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Strategic Industries – National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy – May 2013

What are the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy Priorities?
Scheduling Conflicts force a choice between JSS & Polar Icebreaker

By Stephen Priestley, CASR Researcher

A scheduling conflict is in the offing between the two large, 'non-combat' ship types to be built under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. These are the two Joint Support Ship replenishment vessels for the Royal Canadian Navy and the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker polar icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard  (CCG).

In a Postmedia article dated 7 May 2013, [1]  Lee Berthiaume quoted Public Works spokeswoman, Lucie Brosseau saying that the NSPS Secretariat "... working  together  with  the Department of National  Defence and  Canadian  Coast Guard,  is currently developing the framework for the sequencing decision for the JSS and the Polar Icebreaker projects". And yes, our bureaucrats really do talk that way. But the important bit is that no sequencing decision has yet been made.

Other media reports, highlight the relative inexperience of the Canadian shipyards awarded contracts under the NSPS. In the case of  Seaspan ULC's Vancouver Shipyards. That's not surprising. No heavy icebreaker has been built in Canada for 30 years. [2]  It has been 46 years since the last fleet replenishment ship was laid down in a Canadian shipyard.

More to the point is that the published timelines for the Polar Icebreaker and Joint Support Ship projects show Implementation Contract awards almost coinciding. The Canadian Coast Guard expects Implementation Contract(s) for the new icebreaker to be awarded in 2014. The JSS contracts are expected in 2015. Seaspan began modernizing its facilities in anticipation of NSPS work back in April 2012. Finding sufficient skilled workers for this shipyard will be an even bigger challenge. [3]

But does the Federal Government seriously expect Vancouver Shipyards to lay the keels for three very large hulls simulaneously? VanShips will have smaller Fisheries Science vessels on their ways first (with steel to be cut in 2014-15). According to Government of  Canada press releases, the "new polar icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, will be delivered to coincide with the decommissioning of the Canadian Coast Guard's heavy icebreaker, the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent" which is scheduled for 2017.

Similar timing pressures are on the Navy to replace its aging auxiliary oiler replenishment ships. So, over to the Federal Government to make the call on whether the Polar Icebreaker or JSS Project should have the higher priority assigned to it. This prioritizing was described as being a 'tough choice', but is it really?

There is no question that the JSS Project has become a major embarassment for the Harper government. But this shouldn't be a decision based on political considerations. The only question that matters is which ship class adds the most to assuring Canadian sovereignty. Without JSS, the RCN loses much of its capacity to project Canadian military power abroad. Without heavy icebreakers, [4]  Canada will lose much of its ability to establish a 'presence' in the High Arctic (as well as needed infrastructure support in the south during winter).

So, let's try to answer that question. Which type of mission contributes more to ensuring Canadian sovereignty? Canada has been sending warships abroad to exercise or fight with its allies for the duration of the Cold War through to the present day. What the Government of  Canada must ask itself  is: What  foreign policy goals have been satisfied  through these regular excursions?

  •  Does the ability to routinely send Canadian warships to the Indian Ocean, for example, help secure Canadian merchant shipping? Not really. Other than small coastal fleets, Canada no longer has a real merchant marine.

  •  Does having replenishment ships help the RCN to patrol Canada's extended coastlines? Not in any meaningful way. Current RCN warships have more than enough range (and onboard stores) for any offshore patrol duties.

  •  Does satisfying our NATO treaty obligations (through providing AOR services to the navies of our allies) bring about any material advantages for Canada? Well, Canada was a forming member of  NATO  but  is routinely rebuffed  by the European Union on the matter of a proposed Canada-EU Free Trade agreement.

Similar questions can  be posed  about  the various roles currently performed by Canadian Coast Guard heavy icebreakers to establish their relative value in assuring Canadian sovereignty. That existing CCG heavy icebreakers will need to be replaced is not at issue. The question is: Whether a heavy icebreaker in the Arctic helps to assert Canadian sovereignty.

  •  Are there simpler ways to assert Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic? No. The Canadian Coast Guard is a regular presence in Arctic waters. That alone is an assertion of Canadian sovereignty.

  •  Are there less expensive ways to maintain a Canadian presence in the High Arctic? Not really. CCG heavy icebreakers are essential to the annual northern 'sealift' of supplies (without which, Canada's Arctic communities could not survive).

  •  Won't the RCN's ice-resistant AOPS secure Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic? Well, that was the idea. But AOPS will be able to travel in only the lightest ice (the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker will break multi-year ice up to 2.5m thick). And, besides, DND itself  has concluded that there really is no military threat to Canadian claims in the High Arctic.

Of course, the questions above ignore a host of other roles performed by heavy icebreakers of the Canadian Coast Guard. JSS is meant to have some 'aid to civil authorities' roles as well. We have focused on issues of Canadian sovereignty. If that were the sole criterion, it seems obvious that a new polar heavy icebreaker will do more to help assure Canadian sovereignty by maintaining an 'official' presence in the High Arctic. And, if sovereignty assertion in the protection of Canada's national interests is not the main criterion for a Federal shipbuilding programs, concerned citizens should probably start asking its government why it is not.

[1] 'Feds face tough choice as naval resupply ships, icebreaker on collision course', by Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News, May 7, 2013

[2] That was the MV Terry Fox built in North Vancouver in 1983 ( CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent was built in Montreal in 1969). The Canadian Coast Guard expects its new polar icebreaker to serve until around 2060, ensuring that this 'lack of  recent experience' problem repeats itself.

[3] It doesn't help that the Government of British Columbia has not supported the local yards with new coastal ferry construction for well over a decade.

[4] Canada's other heavy icebreaker, CCGS Terry Fox (originally built for commercial use in the Western Arctic but taken over by the CCG), is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2020.

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