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That sinking feeling – Despite a huge investment in shipbuilding, Canada’s navy isn’t living up to its historic reputation

One of the Royal Canadian Navy’s future joint support ships under construction at the Seaspan Vancouver Shipyards.

The Royal Canadian Navy has had a proud history during the last eight decades. The stellar service of corvettes, destroyers, minesweepers, frigates, supply vessels, and the efforts of tens of thousands of sailors, did Canada proud in the Second World War, Korea, the Cold War and dozens of more recent operations. 

Now, however, the RCN is on the verge of metaphorically sinking. Its frigates and submarines are starting to rust out, its supply ships have been replaced by a converted merchant ship and borrowed vessels, its new Arctic patrol ships are incapable of operating through anything more than new or first-year ice, and the plans for Canadian surface combatant (CSC) ships and supply vessels are facing steeply rising costs and long delays. How did Canada get into this mess?

The federal government introduced the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) in 2010. The plan included creating two major yards, one on each coast, to build ships for the RCN and the Coast Guard and create thousands of jobs. 

Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax was to build 15 CSCs, six Arctic Offshore Patrol ships and some Coast Guard vessels. Seaspan in Vancouver, meanwhile, was to construct Coast Guard ships and non-combatant RCN vessels, notably two joint support ships (JSS) as replacements for the Provider-class replenishment vessels. 

This was the largest procurement project since the Korean War, and the initial estimates for the cost to build the CSC ships was $26.2 billion. The other ships added more billions to the total, an amount seen by many critics as wildly extravagant in 2010.

One challenge that became apparent early on was that neither the Irving nor Seaspan shipyards had recent experience in building large naval vessels (nor, in the case of Seaspan, constructing icebreakers for the Coast Guard). Since the last Canadian-built frigate launched in 1996, there was a shortage of skilled workers who had experience crafting such vessels. 

A boom-and-bust cycle has historically characterized Canadian shipbuilding. The NSS was the beginning of another boom, but the start dates of construction and delivery were wildly optimistic, and the costs soon exploded. In February 2021, the parliamentary budget officer updated the estimated cost of the 15 CSC vessels to $77.3 billion—nearly triple the original price tag. The other construction projects had similar cost increases. 

Even that forecast was off though, as in late 2022 Canada’s economy was facing a recession, the federal government had a massive deficit, interest rates were rising and inflation was increasing by about eight per cent (and up to 10-12 per cent for defence production). Plus, none of the cost estimates included operation and maintenance expenses for the projected 40-year lifespan of the CSCs, which some naval procurement experts predicted would be almost three times higher than the construction costs at more than $200 billion. And the delivery dates for the CSC and support ships were delayed, too. 

Deciding what type of ships to build to meet the RCN’s wish list took years, so long in fact, that the two existing Provider-class ships had to be scrapped, and the Davie shipyard at Lévis, Que., was contracted to convert a merchant ship into a support vessel (the MV Asterix), a project that was successfully concluded in 2017 on budget. The two JSS vessels are not expected to be in the water until the mid-2020s.

Much more difficult was the CSC project, in which the RCN settled on building an untested British model with weapons and electronics designed by Lockheed Martin that were interoperable with the latest U.S. navy ships. By 2022, estimates indicated that the weight of the new CSC vessels was 44 per cent higher than the original calculations—and more than the propulsion systems could effectively handle.

So, the costs could continue to escalate, and likely more than any government would tolerate, which might lead to fewer ships, a reduction in their size and/or trimming weaponry and electronics from them. The government systems for procurement of all projects, and particularly for defence initiatives, seems hopelessly inefficient. More delays, inefficiencies and increasing costs for the NSS seem certain.

Thus, the existing frigates, nearing the end of their third decade of service, require major and expensive refits and repairs to keep operating. They are likely to be hulks before the CSCs are in the water. Canada will soon be unable to meet its own requirements at sea, let alone to work with NATO or the U.S. navy. Indeed, for the first time since 2014, the RCN does not have a warship serving with a NATO task force. Such problems will only escalate.

For the first time since 2014, the RCN does not have a warship serving with a NATO task force.

There is no domestic answer to these problems. It’s highly unlikely that any foreign government will order warships from Canada given the high costs of building here and the country’s inability to meet delivery dates. That means that the boom-and-bust shipbuilding cycle will likely continue when the current RCN orders are complete. 

The logic of all this is unfortunately clear: Ottawa should consider purchasing warships from abroad. Asian and European shipyards, for instance, seem able to produce effective vessels on time for much lower costs. The government is clearly willing to pay more to build ships in Canada.

Successive federal governments have failed to take defence seriously and have consistently prioritized jobs over national security. The result: the Canadian Armed Forces are under-equipped, under-strength and facing ineffectiveness. 

The world is in a dangerous state with autocracies pressing democracies hard. If the government’s primary duty is to safeguard Canada and its people, then it’s time for national defence to become a major priority. Indeed, it’s long past time. 


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