HMCS Protecteur's electrical system flagged as 'dangerous and unsafe'

National Defence was warned a year before the devastating fire aboard HMCS Protecteur that the electrical system, main engine controls and navigation system aboard both of the navy's supply ships were on their last legs — and prone to catastrophic failure.

Cause of the Feb. 27 engine-room fire aboard HMCS Protecteur still being investigated

The HMCS Protecteur, damaged in a fire in February while at sea, made it back to B.C. waters on May 31, 2014. (CHEK TV/CBC)

National Defence was warned a year before the devastating fire aboard HMCS Protecteur that the electrical system, main engine controls and navigation system aboard both of the navy's supply ships were on their last legs — and prone to catastrophic failure.

The unusually blunt assessment was contained in a four-page confidential briefing note prepared by the former head of the navy as he was about to retire last year.

The document, from former vice-admiral Paul Maddison, was prepared as the Harper government debated whether long-promised replacement vessels would take priority at the assigned shipyard in Vancouver — or a new coast guard heavy icebreaker.

Maddison noted that the power generators were showing their age and that replacement parts were no longer available for both Protecteur and her sister ship HMCS Preserver, which were ordered replaced by the former Liberal government a decade ago.

There had been failures of the turbo generators that caused ship-wide blackouts and loss of propulsion, creating "dangerous" conditions for a ship at sea.

The navy said Thursday it was still investigating the cause of the Feb. 27 engine-room fire aboard Protecteur, which left the ship burning, powerless and adrift off Hawaii for 11 hours.

But "first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses and first responders indicate that the fire may have originated from one of the generators inside the engine room."

The military wouldn't say when the investigation would be completed. The blaze saw 20 crew members suffer minor injuries.

Briefing warned ships were 'showing their ... age'

Protecteur, commissioned in 1969, was towed first to Pearl Harbor, then towed back to its home port of Esquimalt, B.C.

"They are the oldest ships in the (Royal Canadian Navy) and are well past their original design life of 25 years," Maddison said in the briefing, obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation.

"Numerous systems, that are as old as the ships, are no longer supported by an Original Equipment Manufacturer. All systems are showing their 40 plus years of age with increased failure rates."

"For example, recent failures of the 1000 (kilowatt) Turbo Alternators have resulted in total ship blackouts and loss of propulsion, creating a potentially dangerous and unsafe situation for the ship and crew."

In a written statement Thursday, the navy would not be specific about how many times the generators have failed but noted that the last incident involving Protecteur occurred at the harbour entrance to San Diego in 2011.

Navy Lt. Kelly Boyden described that incident as minor.

"It did not represent a fire hazard," he said in an email.

"The ship was being assisted by tugs at the time and back-up generators were quickly back on line, causing no danger to the ship or ship's company."

Replacement contract cancelled in 2008

The ships had for years been on track for replacement when, just before the 2008 federal election, the Harper government cancelled the procurement because shipyard bids had come in higher than the project's budget envelope.

A report by the parliamentary budget office last year said that had the government stuck with the original program, instead of restarting it, the navy would already have its supply ships, likely at a cheaper cost than the new program, and they would be more capable than the ones now being planned.

Last year, there was vigorous debate within government about whether the navy could get more life out of the existing boats until their replacements arrived in 2019-20.

But Maddison's note laid out in painstaking detail how worn out the vessels had become despite the best efforts of the fleet maintainers.

"Frequent mechanical breakdowns are beginning to affect the operational availability of the two ships and efforts to ensure their reliability are putting increasing pressure on an already strained engineering work force and budget," said the documents.

"Even if increased funding is directed towards the (Protecteur) Class ships, there is a limit as to how long the onboard systems can be supported and certified given their age and operational effectiveness."

Maddison cited not only the electrical system, but the main engine controls where the failure of obsolete parts would "render the propulsion system inoperable" and the outdated navigation system panel that "distributes critical" data.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said the memo raises important questions about whether both ships should be decommissioned now.

"I would be concerned about the safety of naval personnel aboard these ships," he said.

"In 2008, the government cancelled the (replacement) contract. We would have new ships now. This represents a political failure on the part of this government."