Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Honourable Robert Nicholson, Minister of National Defence

Our newly minted Minister of National Defence is undoubtedly feeling a little shell shock at this point. The briefings from his officials can look painfully negative and the potential for disaster must seem to be lurking around every corner. This is the first in an occasional series of letters to the Minister in which we will attempt to lighten his load with our incisive, and no doubt much appreciated, advice.

The Honourable Robert Nicholson, Minister of National Defence
National Defence Headquarters
Major-General George R. Pearkes Building
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0K2

Dear Bob,

I am sure that one of the things you are learning about your new appointment is that in the Defence portfolio it never rains but it pours. Ironically this describes both the weather and your naval situation on the West coast.

A weekend collision involving HMCS Algonquin and HMCS Protecteur will, as any number of  media outlets are so fond of pointing out, "quite seriously compromise" the country's naval readiness on the West Coast, especially in light of continuing repairs to HMCS Winnipeg, which was rammed by an American fishing trawler in a separate accident last spring.

Some of the memos you are seeing are even suggesting that the benefits of returning the 40-year-old destroyer to service may not outweigh the cost of retiring the ship. However this would leave you with no destroyer, with its area defence anti-aircraft weaponry and command and control capabilities in the Pacific. This in turn leaves you with the politically sensitive option of moving one of your remaining two destroyers from Halifax to Esquimalt. Of course by politically sensitive I mean you would be able to hear the screaming of local politicians in Halifax all the way from Ottawa.

I am afraid that this is only the beginning of your problems. Canada, as you are no doubt being tutored by your officials, traditionally builds warships in big batches every twenty to thirty years. When the last batch that was built finally wears out another new, big and expensive batch is built, and then everyone takes a deep breath and hopes the whole complicated mess doesn’t come around again while they are in office.

To be fair, the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) you inherited, although it’s technically a Public Works and Government Services Canada program, was, at least partly, designed to change all this. Somebody realized that re-inventing the wheel every couple of decades was not the most efficient use of resources. Given that the Navy needs thirty or fourty ships and that they last thirty or fourty years it isn’t hard to figure out that building around one ship a year would be just about right.

The nice thing about this is that there are more “announceables” for everybody, and the costs don’t sound as bad when you split them up by ship rather then having to talk about program costs. It all sounds good, but as you are discovering, you still have the problem of all those ships that were built twenty and fourty years ago (and even  longer in some cases) that are all wearing out at once. If you replace them one a year for the next twenty years you are going to have some lovely antiques in service, assuming of course that they are still seaworthy, by the time the last one is replaced.

There is a way around this dilemma. You can buy or lease, used ships. Now I know what your thinking, “What about those fricking submarines! The press will eat me alive if I buy more used lemons”. Well first off, the subs aren’t really lemons, just expensive and tricky, but I admit you’ll never get your critics to admit that. You’ll also hear from the “it must be built in Canada” brigade, which includes some of your cabinet colleagues.

One option in this situation is to play the “only the best for our boys (and girls) in uniform” card. Another is to point out that buying a cheap ship or two now will leave some money left over for somebody else's pet project in the future.

Most important, from your point of view, you’ll buy time to get a rational ship building program in place. Right now the government is being forced to decide between icebreakers and support ships, it’s a lose-lose. But if you can buy or lease a few used, or in the case of Karel Doorman hardly used at all, support ships you break the log-jam and you get to be the hero.

Remember Bob, we’re all pulling for you.

Canadian Defence Matters