Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Supply ships: "Common sense" vs. "Duh..."

HMCS Protecteur being towed by USNS Sioux

The Canadian Navy's two Protecteur-class replenishment ships are done.  After 45 years of faithful service, HMCS Protecteur suffered an engine room fire off the coast of Hawaii and needed to be towed back to port.  Her sister ship, the HMCS Preserver, is not doing much better.  In 2011, it smashed into a Halifax dock causing over a half-million dollars in damages.  Both ships have been plagued with electrical problems.

These ships are no longer just "showing their age".  One of these ships is now officially dead with the other on life support.  Recently, it was announced that both ships have sailed their last journeys, along with the similar vintaged HMCS Iroquois and HMCS Algonquin destroyers.  This is just as well, as the two Protecteur-class ships were beginning to wear out there welcome in many ports thanks to their monohull design.

The Queenston-class

These two ships have served Canada well, but they have earned their rest.

Unfortunately, construction of the Protecteur-class replacement ships, the Queenston-class HMCS Queenston and HMCS Châteauguay, will not begin until late 2016.  That means they will not be ready for service until 2020 at the earliest.  (Funny how a lot of Canada's military procurements have been put off until the the 2020s...)

With no replenishment ships, and the retirement of two destroyers, Canada will have a diminished "blue water" navy in the upcoming years.

That is...  Unless...

"Oh look, it's the USS Bridge...  AND ITS FOR SALE!"
As timing would have it, the United States Navy has recently been forced to decommission some of its ships due to deep sequestration cuts.  Two of these, the Supply-class USS Rainier and the USS Bridge, just so happen to be two of the USN's newest replenishment ships.  The reasoning behind this is that these two ships known as "fast combat support ships" and are more costly to operate than older replenishment ships.  The youngest of the fleet, the USS Bridge, should be retired as you read this.  Her sister ship, the USS Rainier, will be held in reserve for the next year.

Canada finds itself short two supply ships at the same time the USN retires two of hers?  The solution seems obvious.

Indeed it is.  The Royal Canadian Navy is contemplating leasing or purchasing the USS Bridge in order to fill the gap left by the Protecteur-class.  This would seem to be a "no-brainer", but there are a few issues to consider.  For one, the Supply-class ships are quite a bit larger, being 60 meters longer and about twice the displacement.  There is also the issue of operating costs.  The Rainier and Bridge are turbine powered, giving them impressive speed at the cost of fuel consumption.  The Rainier and Bridge require far less manpower, however, needing a crew of about 200 (same as the upcoming Queenston-class) as opposed to the Protecteur-class's 290.

If the sizes and operating costs are manageable, then the most prudent course of action would be to not only lease, but purchase both Supply-class vessels.  Once this is done, either cancel or indefinitely postpone construction of the Queenston-class.

The reasoning is simple.  Both the Rainier and the Bridge are young vessels, commissioned in 1995 and 1998, respectively.  If they match the lifespan of the recently retired Protecteur, than both will soldier on until at least 2040.  More than likely, they are capable of operating well into the 2050s and beyond.  Compared to the Berlin-class (from which the Queenston-class will be based), the Supply-class is faster, more heavily armed, and has roughly twice the fuel carrying capacity.

The Supply-class may indeed seem like overkill for Canada's more modest navy, but I would argue otherwise.  Canada's enormous coastline dictates erring on the side of "too much" rather than "too little".  Also, the importance of being able to contribute such an impressive resource into a coalition force should not be underestimated.

What to buy with the money we save:  The Mistral-class.
The biggest advantage?  Procurement cost.  At an estimated $2.9 billion, the cost to build just two indigenous joint support ships is simply ludicrous.  The RCN cannot be expected to perform its duties with less ships at a higher cost.  In contrast, the USA would likely sell us their surplus ships for a song, likely on the condition we join them for the occasional coalition action.  For $2.9 billion, the RCN could likely acquire both the USS Bridge, the USS Rainier, and still have money to poach one (possibly both) of the Mistral-class Amphibious Assault Ships away from the Russians ($1.7 billion for both).

Another advantage is opportunity cost.  Purchasing these replenishment ships will free up Vancouver's Seaspan shipyards to build the much needed Diefenbaker-class icebreakers.

Some may be wary about purchasing used naval assets given what happened with the Victoria-class submarines.  That is understandable, but their are few similarities between the Supply-class vessels and the Upholder-class submarines.  Before becoming the Canadian Victoria-class, the Upholders were placed in mothballs for years.  Not only that, but the submarines were beset with issues from the very start, and the HMCS Chicoutimi was built to an older safety standard.  Even then, the lethal fire was found to have been caused by human factors, not mechanical failure.

It is time for a wake-up call.  Canada's military needs equipment.  Not in or around 2020.  Not next year, not now...  They need it yesterday.  A flexible and opportunistic approach to procurement may allow our forces to acquire the equipment they need at a cost palatable to the taxpayer.  In some instances, like this one, the opportunity is there to get a much greater capability at a fraction of the original cost.  It really is win-win.


Ain't nothing wrong with shopping at a thrift shop...

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