BY DAVID PUGLIESE
The Canadian navy’s $2.9 billion project to replace its aging supply ships has run aground with defence and industry officials concluding that the vessels can’t be bought with the amount of money the Conservative government is providing.
Defence department representatives have met with Treasury Board to ask for more money for the Joint Support Ship project but at this point it is unclear whether additional funds will be approved.
The JSS project, as it is called, was announced in Halifax in June 2006 by Public Works Minister Michael Fortier and then defence minister Gordon O’Connor. The new vessels are to replace the navy’s aging supply ships which are considered vital to supporting destroyers and frigates for long periods at sea.
The project will acquire three new vessels as well hire a company to conduct in-service support for the ships over a 20-year-period.
The Conservatives used the JSS project to kick off the equipment portion of its Canada First Defence Strategy two years ago, heralding the event as a new beginning for transforming the Canadian military for the future. At the time Mr. O’Connor said the JSS project showed the Conservative government was “committed to getting the right equipment for the Canadian Forces, at the right price for Canadians, with the right benefits for Canadian industry.”
The problems with the JSS, however, are the latest to affect the Canada First Defence Strategy. Last week the strategy became mired in controversy after Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced further details of the long-term plan but was later contradicted by government officials on the cost of various equipment programs. That prompted opposition MPs to accuse the Conservatives of low-balling the cost of new military gear by tens of billions of dollars.
Other opposition MPs said there was no way the government could guarantee the funding for various equipment programs would be available that far into the future.
The $2.1 billion set aside for buying three Joint Support Ships is not enough, confirm defence officials. They point out that part of the problem is that the new vessels would conduct missions far beyond the scope of re-supplying warships at sea, the role now done by the decades-old Protecteur-class ships.
Besides supplying ships, the JSS will have to carry army vehicles, a command centre and a small hospital as well as other facilities to support ground troops on shore. There is no similar type of ship like it in the world as most navies use two types of vessels to do the two distinct roles.
Defence officials have heard from industry that the money set aside by the government might be enough for two ships, not three. A minimum of three ships is needed because of the size of the territory covered by the navy and the fact that at times one ship could be sidelined for maintenance.
The Defence Department declined to provide comment and referred questions to Public Works and Government Services Canada. That department, however, also declined to discuss the ongoing problems with the JSS.
“As the procurement process has not been completed yet, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” said Lucie Brosseau, a Public Works spokeswoman.
The first ship is supposed to be delivered sometime in 2012 but it’s unclear at this point whether that schedule will be kept.
Liberal senator Colin Kenny said too many capabilities are expected from the ships for the budget the government approved. “Having some kind of replenishment capability for the navy is vital so this is a serious issue,” said Mr. Kenny, chairman of the senate’s committee on national defence and security.
He noted that having just two ships would be unacceptable and unworkable in that one vessel is often docked for regular maintenance.
Negotiations between Treasury Board and the Defence Department are expected to continue.
The new ships will be around 200 meters in length and have a displacement of 28,000 metric tonnes.
Defence chief Gen. Rick Hillier views the ships as key to the future of the Canadian Forces, not just to support the navy in its missions. He has said the JSS would be used to provide support to international operations for the other services as well. “The ships will provide the vital lifeline of supply and support to other Canadian navy ships as well as to army and air force assets in certain deployed operations,” Gen. Hillier has said. “A key component of the Canadian Forces transformation, the ships will help build a truly ‘joint’ navy, army and air force capability.”
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