By David Pugliese
Quebec-based Chantier Davie is providing a unique solution to the Royal Canadian Navy in the form of a converted civilian vessel and a leasing agreement. The result will allow the RCN to replenish its ships at sea as early as next year.
With the unveiling of the MV Asterix, the Royal Canadian Navy has ended its supply ship capability gap it has faced for several years.
The Asterix was unveiled on July 20 at the Chantier Davie Canada yards in Lévis, Quebec in front of RCN and Canadian Armed Forces senior leaders as well as federal, provincial and municipal politicians.
Speakers at the event included Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development; Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy; Jean D’Amour, Québec’s Minister of Maritime Affairs; Gilles Lehouillier, Mayor of Lévis; Jacques Létourneau, President, Confédération des syndicats nationaux; and Alex Vicefield, Chairman of Davie.
Davie’s 1,369 staff, together with over 900 Canadian suppliers, spent just under two years on this Resolve-class naval support ship that will enter into service with the Royal Canadian Navy by the end of 2017, Davie officials noted.
The $670-million project will provide the RCN with its own capability to refuel and resupply its warships for the first time since 2015 (both HMCS Preserver and Protecteur performed their final sea-going services in 2014). Since the retirement of its own aging resupply vessels, Canada has leased the services of Chilean and Spanish navy supply ships at various times.
The Resolve-class naval support ship will be the largest naval platform in service with the RCN for the foreseeable future and will provide a wide range of functions from at-sea replenishment of fuels and cargo to aviation support, fleet medical support as well as humanitarian and disaster relief, Davie officials pointed out.
The project involved the conversion of a modern, European-built containership into an auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) ship. The concept of converting a containership into a naval fleet auxiliary ship is not a new one, Davie officials point out. It has been performed on several occasions over the past decades for both the Royal Navy and United States Navy. But it is the first time that a commercial vessel has been converted to conduct refuelling and resupply operations for the Canadian Armed Forces, noted defence analyst Martin Shadwick, who teaches at York University in Toronto.
“We’re extraordinarily proud that we’re delivering the next naval support ship for Canada,” Spencer Fraser, chief executive officer of Federal Fleet Services, said in an interview. “It’s a cost-effective initiative. We’re delivering a capability at a quarter of the price.”
Federal Fleet Services, a sister company of Chantier Davie Canada, is overseeing the provision of the ship to the RCN. The vessel was designed by NavTech, a leading Canadian naval architecture firm, and Rolls Royce Marine.
Under a lease agreement, Federal Fleet Services will provide the ship and a civilian crew to operate the vessel. Royal Canadian Navy personnel would be on board to handle communications and the actual transfer of supplies and fuel to warships. The lease would run for five years, with an option after that to extend it on a yearly basis for a total of another five years. The Government of Canada also has an option to buy the vessel at the end of the 10 years.
The price tag includes the conversion of Asterix, the lease of its services to the Royal Canadian Navy for five years, maintenance and the salaries of a civilian crew to operate the vessel.
Asterix will be able to carry two Royal Canadian Air Force CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters and also have medical facilities on board. In addition, it has space for light armoured vehicles and other equipment.
“The success and affordability of this first ship is proof of what Canada’s largest, longest established and highest capacity shipbuilder is capable,” Davie Chairman Alex Vicefield said in a statement.
Davie officials point out that the program involves three levels of innovation for Canada. Firstly, instead of building a ship from new, a modern containership was converted into a state-of-the-art naval support ship. Secondly, the ship has been privately financed by Davie and leased to Canada — this means a fixed, transparent cost to the Canadian taxpayer, the company noted. Thirdly, as highlighted previously, Federal Fleet Services will operate the ship with a mixed crew of merchant seafarers and Royal Canadian Navy personnel.
Vice Admiral Ron Lloyd, head of the RCN, said in an earlier interview with Esprit de Corps that the service is looking at stationing Asterix on the West Coast. The vessel is expected to accompany Canadian warships next year on RIMPAC 2017, one of the major exercises involving the Canadian military and its allies in the Pacific Ocean.
Currently, the Canadian government is only committed to the one interim supply ship, but Federal Fleet Services is prepared to provide a second on short notice if needed.
In May, the Senate’s defence committee recommended the federal government not only buy Asterix but order a second vessel of the same type by 2018.
“This will provide Canada with four supply ships, two AORs by 2018 (one on each coast) and another two, when the Joint Supply Ships are delivered by Seaspan,” the Senate report noted. “These four ships also possess a modest secondary capacity to support forces ashore and can therefore significantly enhance the Navy’s ability to respond to humanitarian emergencies. By basing these four ships, two on each coast, the government will be able to significantly bolster the government’s desire to contribute to peace support and humanitarian operations.”
It is unclear at this point, however, about whether the acquisition of a second Resolve-class is being considered.
Department of National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire has noted that besides providing resupply at sea, the Asterix would allow the Navy’s personnel to maintain their skills in key areas until the Joint Support Ships arrive.
Fraser has indicated the Resolve-class project has attracted the interest of foreign navies. As the vessel starts operating by the end of this year that international interest will likely increase.