Top general and defence bureaucrat were at odds over whether to buy French warships

The former defence minister was advised not to buy two French helicopter carriers by the top defence bureaucrat, only to be told the exact opposite six weeks later by the chief of the defence staff, documents obtained through access to information reveal.

Top bureaucrat warned resources were 'stretched' and purchase would affect shipbuilding plan

The two Mistral-class helicopter carriers Sevastopol (bottom) and Vladivostok are seen at the shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, western France, in May 2015. After France withdrew the vessels from sale to Russia, Canada was a potential customer. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

Canada's defence department advised the former minister of defence not to buy two French Mistral-class amphibious vessels because of how their cost might affect the multibillion-dollar national shipbuilding strategy — even though the ships would have provided a new and needed capability for the Canadian Navy. 

Despite this advice from the top defence bureaucrat, the defence minister was told the exact opposite six weeks later by Canada's top general, documents obtained through the Access to Information Act reveal. 

In a 2015 briefing note, deputy defence minister John Forster advised then Conservative defence minister Jason Kenney and then chief of defence staff Gen. Tom Lawson to avoid buying the ships because of "stretched resources."

"While this opportunity purchase seems to represent a means to quickly acquire a substantial augmentation to the CAF capabilities, the impact on our already stretched resources would have direct and deleterious consequences on our capital investment program," the briefing note said. 

"It is therefore recommended that Canada not pursue the option to purchase the Mistral-class hulls at this time."

But just six weeks later the new chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, urged Kenney to reconsider the earlier advice given to him and to buy the two vessels from France.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance encouraged the defence minister to purchase the Mistral-class ships from France. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

In a letter obtained by CBC News, Vance pointed out that a military report concluded that the versatility and flexibility of the vessels could "directly contribute to the desire for rapid, deployable and far-reaching projection of state interests, which could result in positive influences both domestically and internationally," the document said. 

Vance went on to write that the addition of the French vessels "would contribute directly to satisfying current gaps in the area of sea-based force projection across a range of operations."

And he said that additional funding will be needed to acquire this capability, otherwise the existing defence procurement plan would be at risk.

New customers needed

The French vessels were originally built for Russia, but France pulled out of the deal in 2014 because of Russia's support for rebels in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. France was forced to look for another buyer.

The Mistral-class ships are helicopter carriers that can conduct a wide variety of tasks, from launching raids onshore to providing aid and relief in disaster zones. They have landing pads for six helicopters, can house up to 60 armoured vehicles, accommodate 450 troops and contain a medical facility with a surgery centre and 69 beds. 

According to the briefing note, the ships could meet the three roles and six missions outlined in the Canada First Defence Strategy — the military's road map for roles, missions and where it should be investing. The ships would enhance the military's capabilities and increase international training opportunities for the Forces.

But the major problem, Forster argued, was the cost of acquiring the ships and how the two new vessels would fit into the navy's overall procurement strategy.

"Significant efforts are underway across DND/CAF to prioritize capability needs and reduce demands on the budget," the documents read. "In this light, it must be understood that with no identified source of funds to support such a purchase, and with our already stretched funding allocation, DND/CAF would be unable to absorb this pressure without significant impact to the already stressed capital equipment portfolio," it said in the briefing.

The top defence bureaucrat also warned that because the Mistral-class ships were not included in the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy "consideration should be given to how its purchase would impact other ships Canada is currently and forecasted to construct," including the cost of training associated with introducing a new ship, the document said.

Missed opportunity

In the end, the federal election was called, and in September France announced it would be selling the ships to Egypt. 

Canadian Global Affairs Institute defence analyst David Perry sees this as a missed opportunity. "I thought acquiring that ship would have given the government a great deal of flexibility." 

"I think, unfortunately, there won't be another opportunity as something like this, " he said. 

The procurement strategy is worth $39 billion and is seen as the future of the navy. The multibillion-dollar project is supposed to supply the navy with combatant and non-combatant ships, as well as to revitalize Canada's shipbuilding industry. But reports of cost overruns and delayed projects are already plaguing the program.

Perry said he can understand why the procurement strategy is such a sensitive issue, but it shouldn't preclude the navy from acquiring good equipment not included in the program that would be a useful asset to the Forces.