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.