Canadian naval supply ship can’t go into war zones

While the Royal Canadian Navy is chomping at the bit to start using the newest addition to its fleet, a senior officer said the MV Asterix has limitations — notably that it can’t sail into harm’s way.

The Asterix’s conversion from a civilian container ship to an interim naval resupply vessel is almost finished as weapons and other sensitive equipment are being installed, said Commodore Craig Skjerpen, commander of Canada’s Atlantic Fleet.

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That work is expected to be finished in Halifax in March, at which point the vessel will undergo final tests before heading to the Pacific to participate in a major U.S.-led training exercise and then onward to the Asia-Pacific region.

The Asterix addresses a critical gap that emerged after the navy lost its previous resupply vessels in 2014, Skjerpen told the Canadian Press, and navy commanders plan to make heavy use of the new ship in the coming years.

“If I wanted to draw an analogy of driving a car, we were always worried about where the next gas station was,” he said of the impact of losing HMCS Protecteur and Preserver. “So what this does is that where we’re able to program Asterix, we can be less concerned about that. So we can go where we need to go.”

But the Asterix isn’t a true military vessel, Skjerpen said, which is why it won’t be allowed to operate in dangerous environments. That may not be an issue now, as the navy is not operating in any areas that are classified as overtly dangerous, but Skjerpen said: “All of our capabilities and everything we design and everything we need is about operating in that threat environment.”

Two true military resupply vessels are scheduled to be built in Vancouver and will include more powerful self-defence systems than the Asterix has, as well as better communications equipment and overall survivability against attack.

“That’s a pretty important part when you start talking about a military vessel and something you’re going to operate in a threat environment,” Skjerpen said in explaining why those Vancouver-built vessels, known as the Protecteur class, are still needed.

“We want to provide the best capability possible to protect our people throughout. And that’s some of the bigger things that we’re going to get with the Protecteur class that you’re not going to get out of Asterix or vessels like that.”

The two new Protecteur-class vessels will be crewed entirely by navy personnel, unlike the Asterix. It will have about 45 navy sailors responsible for resupply operations, while the captain and 30 crew members charged with actually sailing the vessel are all civilians. “The civilian master is responsible for the safety of the vessel at all times,” Skjerpen said. “At any time, like if the visibility is too low or the seas are too high, the civilian master always has the right to not do something.”

But the two new resupply ships won’t be ready for several years, meaning the Asterix, which was converted by Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding, will be the navy’s only resupply ship for the foreseeable future. “It’s a pretty big step forward from not having something to having that capability,” Skjerpen said.

The previous Conservative government awarded Davie a $700-million contract for the Asterix conversion and a five-year lease in summer 2015, with a five-year option afterward, after the navy’s ancient resupply ships were forced into retirement.

The project gained notoriety in 2017 after Vice-Admiral Mark Norman was suspended and court documents showed the RCMP suspected him of leaking secret documents to Davie over fears the federal government would cancel the project. Norman remains suspended, but he has not been charged with any crime and has denied any wrongdoing.

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