Navy supply ships set to become political lightning rod
The navy's long-delayed, much-studied joint support ship program is expected to come under the political microscope within weeks in what is likely another defence equipment embarrassment for the Harper government.
The parliamentary budget officer has been examining the program and is poised to release his findings once MPs return from their Christmas break.
Kevin Page's incendiary analysis of the F-35 fighter jet program sparked a raging political fire which continues to burn.
Now, documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws offer a glimpse of a troubled ship program set to deliver less capable vessels than originally envisioned.
The joint ship briefings, given throughout 2011 to both Defence Minister Peter MacKay and former associate defence minister Julian Fantino, represent the first unambiguous look at what capabilities the navy was forced to give up.
The program to replace the navy's nearly 45-year-old supply ships with three new vessels was originally announced by Paul Martin's Liberals in 2004, but embraced by Stephen Harper's Conservatives when they assumed power two years later.
At the time, the government estimated it would cost $2.9 billion. But the Conservatives abruptly cancelled the plan in 2008, claiming that the bids were not compliant and, perhaps most importantly, that they exceeded the budget envelope.
Program scaled back
What followed, according to the series of internal briefings, was a drastic scaling back of the navy's design concept, overseen by senior civilian defence and political officials.
The $2.6 billion program relaunched in 2010 is expected to deliver two — maybe three — ships.
But with the program delayed until 2018 and accounting for inflation — currently running at seven per cent in the shipbuilding industry — it will likely cost taxpayers more than if the government had stuck with the original plan.
The new proposal will see the joint ships carry fewer helicopters, drastically less cargo, no space for a joint mission headquarters or a full-fledged hospital, as mandated in the original concept.
The Harper government has assigned the task of building the ships to Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver and is expected to select from two specific designs sometime this year.
Unlike the troubled F-35 fighter proposal where capabilities such as stealth were hardly questioned, the briefings on the joint support ships suggest civilians played a large role after 2008 deciding what the military could live without in the new vessels.
The heavily censored account is backed up by both military and defence sources.
Alan Williams, a former senior defence official and strident F-35 critic, said it appears to be the reverse of the stealth fighter fiasco where the military rode roughshod over the civilian side.
He said the pendulum could be swinging back the other way, but it is dangerous to have civilians too involved in setting the parameters of military equipment. "It could be a reaction to the F-35 fiasco," said Williams.
Political lightning rod?
"If something goes wrong, either they don't have the right ship, or something else ... at the end of the day, the military can say you guys screwed up not us, sir. You're the one who cost us lives, sir."
The initial concept was for a joint ship that could act as floating supply base for the navy, carrying vast amounts of army equipment to trouble spots, and act as offshore command post and hospital for humanitarian missions. It was well-researched and thought out by the navy.
And it fit right in with the Conservative government's desire to see Canada's military able to get where it needed to go without relying on allies, in much the same spirit that the mammoth C-17s aircraft were purchased.
The ships, as they are envisioned now, almost entirely give up the sealift role.
"There's a notion that we want to be a sovereign country and not be dependant on anybody else," said Williams, who after leaving National Defence acted as a consultant to a consortium that wanted to bid on the initial project.
"That was partly behind this whole notion, if we were building these joint support ships, let's have the kind of flexibility that allows us to do what we want on our own timetable rather than on somebody else's."
As the program unfolds with industry consultation this year, Williams said the public need to asks whether the Harper government is buying the right ship for the navy — or simply what it thinks it can afford.
"Are we going to be able to fulfil our role and our mandate with what we're getting?" is the question Williams said everyone needs to ask.
National Defence is confident the program will deliver what the navy needs, and a spokeswoman noted that the navy planners are currently engaged in a "design-to-cost" analysis.
That is a "process of establishing a ship design by determining the maximum equipment capability that is available within a given financial envelope," Kim Tulipan wrote in an email.