Decision on navy's replacement frigate design pushed to 2018

A decision on a design for the navy's new frigates is being delayed until next year due to amendments to the request for proposals, the government says. But officials insist the delay is not related to the pushback they have received from some bidders and even foreign governments.

Pushback from bidders and allies not a factor in delay, say officials

The French FREMM frigate Aquitaine is an example of a design that could be picked for the Canadian navy's frigate program. (The Naval Group)

A decision on which off-the-shelf design will be purchased for the navy's new frigates is being delayed until next year, the Public Services and Procurement Department said Wednesday.

The Liberal government's request for proposals is being amended, although officials in charge of the $60-billion program said the further delay is not related to the pushback they have received from some bidders and even foreign governments.

The new deadline for proposals from the 12 prequalified companies is expected to be in November, almost seven months beyond the date set when the federal government launched the competition last year.

It will take the government until the late winter or early spring to decide on a winner.

Months of uncertainty

Lisa Campbell, assistant deputy minister of defence and marine procurement, said the delay will not affect the overall timeline for the program.

"It's not going to affect ship construction, which is still planned to start in the early 2020s," Campbell told CBC News in an interview.

For months, uncertainty has hung over the Liberal government's plan to buy 15 new surface combat vessels over the next two decades.

Technicians work on a hull at Halifax Shipyard in Halifax in March 2013. The government says it still expects to begin building new ships in 'in the early 2020s.' (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

At one point last spring, public works officials and the warship prime contractor, Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax, were warned the government's request for proposal needed a major overhaul.

According to documents obtained by CBC News in June, an unidentified competitor said the procurement plan was more complex than initially advertised and needed to be rewritten.

Some of the bidders complained about tight timelines.

In addition, at least one company said it had been blocked from handing over "supporting data and services."

The unidentified bidder, in a separate written submission also obtained by CBC News, said one of Canada's allies, which owns the rights to the sensitive electronics embedded in the warship design, refused permission to include the information in its proposal.

Flexible process

Campbell said the new process will be more flexible.

It will allow bidders to put forward their pitch, and where they don't meet the government's requirements or expectations they'll be given one chance to submit additional information to support their case.

"This is not unusual," she said. "We're constantly learning, and what we're trying to do here is trying to maximize the chances of all of the bidders to submit a successful bid so that we have real choice among strong bids."

Campbell said that the navy's requirements for the kinds of warships it wants and the systems that will go into them has not changed.

The previous Conservative government faced criticism for allowing the design of the navy's much smaller Arctic patrol ships to be watered down.

On the issue of bidders being unable to hand over sensitive information involving foreign governments, a second senior official said Public Works had done a lot of consultation and believes the matter is in hand.

"We think we've provided the clarifications that were being sought," said Scott Leslie, the director general for large combat construction at Public Works. 

Both Leslie and Campbell said they hope some of the amendments to the government's proposal will be enough to mitigate the concerns of Canada's allies. 

"We triple-checked on this," said Campbell.

Separately, Campbell once again tried to smooth the waters over concern related to the amount of intellectual property data being sought by the Canadian government.

The information is important for future maintenance programs. 

Bidders had complained the federal government was asking for too much data and questioned how much access Irving Shipbuilding was going to get.

"This was an important question for us," said Campbell. "We've made sure Canada was seeking limited licence rights so we could use and maintain the ships for the duration of their life."


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.