figure on the savings."

But there is skepticism in among defence observers and academics.

Faster and cheaper?

An analysis, published online last fall by the Canadian Military Journal, weighed the pros and cons of choosing an existing, foreign design.

The comprehensive report said the twin objectives of cost-savings and faster delivery were possible, as long as the Canadian navy did not insist on a lot of design changes and customization.

A military off-the-shelf design "might seem to be the wave of the future, it is not necessarily the best solution," wrote David Rudd, an analyst with Defence Research and Development Canada. 

"Suffice to say that despite the many arguments in favour of MOTS there may be fewer clear advantages to it than one might suspect."

A worker grinds a component at the Irving Shipbuilding facility in Halifax on Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Pinning down a cost estimate is one of the potential pitfalls identified by Rudd, who says a difference in labour rates and construction practices between Canada and the nation that came up with the design need to be factored in.

Another potentially expensive issue is negotiating the intellectual property rights for not only the construction of the complex warships, but the life-long maintenance. 

Industry was told last winter that the Canadian government would favour a "mature" ship design that involved an "operational ship in the water."

But Rudd's analysis says a mature design carries with it the risk of obsolescence.

"The point here is that whichever route Canada takes to the re-capitalization of the (Royal Canadian Navy) surface combatant fleet, it will have to confront a host of potential pitfalls — some technical, some operational, some industrial, others political," the analysis said.

'Streamlined' new process for shipbuilding?

6 years ago
Duration 8:25
Minister Judy Foote says the government's new strategy will save time and money.

Follow @Murray_Brewster on Twitter

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify the status of Canada's existing naval fleet.
    Jun 14, 2016 11:46 AM ET

With files from Cassie Williams

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