Harper’s New Flotilla Scuttled

Impolitical may well be onto something with her suspicions of tough financial times ahead dictating the cancellation of two major ship contracts that were announced, heroically as usual, late Friday afternoon. But in the case of one of them at least, there may be another explanation — one that I’m sure will surprise nobody familiar with the arcane mysteries and Byzantine complexities of military procurement.

But first a little background is in order.

The almost $3 billion “Joint Support Ship” (JSS) Project was first announced with great fanfare by the Harper government (then Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor, and Public Works Minister Michael Fortier together with Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier) just before Canada Day 2006 as part of its sweeping program to modernize the Canadian military. The original goal was to obtain three multi-role vessels with substantially more capability than the fleet’s aging Protecteur Class oiler and resupply ships. In addition to being able to provide at-sea support (re-fueling and re-supply) to deployed naval task groups, the new JSS ships were envisioned as being capable of providing sealift operations and support to forces landed ashore.

Four industry teams were pre-qualified to compete for the contract: Irving Shipbuilding; BAE Systems (Project) Limited (BAE Systems Naval Ships); ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems AG; and SNC-Lavalin Profac Inc. Eventually, this was pared down to two groups that were awarded contracts for the “project definition phase” and would then be in competition for the final Implementation contract.

Fast-forward just a little over two years and $25 million later and the government determined that the proposals from the two Canadian consortiums were “noncompliant.” It seems that the JSS budget was insufficient to build the three vessels envisioned and attempts to obtain additional funding for the project were unsuccessful. With its plans in disarray, the government frantically explored the possibility of contracting the work to Dutch shipbuilders — makers of the highly-regarded Rotterdam Class “Landing Ship Dock” (LSDs) — but quickly ran into furious political opposition from the Canadian shipbuilding industry. And so, with Friday’s announcement that the JSS contract has been cancelled, things are back to square one.

Now why, you might naturally ask, were the two bids from the “project definition phase” deemed to be “noncompliant”? We can’t say for sure, but an opinion piece from Defense Industry Daily dated the week after the project was first announced provides the most likely answer:

Candidly, the record for small to mid-size powers attempting to develop new military technologies is not all that good. Engineering is a challenging art at the best of times, and military projects are more demanding than most because of the myriad of parts to integrate and the advanced (and hence often new and unproven) nature of the technologies. Add local unfamiliarity into the mix, and the result is inevitably schedule slips and cost overruns – often significant slips, and major cost overruns.

Given the limited procurement resources of small to medium powers, such projects can easily threaten to swallow entire service procurement budgets. Cancellation means millions or even billions of scarce dollars has been flushed down the toilet and wasted. On the other hand, continuing the program may break one’s military as other areas are starved to pay for it – all with no guarantee of success.

Canada’s Joint Support Ships …conform to no known ship type in their breadth of required functions, and are based on no pre-existing class. The firms competing for the design are not world leaders in similar ship classes like amphibious assault ships or LPDs. Nor does the depth of Canadian design and build experience in related efforts give cause for optimism; quite the reverse. Indeed, the JSS’ breadth of functions alone suggests a difficult project for any entity or country to undertake, and little hope of much beyond mediocrity in all functions due to the required trade-offs.

The editorial goes on note that critics of the project had suggested that JSS was “set up to become a budget-eating failure” and that rather than the “unwieldy JSS idea” the navy would have been better served with a different combination of available technologies that “would leverage successful R&D efforts, and spend more money on cutting steel and floating boats, as opposed to pursuing paper visions that risk sucking up vast resources and producing inferior products – or no products as all.”

Rather prophetic, wouldn’t you say?

Update: In addition to some highly insightful remarks in the comments here, Dave has much more to say about this over at The Galloping Beaver in addition to some well-informed speculation about the Destroyer Replacement project, which it’s felt “is also going to find itself swirling around the drain” before too long. As Dave suggests, the sinking of the JSS project puts the concept behind Harper’s highly ambitious “Canada First” plan at serious risk of being scrapped.

14 Replies to “Harper’s New Flotilla Scuttled”

  1. Not a surprise given the military procurement story in Canada for the past decade.

    Chretien scuttles Campbell’s helicopters as a promise made during the election campaign. The money remaining after paying for the cancellation costs went to the four Victoria class submarines. Not sure which procurement project was better for the Canadian navy.

    Now, a major project for Canada’s defence of the Arctic is now put into the backburner.

    Conservative governments since Diefenbaker have always feel the Arctic is a defence priority. So PM Stevie is merely following a political tradition.

    If there is further blame, you can also consider the Afghanistan mission as the financial strain that killed this project. The money spent in the deployment for the next three years could have gone to the flotilla.

