Warship design competition on track, Public Works officials say

Federal officials say they're confident they will receive more than enough bids on the multi-billion dollar program to design the next generation of navy warships. Uncertainty has hung over the Canadian Surface Combatant program since the spring, when a deadline for bids was pushed off into the future.

'More than three' draft proposals for a new navy ships have come in, officials insist

The French Navy FREMM Class frigate Aquitaine rests at berth in Halifax in April, 2013. Canada has said it wants an 'off-the-shelf' blueprint, with a few modifications, for its new navy warships. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Federal Public Works officials in charge of the multi-billion program to replace the navy's frigates said Friday they're confident they will receive more than enough bids from warship designers to complete the ongoing competition.

Lisa Campbell, the assistant deputy minister of defence and marine procurement, also attempted to lay to rest concern the federal government's demands for intellectual property data would some how scuttle the project — or drive some competitors away.

"We have good competition and we're really happy about that," Campbell told CBC News, during a round of one-on-one interviews with reporters on Friday.

Uncertainty has hung over the Liberal government's proposal to buy 15 new surface combat vessels over two decades since the spring.

That was when a deadline for 12 pre-qualified defence contractors to submit their pitches to design and help construct the next generation of warships was hastily extended.

No specific deadline was set, beyond the suggestion that it would be sometime around "mid-August," which Campbell said Friday was still the plan.

"We've received more than three draft bids," Campbell said, referring to the phase of the competition where warship designers can submit preliminary proposals for evaluation without fear of being disqualified for errors.

That stage is expected to wrap up soon, she said.

The Liberals decided last year to select existing, off-the-shelf blueprints, instead of designing the warships from scratch, saying it would be faster and cheaper for the estimated $60-billion program.

Enough bids?

Since the design competition has been underway, supervised by the prime contractor Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax, the federal government has heard from competitors who say the number of changes being requested to the designs means Canada is essentially asking for an entirely new ship.

"To the best of our knowledge, neither we, nor any other pre-qualified bidder, possesses an off-the-shelf ship design which could be modified to meet all of the [request for proposal] requirements without, in effect, becoming a new design with all of the risks that would stem from a massive redesign effort," said documents obtained and reported on by CBC News at the end of June.

"Not only will we not be in a position to make a proposal, which we believe will best meet Canada's objectives, but we have reason to believe that most, if not all, other pre-qualified bidders with an existing ship design will be in a similar situation."

The unidentified company said the project was at "a very high risk of failure" because there might not be enough bids — or the ones that were submitted would be disqualified.

In addition, the U.S. Navy early this month announced it was in the market for up to 20 frigates in a massive program that looks a lot like the one Canada is trying to get off the ground.

At least one defence analyst predicted it would siphon bidders away from the more modest Canadian project.

Campbell said she's very confident they will receive a number of compliant bids.

"We want to make sure as many of these 12 pre-qualified bidders submit bids because Canada wants a rich field to pick from," said Campbell.

Scott Leslie, the director general for large combat construction, said he doesn't believe Canada is asking for anything out of the ordinary and the federal government is aware "there's going to be required changes to all bids put forward."

Intellectual property battle

Campbell acknowledged that many of the bidders have privately expressed concern over intellectual property because of the amount of technical data being requested by the Canadian government. He tried to smooth those waters.

"I want to emphasize we're only asking for a reasonable amount of [intellectual property] — owning what we paid to develop and a limited licence access so we can design, build and maintain, and ultimately dispose of these ships over the next several decades," she said.

Ship designers from France, Britain, Italy and the U.S., among others, are bidding on the Canadian program. Some of those warship blueprints are dependent on electronics developed in conjunction with their home governments and those countries don't want to share the data for their own national security reasons.

Bidders are also worried about how much access Irving Shipbuilding Inc. and sub-contractors would have to the data.

Campbell insisted Irving will have "only a limited licence to use it,"" something that she said is consistent with defence industry practice.

In what could be seen as a concession to worried bidders, the federal government agreed to acquire the intellectual property rights directly.

"They won't flow through our prime contractor," she said.


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.