It has recently been announced that, at least provisionally, the Type 26 frigate from BAE Systems has been chosen as the winner of a competition to provide a design for Canada’s next generation of warships. In keeping with the finest traditions of Canadian procurement programs this announcement was followed shortly afterward by a court order to postpone the award of the $60B contract because the warship design selected may not meet the stated requirements.
The Department of Defence (DND) and the government had originally decided that budget constraints necessitated the selection of a "Military Off-The-Shelf" (MOTS) product to limit the risk of escalating costs and delays. In such a competition, a government chooses amongst existing designs. This strategy suggested that a fixed-price contract for an adaptable MOTS product would be pursued.
As James Hasik has pointed out the Type 26 frigate from BAE Systems is not a MOTS product. No Type 26s are yet in service anywhere, so the risks and costs that typically attend the selection of an unproven and untested ship should have been considered as critical determinants in the competitive process.
At this point it would appear that those doing the selection have undermined the integrity of the process by choosing a design which will inescapably multiply the risk, cost and delays to the largest defence procurement in Canada's history.
Warships are expensive investments in national security. Today, a multi-purpose frigate can cost more than $2 billion; a price that most navies find puts constraints on the number of warships which can be procured. This is particularly true of the Royal Canadian Navy which is restricted by government edict to ships built in Canadian ship yards at what are, in international terms, uncompetitive rates.
It has become obvious that Canada will never have the navy which our military professionals believe we need as long as Canadians continue to elect governments which will not budget the amounts necessary to achieve the goals of either self-sufficiency or national security. This is particularly true of governments who prise political expediency over fiscal responsibility.
Given that our navy must be built within the narrow budget allocated for maritime defence the question becomes not “can we build the navy we need” but rather, “what is the best navy we can get for the money available”? This means looking at the mix of ships that budget and personal and politics allow for and deciding which will come closest to achieving the goal of having sufficient naval forces.
Currently the government plans to build 15 surface combatants designed to be capable of meeting multiple threats in both open oceans and complex coastal environments, ensure that Canada continues to monitor and defend its waters and contribute significantly to international naval operations. It has been stated that these ships are to replace the Royal Canadian Navy's Iroquois-class destroyers and Halifax-class frigates. No coherent rational has ever been given to explain how the number of frigates deemed necessary was arrived at. The suspicion is that it is simply the largest number the Navy thought they could get.
The RCN needs more than surface ships however. In order to meet Canada’s defensive needs, the RCN must have an effective submarine capacity. Canadian submarine interests can be divided into three categories: the defence of Canada and North America; supporting Canadian expeditionary deployments; and supporting Canada’s interest in global maritime stability. In the final analysis without submarines Canada cannot have the vital maritime situational awareness as to who is operating in our waters.
According to a 2017 Senate Report “Submarines are likely to remain the dominant naval platform for the foreseeable future, and hence are an essential component of a balanced combat effective navy.” According to that same report “An enhanced submarine capability is vital for the Royal Canadian Navy. The current fleet of four Victoria-class submarines is inadequate to provide an effective presence in three oceans and a much larger fleet is required. Since about one-quarter of any submarine fleet is often in a scheduled refit or maintenance period, only three out of four vessels are operational. This modest capability is divided between two coasts. Moreover, the Victoria-class submarines do not possess an under-ice capability making them an ineffective instrument in Canada’s Arctic. A modern submarine fleet will allow Canada to defend its own coasts, sea lanes, ports and harbours from sea mines and under water threats, while simultaneously contributing to NORAD and NATO operations in a high readiness state.”
Undeterred by these facts it is reported that the government has rejected a Commons defence committee recommendation that the Victoria-class subs be replaced with new submarines capable of under-ice capabilities. They are quoted as saying that: “The government has also committed to modernizing the four Victoria-class submarines to include weapons and sensor upgrades that will enhance the ability of the submarines to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and deliver necessary improvements of platform and combat systems to extend operational capability to the mid-2030’s”.
Writing in the Canadian Naval Review Michael Byers has noted that “Instead of hiding behind another round of refits, the government should face up to the fact that Canada’s submarine capability is running out of time. As Chief of Maritime Staff Paul Maddison told the Senate National Security and Defence Committee in 2012“I would envision initiating a next-generation submarine discussion within the next three or four years to ensure there is no gap in submarine capability, which is what we faced in the 1990s.” In other words, a decision is urgently needed.”
The enforced halt to the Canadian Surface Combatant program may give us a last chance to reconsider the mix of ships appropriate to Canada’s needs and budget. In the same article Byers points out that the cost of a modern submarine is approximately one quarter that of the kinds of frigates Canada is procuring. This would suggest that by cutting just one or two surface ships from our current program of record would give Canada a force of up to 8 modern submarines along with more than a dozen multi-purpose surface warships. Such a force would appear to be at least as useful as, and much more militarily effective than, the force we are currently on track to acquire.
Unfortunately submarines are not built in Canada. Nor, after watching Australia’s example, is it likely that we should wish to do so. It would of course be perfectly possible to purchase submarines from Western allies and ensure that servicing and maintenance could be done in Canada by Canadian based companies.
The reason that this is unfortunate is because it has become obvious that the government regards military procurement programs as job creation programs. As long as the government and the public are content with this state of affairs than there is little hope that a rational and balanced naval fleet can be achieved.
If national security and military efficiency were ever found to be of use in determining military budgets then maintaining an increased submarine fleet, even if at the expense of the surface fleet, would become a valid option.
Lockheed Martin selected as preferred designer for Canada's next generation of warships
Feds ordered to postpone award of $60B contract because warship may not meet requirements such as speed
Commentary: Getting It Right For The RCN And Canadian Taxpayer - By James Hasik
Shipbuilding projects to equip the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard
REINVESTING IN THE CANADIAN ARMED FORCES: A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
Canadian Forces says submarines can operate until mid-2020s - but still no details on how fleet will be upgraded
Canada’s Submarines are Sunk Costs
$100 billion babies: Defence reveals true cost of new submarines for taxpayers
Babcock receives extension to Victoria In-Service Support Contract