Shine is off ship strategy

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor

In his latest report, auditor general Michael Ferguson detailed how the government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy could end up putting the Royal Canadian Navy at risk of shrinking in size, having a reduced capability or both.

In a defence procurement environment that has been plagued by massive blunders and controversies in the past few years, the Conservatives always held up the strategy as a shield to deflect criticism.

Sure, the Defence Department may have severely misjudged the actual cost of the joint strike fighter purchase and had to push the “reset” button on the program to replace our CF-18 fighter jets, but hey, look at the success of the ship building strategy.

We may have just celebrated the fact that we are still flying 50-year-old Sea King helicopters and the Sikorsky Cyclones meant to replace them are still undelivered — 12 years into a four-year delivery date. Not only that, but cost overruns on the project are through the roof, but hey, the Conservatives are delivering on the ship building strategy.

The military procurement process has bungled, stopped, started and restarted the purchase of 108 close combat vehicles without yet announcing a decision. This has become an international embarrassment, but never mind, the Conservatives are on target with the ship building strategy.

Now Ferguson comes along and tells us the success associated with the ship building strategy is of mythical proportions, almost as enormous as the monumental price tag.

For years, the Conservatives hyped the ship building strategy as a nation-building project that would not only refurbish our entire navy but, at the same time, revive our status as a shipbuilding maritime nation.

Like a massive dangling carrot, the Conservatives talked about a whopping $34-billion budget over 30 years to build some 30 ships. These vessels would range from major new supply ships for the navy to small auxiliary ships of the Canadian Coast Guard.

The first step in the process was for the government to choose the two shipyards that would be the primary beneficiaries of this massive cash infusion. Given what this would mean in terms of long-term, high-tech jobs, the provincial governments backed their respective shipyards’ lobbying efforts.

All of Nova Scotia, outside a handful of well-intentioned peace protesters, backed Irving Shipbuilding Inc., Quebec rallied behind Davie Shipyards and in British Columbia Seaspan Shipyards was the local favourite.

In the end, amid a whole lot of backslapping and self-congratulation on a well-run competition, the Conservatives announced that Irving and Seaspan were the two big winners.

That was back in October 2011. Since that heady celebration, not a whole lot of steel has been cut, not a single keel has been laid and no jobs have been created.

Then comes this report from Ferguson that points to the very process of the National Ship Building Strategy as the root cause of the problem.

By announcing the government’s intention to buy various numbers of certain types of ships, the initial costs were based on “rough estimates” to say the least.

Even those original price tags are well out of date when one takes into account rising costs of raw materials, labour and the various enhancements to military equipment that have developed in the interim.

As a result, Ferguson concluded that trade-offs have already been made to keep the acquisition of new supply ships and the Arctic Offshore Patrol vessels within budget.

More importantly, the Conservatives have not budgeted enough money to replace the Royal Canadian Navy’s current fleets of destroyers and frigates.

In other words, despite the much publicized commitment of such a sizable amount of money — and let’s not forget that $34 billion is a lot of money — the navy will likely continue to shrink and make do with inferior equipment.

It should be remembered that the current fleet size is already considerably reduced from what was originally planned. When Canada ordered the 12 city-class (now Halifax-class) frigates back in the 1980s, there was an option to build an additional six patrol frigates. When that fell through, the plan was to build six ocean-going corvettes to replace them. That project simply faded away with time.

Of the four Tribal-class destroyers that were upgraded and modernized in the early 1990s, only two remain in service. Not so long ago, the navy had three aging supply ships. Now they have just two.

As for submarines, there once was a plan to purchase 12 nuclear-powered boats, but this plan got scrapped and we settled for four used British diesel electric subs.

The list goes on, but it is safe to say that according to the attorney general’s predictions, the so-called “decade of darkness” will soon be viewed as a veritable “heyday” by the future Royal Canadian Navy.