As James Parker observes at Frontline Defence, it is hard to procure warships. As he points out complexity and costs will only increase in the future. Factors driving these costs include: last minute contract and design changes requested by the purchasing governments; system integration complexities due to emerging technologies; strained relationships between civilian and government work forces; and variations in resource cost between the time of requirement identification and contract signing.
In designing the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) the government of the day was trying, among other things, to maintain in-depth and in-house expertise in war vessel design and construction by avoiding the need to ramp-up an idle naval industry every few decades to build a couple of complex warships.
This is an admirable goal which it was hoped could be achieved by combining the construction of all government fleets so as to reach a ‘steady state’ of building which delivered a new warship, or Coastguard vessel, every year or so. What the current government is discovering is that the cost of following this model is an aging navy in which warships, which were purchased in a block buy over a shorter period of time, are not being replaced as they reach the end of their design lives.
In fact the Liberals have promised to streamline building of navy frigates, but are not clear on the number of ships to be acquired or how much they will cost. As unlikely as it sounds, the government says that they are committed to purchasing an undetermined number of warships for a price, which will include designing and eventually building the new warships, that will be negotiated through the prime contractor, Irving Shipbuilding of Nova Scotia, at a later date.
It seems unlikely that any entity other than a government would agree to purchase an unknown number of anything for an unknown price, but perhaps it is necessary to move the process along.
As Parker notes, certain obstacles to timely warship procurement are common. Some of the more frequent include last minute contract and design changes requested by the purchasing governments as well as system integration complexities due to emerging technologies. Add to this the fact that the period of time from the decision to construct a ship to actually having a ship can take years making it impossible to keep up with technological advances, let alone integrate them, during that time period.
Given these factors it is imperative that any warships that Canada does build include provisions for modality, a suitable growth margin and enough flexibility built in to them to allow for the demands of evolving technology and political requirements.
One way to try to increase the speed at which warships could be procured would be to build the hulls of the flexible warships describe above equipped with an existing sensor and weapons suite. Such a system is available in the Halifax-class Modernization / Frigate Life Extension program.
The HCM/FELEX project, along with other separately-funded projects within the Halifax-Class Modernization program, brings enhanced capabilities which the Navy believes will meet the needs required by new threats and changing operating environments. These include systems include:
A new command and control system;
New radar suite;
Interrogator Friend or Foe Mode S/5;
Internal communications system upgrade;
Harpoon missile system upgrade (surface to surface); and
Electronic warfare system upgrade;
Long-range infrared search and track system (SIRIUS); and
Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (surface to air).
By using these proven and in service systems as the basis for a ‘first flight’ of new Canadian warships many of the delays inherent in acquiring all new systems and their subsequent integration could be avoided.
Modern warships have a life-span that often exceeds thirty years. In that time they can expect to be updated and refitted on a regular basis. New Canadian frigates equipped in the same manner as our current Halifax class could be updated with newer systems over the course of their service, but in the meantime they would be available in a timely manner.
Why is it So Hard to Procure a Warship? By James Parker
The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy: A Five-Year Assessment
Cost and Canadian content concerns hover over warship plans By Murray Brewster
THE DUAL MONOPOLY DILEMMA
Halifax-class Modernization / Frigate Life Extension