By David Pugliese
While the main focus for the country’s shipbuilding strategy is often on the vessels to be constructed for the Royal Canadian Navy, the recapitalization of the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is also playing a major role in that plan.
Under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS), Seaspan in Vancouver is responsible for such non-combat ships. It’s a program that is coming together smoothly, Seaspan Shipyard president Brian Carter told Esprit de Corps.
Construction of the first of the Offshore Fisheries Science Vessels (OFSVs) began at Seaspan in June 2015. Construction of a second ship started in March of this year and the third will begin later this year, Carter explained. “We’ll have one completed next year and then two ready in 2018,” he said.
The ships will be designed to support marine science operations as well as fisheries patrols, in addition to providing support to other government departments. The first ship is to be named CCGS Sir John Franklin.
Carter pointed out that the OFSV is a very complex ship. The 63-metre vessel, designed by Vard Marine, will carry 35 personnel and have a 30-year life.
“It’s unbelievable what we’ve done in four years,” Carter said of the shipyard’s modernization and construction of the first vessels. “We do have some growing pains. But overall, it’s coming together well.”
In addition, Carter said engineering work is now being done on the Offshore Ocean Science Vessel (OOSV), which will be the fourth of the government’s non-combat ships that Seaspan will build.
That ship’s primary role is oceanographic science, but it will have secondary roles to include environmental response, search and rescue (SAR) and support to navigation and maritime security. The OOSV is a unique design, also created by Vard Marine. It will have accommodation for 56 and an endurance of 84 days at sea.
But the jewel in the crown of the Canadian Coast Guard recapitalization is undoubtedly the Polar-class icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker. The ship will replace the Louis St. Laurent, launched almost 50 years ago (that vessel was supposed to be decommissioned in 2000 but has had a refit to extend its life).
Engineering work on the vessel is expected to begin next year, noted Carter.
“We have to get the basics of the design ironed out and locked down,” he explained. “Then we start breaking that apart to efficiently build in our shipyard. At the same time, we’re buying all the equipment. Once we’ve purchased a piece of equipment we can design it into the ship, so that is really a co-ordinated effort.”
Carter noted that the ship will be unique to Canada and its operational needs in the Arctic. The design of the hull form was provided by the Canadian Coast Guard, he added. “Some of the basics of the design are complete,” Carter said. “We worked together on that.”
He said the 150-metre ship will be ready in 2022. Involved in that process is six months for testing of the ship, commissioning as well as training the Coast Guard personnel to operate the vessel. He explained the vessel will be a very capable icebreaker and quite large. “It’s (a) beast of a ship,” Carter said. “It will be quite the flagship for Canada.”
The Canadian Coast Guard recapitalization as well as preparation work for the Royal Canadian Navy’s Joint Support Ship (JSS) has Seaspan progressively hiring more staff. “Things are clipping along,” Carter said. “We have about 420 people in the shipyards today in the trades. By early 2018 we’ll hit about 1,000 tradespeople in the shipyard. Our management team has grown. We have about 375 in the management team as well.”
At this point, Seaspan is one of three shipyards in North America that has three major government shipbuilding design and construction projects active at one time (OFSV, OOSV, and JSS).
By 2017, with engineering work started on the Polar-class icebreaker, it will increase to four projects. “To go from no government shipbuilding to that in just four years is a fantastic achievement for Canada in general,” Carter said.
Recapitalization of the Canadian Coast Guard isn’t just limited to larger ships. The CCG will also receive 27 new vessels to support its search and rescue capability. In July 2015 the Canadian government awarded two contracts totalling $7.6 million to Zodiac Hurricane Technologies of Delta, BC. That was for 18 station-based vessels and nine ship-based vessels.
In addition, the Coast Guard has received new helicopters and expects additional rotary aircraft next year.
Earlier this year Public Services Minister Judy Foote and Jody Thomas, Commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard, accepted the last new light-lift helicopter into the Canadian Coast Guard fleet.
