Comment: Offshore patrol ships an expensive compromise

A $288-million “definition contract” for arctic/offshore patrol ships was signed by the federal government in March. Built in Halifax, a number of these so-called “A/OPS” will be based in Esquimalt where, as a result of cost-saving compromises already made, they will be suitable neither for an Arctic role nor as patrol ships in open seas.

According to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the ships will be “exceptionally versatile, with equal ability to navigate the major rivers, coastal waters and open seas of Canada’s Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic.” Unfortunately, versatility can be expensive and difficult to achieve.

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The original plan was for the A/OPS to be built as “double-acting” ships capable of travelling in both directions. This is achieved with a bow designed for high-speed sailing in open water, a stern designed for breaking ice and Azipod propeller units that can rotate 180 degrees. But to save money, this proven technology has already been removed from the plans.

The A/OPS will now have a single-acting “ice-strengthened” hull that, because of its multipurpose shape and reinforced steel, will lack stability in open water. As a result, the vessels will be unable to launch or retrieve their helicopters in anything greater than Sea State 3, that is to say, in waves higher than 1.25 metres.

Purpose-built patrol ships do not have the same problem. Australia’s new Armidale-class patrol ships are just 56 metres long but can operate comfortably in Sea State 5 with four-metre waves.

At the same time, the A/OPS, being only ice-strengthened rather than full-blown icebreakers, will be unable to break ice for other vessels. Nor will they have much protection against multi-year ice and small, very hard pieces of iceberg called growlers.

The A/OPS will be shockingly slow, with a top speed of just 17 knots. Patrol ships constructed and operated by other countries typically can reach 25 to 32 knots.

Despite the Arctic’s great distances, the A/OPS will have a range of just 6,800 nautical miles. They will be unable to sail from Esquimalt to the Beaufort Sea and back without refuelling in Alaska. Canada’s Coast Guard icebreakers, in contrast, can sail more than 20,000 nautical miles without refuelling.

The decision to go with a new and unproven compromise design has also resulted in a remarkably expensive procurement, a fact that captured headlines across Canada this week.

The original, long-standing construction budget for the A/OPS — set in 2007 — is $3.1 billion for just six to eight vessels. An additional $4.3 billion was budgeted for operations and maintenance over a projected 25-year lifespan.

Purpose-built patrol vessels cost substantially less. Australia acquired its 12 Armidale-class patrol ships for $553 million, including the design, construction and 15 years of support and maintenance. In other words, for the total cost of six to eight A/OPS without support and maintenance, Canada could acquire more than 45 Armidale-class ships with support and maintenance.

A final area of compromise concerns armaments. Originally, the A/OPS were supposed to have a 40-mm primary gun as well as 12.7-mm guns for self-protection. To save money, this has been scaled back to just one 25-mm cannon.

In contrast, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sentinel-class fast patrol cutters are fitted with a high-speed 25-mm chain-fed cannon and four .50-calibre machine guns. Russia’s Svetlyak-class patrol ships are armed with a 76.2-mm AK-176M cannon and a six-barrel 30-mm AK-630 gun.

Making matters even worse, financial constraints are likely to bite deeper as the navy struggles to complete the A/OPS within a six-year-old procurement budget that is continuously being eroded by inflation.

The problem is illustrated by the audit of another procurement — the navy’s joint supply ships — that was carried out by the Department of National Defence’s own Chief Review Services in 2011. It found that inflation had improperly been assessed at 2.7 per cent instead of the 3.5 to five per cent inflation factor “acknowledged to be prevalent in the shipbuilding industry.”

As a result, the longer the A/OPS procurement drags on, the less capable the resulting vessels will be.

The good news is that a construction contract for the A/OPS has not yet been signed. This gives the federal government one last clear chance to avoid a procurement disaster.

Instead of persisting with compromise vessels, Harper should cancel the A/OPS procurement outright and start again on a simple and more cost-effective basis.

Canada needs purpose-built high-speed patrol ships for the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and real icebreakers for the Arctic. Proven, uncomplicated designs are readily available for both.


Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of B.C. Stewart Webb is a research associate with the Salt Spring Forum. They are the authors of “Titanic Blunder: Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships on course for disaster,” a report published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Rideau Institute.

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