By David Pugliese
Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd said that, at this point, the RCN is looking at stationing the interim auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) ship on the West Coast.
“Initially our thoughts are if you needed to cross the Pacific and you wanted to do that as a sovereign nation and not be dependent or if you need to get there in a hurry, then the interim AOR would probably be best placed in the Pacific,” Lloyd explained in an interview with Esprit de Corps. “So that is what our current intent is.”
The Canadian government decided to proceed with the conversion of the commercial container ship MV Asterix after the navy’s existing two supply vessels — HMC Ships Preserver and Protecteur — were pulled from active service because of age and structural issues.
Under a lease agreement, Federal Fleet Services (formerly Project Resolve) would 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 conversion project and lease of the vessel is estimated to cost about $700 million. The lease would run for five years, with an option after that to extend on a yearly basis for a total of another five years.
The ship is being created by converting a commercial vessel, the MV Asterix. The work is being done at Chantier Davie’s shipyard in Levis, Quebec.
“With Federal Fleet Services we think we’re bringing an innovative way to do business with the Crown,” explained Spencer Fraser, the firm’s CEO. “Basically, we’ve broken the mould. We think that is good.”
John Schmidt, a vice-president with Federal Fleet Services in Ottawa, said delivery of the ship to the RCN is on schedule for September 2017. The company is motivated to keep its schedule because it doesn’t receive any payment until the vessel is delivered, he added.
After it’s converted, the Asterix will be able to accommodate a crew of 200 as well as helicopters.
Currently, the Canadian government is only committed to one interim supply ship, but Federal Fleet Services is prepared to provide a second on short notice if needed. The firm announced in May that it had begun cutting steel for what is being called the Resolve-class ship.
This is the first time that a commercial vessel is to be used to conduct such operations, noted Canadian defence analyst Martin Shadwick.
Department of National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire also pointed out the Asterix would allow the navy’s personnel to maintain their skills in key areas until the Joint Support Ships (JSS) arrive. The Asterix would be used until the arrival of the second JSS in 2021, she added.
Although the previous Conservative government approved the project, the Liberal government decided to put a temporary freeze on it last fall when it studied whether it should proceed. The Liberal government’s decision to freeze the project on November 19 met with immediate resistance. Quebec’s Premier Philippe Couillard pointed out that 250 workers had already been hired and another 500 were soon to be employed. Quebec, he said, would not accept the loss of a $700 million contract. Quebec’s 40 Liberal members of Parliament started feeling the heat from various groups in the province.
But faced with the urgent requirement to secure an interim at-sea resupply and refuelling capability for its navy, the Canadian government announced November 30 it would proceed with the project. Restarting the process to acquire an interim supply ship to fill the Joint Support Ship gap, would take too much time, the Liberal government determined.
“If we restarted this initiative by launching a competition, we would lose precious time in providing the Navy with a critical refuelling and naval support capability,” Public Services Minister Judy Foote and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan noted in a statement.
Federal Fleet Services has also pointed out that the interim AOR will provide the Canadian Armed Forces with the ability to respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions. The company noted the ship will have specific HADR capabilities including: a humanitarian processing area for triage and care of evacuees/survivors; a large medical facility for up to 60 patients in two separate wards; emergency accommodation for up to 350 people (in addition to the ship’s current 150-person capacity); a ship-shore airlift capability via the two embarked CH-148 Cyclone helicopters; a significant small craft capability that includes up to eight boats with quick launch and recovery capabilities; the ability to sustain the delivery over 400 tons/day of fresh water and up to 7,000 tons of fuel oil; as well as the transportation and self-sufficient loading and unloading of light vehicles, sea containers and general cargo that are essential for HADR missions.
In late June Chantier Davie shipyards and its sister company Federal Fleet Services gathered Canadian firms in Ottawa so they could outline disaster-relief equipment available for the ship.
The ship’s main role is to refuel and resupply warships at sea. But the RCN has also said it wants the vessel to have capabilities for humanitarian missions, although it has not outlined many specifics.
In addition, the Liberal government has said it wants the Canadian military to play more of a role in disaster and humanitarian missions.
“Canada has a lot of companies who are leaders in technology who can meet these demands, but they have never had the opportunity to bid to the Canadian government,” Schmidt explained.
He noted the ship has a lot of flexibility since it can carry several dozen sea containers of emergency equipment. It can also provide medical assistance and has room for more than 200 passengers for a disaster-relief operation.
Fraser, the company’s CEO, said the interim AOR project has attracted the interest of foreign navies. “We now have two foreign countries interested in our design,” he said. “One is looking at potentially buying a sister ship once we’ve proven the capabilities.”