After being awarded a $172 million contract in May 2014, Bell Helicopter Textron Canada Ltd, based in Mirabel, Quebec, completed the delivery of the 15 light-lift helicopters to the Canadian Coast Guard in less than two years, the government noted. The aircraft, Bell 429 helicopters, are already in service. Canada also awarded a contract to Bell Helicopter for seven medium-lift helicopters. Delivery of those Bell 412 EPI models is expected to start in 2017.
The Canadian Coast Guard relies heavily on its helicopters and has broken down its rotary use — 65 per cent of the total flying is for marine traffic safety operations, followed by icebreaking operations which take up 15 per cent. Support to other Coast Guard duties and government departments accounts for another 20 per cent of rotary operations.
The Coast Guard has also taken possession of nine Mid-Shore Patrol Vessels (MSPVs) built by Irving Shipbuilding. The patrol vessels, which are based on the Damen Stan Patrol 4207 design, will conduct maritime security missions on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway as well as fisheries enforcement operations on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. The ships can operate up to 120 nautical miles offshore.
The contract was awarded to Irving Shipbuilding in the summer of 2009, with deliveries completed in 2014.
In February 2016, the CBC reported about problems with faulty wiring and premature corrosion on the Mid-Shore Patrol Vessels (the Hero-class as they are called). Other complaints included polluted water tanks, faulty pipes, and a gearbox failure.
But Irving responded to the CBC report through a statement noting that only “minor and routine” issues have been raised about the MSPV and it has worked with the Coast Guard to deal with those. Irving has also noted that the vessel’s design is a proven one and that it had been certified by experts at Lloyd’s Register and the Canadian government.
But will the current Canadian Coast Guard recapitalization plan be enough?
Not according to a report produced for Transport Canada and released in February. It pointed out the Coast Guard does not have enough personnel and its fleet of ships is quickly aging.
The report noted that unplanned maintenance costs have also significantly increased. “Not only is it understaffed, but its fleet is one of the oldest in the world and urgently requires renewal (individual ships average nearly 34 years of age),” stated the report, by former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson, which looked at Canada’s transportation system. “Without such renewal, it will have to pull ships from service, further reducing reliability.”
The report stated that “The Coast Guard is a first-class organization that has insufficient resources to fulfill its mandate and operates a very old fleet. … With traffic increasing in all areas, it is time that the Coast Guard be properly resourced and equipped to meet the growing challenges that lie ahead, especially in the Arctic, and monitoring the movement of hazardous and noxious substances.”
The report also noted that of the Coast Guard’s 119 vessels, almost 30 per cent of its larger ships are more than 35 years old. Some 60 per cent of its smaller ships are more than 20 years old.
“Under the National Shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy, which requires the Canadian Coast Guard to purchase ships from Canadian shipyards, it can only replace one ship a year, at most,” stated the report. “At that rate, the median age of the fleet will not decrease. Other strategies, such as outsourcing or leasing, are not part of the strategy and thus cannot be deployed to meet short-term requirements.”
Icebreaking capabilities are also decreasing, while maritime activity in the far North is on the rise. Emerson noted that “a clear plan for accelerated fleet renewal and services, including the purchase of a minimum of one polar and two heavy icebreakers” is needed for the Coast Guard.
A lack of money and interest on the part of federal politicians was blamed for the Coast Guard’s problems. “Indeed, for such a critical piece of transportation infrastructure, the Canadian Coast Guard is not receiving the political attention, or the administrative and financial resources it requires,” the report added.
Last year it seemed like the Liberals were keen on boosting the Coast Guard. During the election campaign the party promised as part of its defence/security platform that a Liberal government would “launch enhanced icebreakers.”
There was confusion in government and industry on what this promise actually meant. Did it refer to a new fleet of icebreakers or purchasing additional large Polar-class icebreakers, instead of the single vessel previously promised by the Conservative government?
Defence analysts have argued that a country of Canada’s size needs at the very least a second large-scale icebreaker similar to what Seaspan plans to build.
Government sources, however, have now confirmed that the term “enhanced icebreakers” is simply a reference to what has already been promised under the existing National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.
That means the Coast Guard could be facing more issues in the future.