  2. Fuck it. I’m seriously tempted to go burn my CPC card now.

    I expect the the Blogging Tories will concern themselves with blowing Mark Steyn or how Islam is going to take away our semen stained copies of Atlas Shrugged (how Insite is going to turn our children into SHIFTLESS NEGRO COMMUNISTS – I just saw this argument on SDA haha oh god).

  3. This has always been the problem with the Canadian Navy.

    It’s not that we can’t build decent ships, it’s that on every outing we seem to have an innate desire to create something unique…. every single time.

    The Canadian Patrol Frigate is a good example. The platform ended up with systems purchased offshore for the most part. But for some reason, instead of buying a license to build an existing design and then producing it to Canadian standards, we had to create something distinctly Canadian. The result was a platform which was considerably more expensive than it should have been, systems which suffered from integration problems and basic ship technology which had been “cheaped out” by the contractor in order to stay within the defined budget and still see a profit.

    By way of further example, the fact that the CPF was fitted with other than stainless steel valves underscores the attempts to deliver something that looked fancy but suffered from persistent and unnecessary problems.

    The JSS was doomed to failure from its inception and, as I pointed out earlier today, was not what the navy actually wanted.

  4. RT,

    Thanks for the information, I was wondering what lay beneath the ridiculously poor media explanations.

    It’s a good thing it got cancelled. But given that, where are we then?

    Rent boats/ships/yachts/vessels from the Russians?

    If we rented boats from the American’s, everybody and their dog would scream bloody murder.

    Do we need boats?

  5. Dave — Thanks a lot for the further insight into this. I’d be curious to know what drives the compulsion to always design/build something unique that you’ve mentioned. I can see why our requirements may be different in some respects, but not the point of such a radical departure from convention. It seems our imagination exceeds our financial capacity.

  6. Tomm — I don’t think anyone is suggesting “renting” ships from anybody. That would be fairly absurd. The heavy-lift aircraft were kind of different in that regard because it actually makes sense: infrequent use, readily available (it’s not that hard to rent an Antanov, project logistics companies do it all the time) and an good cost/benefit return.

    Obviously, the procurement process is broken. I think everyone would agree with that.

  7. Thanks a lot for the further insight into this. I’d be curious to know what drives the compulsion to always design/build something unique that you’ve mentioned.

    You’ve obviously never been on a committee with young and overly-ambitious engineers.

  8. The procurement process used by the Federal government has been cumbersome for many years. I don’t think Chuck Guite’s song and dance was helpful.

    Do we order “off the shelf”?

    Are we talking 10 years for delivery?

    There are a lot of unknowns and that need to be explored. I like the idea of a public discussion on the options.

  9. Regarding purchases being made “off the shelf” it seems that we always end up modifying them to “Canadian standards” which may be legitimate in some cases, but more often I suspect, is a way of ensuring that domestic fabricators get a cut of the action.

  10. Ti-Guy — No, I haven’t. But I have been on committees with young, overly-ambitious software designers and programmers seeking to build either something completely fantastic (literally) or “best of breed” (so they’d like to think), so I get your drift.

  11. But I have been on committees with young, overly-ambitious software designers and programmers…

    …often called computer engineers.

  12. Major defence procurement is hopelessly broken because of politics.

    It is a requirement of all big DND projects to provide some finanical benefits to all regions of the country.

    To do that many of these projects become Christmas Trees where everybody and their brother adds ornaments to it until it inevitably collapses under its own wait. Of course, not before great gobs of money have already been spent on it.

    As long as governments use big defence procurement projects as vote buying devices first and projects to meet the operational needs of the military somewhere around 15th we can expect more of the same.

  13. It seems our imagination exceeds our financial capacity

    That’s generally a part of the case, however there is always a political angle. In the 1970s it was “Our navy is too British” therefore build something distinctly Canadian. Coupled with that is a deeply ingrained desire to steer well clear of US ship design and appearance.

    Perhaps it has something to do with a sense of national identity but there has always been a fear among their Lordships in the red brick buildings that Canada would lose its capacity to build warships.

    In truth, the CPF project proved that such capability had already waned. I lost count of the number of times I heard, “We don’t have the industrial base to produce that complete system,” when referring to the requirement to have something readily available elsewhere designed and built in Canada.

    There are also the offsetting requirements by government. Such expensive projects generate demands that the money stay in Canada. In the case of the CPF there was, (as I believe existed in two previous shipbuilding projects), the desire to produce a ship which other middle-power navies would drool over and perhaps order.

    That has never happened, and in the case of the CPF, that build was competing with a NATO-wide project known as NRF90, a failed attempt to produce a patrol frigate which could be built in any NATO country, employ standard systems and allow greater interoperability.

    When we do develop a unique and desirable ship, we tend not to follow through properly and let others walk away with the technology. HMCS Bras D’Or, a prototype anti-submarine hydrofoil, being the most glaring example.

    Back then, it was maddening. Now, it’s just sad.

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