By: Murray Brewster, CBC News
The Trudeau government is considering an extension to a call for bids from defence contractors interested in designing and equipping Canada's next generation of combat ships.
Last fall, the federal cabinet approved the release of a long-anticipated request for proposals for an off-the-shelf warship design and combat systems.
Pre-qualified defence companies lined up for the opportunity to participate in the program, which is expected to run up to $40 billion over three decades.
A deadline of April 27 was set for bidders to submit their plans to Irving Shipbuilding Inc., which was selected in 2015 as the prime contractor.
The Halifax-based company is the federal government's go-to yard for combat ships under the National Shipbuilding Strategy.
But almost from the outset the competition, many of the warship designers complained about what they see as a tight turnaround time, even though the project has been in the industry consultation stage for years.
The notion of an extension is being examined, said Kevin McCoy, president of Irving Shipbuilding.
Ottawa to decide
"It's something we're in consultation with Canada on," he said in an interview Thursday.
"It'll be the government's decision. They'll get a recommendation from us, but we'll arrive at the right answer."
McCoy would not say whether Irving has asked for an extension or how many of the bidders have asked for extra time.
He did, however, downplay the discord among the notoriously cutthroat contenders.
"This is normal in a complex procurement that people think they need more time for a whole host of reasons," said McCoy, who testified before the House of Commons defence committee on Thursday.
A published report two weeks ago in The National Post — citing unnamed sources — said two of the bidders had asked that the entire process be delayed, and two others were considering such a request, in the aftermath of the suspension of the military's deputy commander.
Vice-Admiral Mark Norman was ordered to hand over his duties on Jan. 13 and is apparently under RCMP investigation for allegedly leaking classified information that may be related to shipbuilding.
McCoy said Irving Shipbuilding has no knowledge about what is being investigated, nor has there been an effect on the bidding process.
"It's really not an issue in the [Canadian Surface Combatant] deliberations right now," he said.
However, if the federal government does grant an extension to the bidding deadline, it raises concerns about keeping the frigate replacement program on track.
One of the questions officials are grappling with is how a delay might affect construction of the new warships, which are meant to replace the navy's 12 Halifax-class patrol frigates built in the 1990s.
The Irving-owned yard is slated to finish work on the navy's Arctic offshore patrol ships in 2019-20 and transition to the surface combatant project.
"We're very mindful of gap," said McCoy, who added work interruption raises the possibility of losing trained shipyard workers to other industrial sectors. "It's one of things we're constantly talking to the government about."
But he said the frigate replacement program is too important to rush.
"We've got to get the procurement right," McCoy said. "We want good submissions. We want the field to be well-represented and we want industry to feel they have been treated fairly."