Canada’s Supply Ship Problem

By Shaun McDougall, Military Markets Analyst, Forecast International.

HMCS Preserver. Source, Dept of National Defense

HMCS Preserver. Source, Dept of National Defense

The Royal Canadian Navy recently hired a barge to transport fuel into the Arctic for two of its maritime coastal defense vessels on patrol in the northern waters. The barge was also used to resupply the ships, according to service officials. The Navy has also been utilizing a Chilean Navy supply ship to resupply its west coast fleet, spending CAD6 million for 40 days of access to Chile’s Almirante Montt over the summer. Canada is working on a similar agreement with Spain to support the east coast fleet later in the year. Why is Canada going through all of this effort to utilize outside resources to supply its own fleet? The answer is simple – Canada no longer has supply ships to do the job.

Canada’s existing supply ships were expected to remain in service until around 2017, at which point the Navy would face a supply capability gap until a follow-on entered service.  Problems with the ships and a lack of funding to address the issues have resulted in the fleet being decommissioned ahead of schedule, leaving the Navy without a way to supply its own ships at sea.  HMCS Protecteur was damaged in a February 2014 engine fire, and the Navy discovered severe corrosion problems on Preserver.  In fall 2014, Navy officials said the ships would not be deployed again.

The replacement program, known as the Joint Support Ship, is now years behind schedule, exacerbating the problem. The JSS program was initially launched in 2004, but that effort was abandoned in 2008 when the costs of the proposals from the shipbuilding industry turned out to be significantly higher than what the government had anticipated. The program was relaunched, and Canada has selected an off-the-shelf ship design from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems Canada, based on the Berlin class replenishment ship. The Navy will buy two ships, with an option for a third. The program remains overly expensive given the capability being acquired.

The first Queenston class JSS is not expected to be operational until 2021, which is a long time to go without an indigenous maritime supply capability. Earlier this summer, the Canadian government announced that it had begun discussions with Chantier Davie shipyard in Quebec to determine if the shipbuilder could provide an interim supply capability by converting a commercial ship for military use. Davie purchased the German-built Asterix container ship for this effort.

The Navy will lease the ship once conversion is complete, but the government has not announced how long this lease will run. Options will be included to extend the lease if necessary. The Navy needs two supply ships to support its east and west coast fleets, so a second interim ship is a possibility. Otherwise, Canada will have to continue relying on foreign navies to support one of its fleets. Short-term leasing agreements for foreign ships will also continue until the interim capability is delivered, leaving Canada unprepared to support emergency operations.

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