By: ANDREA GUNN THE CHRONICLE HERALD
The growing price tag on Canada’s new fleet of warships has left some experts wondering if there’s a more economical solution to rebuilding the navy.
In June the federal government more than doubled the $26-billion budget to build 15 new Canadian Surface Combatant vessels — the first of which is expected to be delivered in 2026 — to $60 billion.
The U.K. revealed plans this week to buy five budget Type 31e general purpose frigates, on top of the eight type 26 global combat ships currently being constructed by BAE Systems, at a cost equivalent of about $400 million Canadian a piece. This is a fraction of what their Type 26 global combat ships — which are one of the designs in the running for Canada’s new fleet — will cost.
Ken Hansen, a retired navy commander and defence analyst, said Canada ought to follow countries like the U.K. and Denmark in scaling back on what he calls outrageous military-grade engineering standards as well as considering purchasing some vessels with more basic capabilities.
“(These standards are) driving defence procurement to ridiculously high extremes when in fact there is no imminent conflict that would justify that kind of expenditure,” he said.
“Historically . . . what we have always done is a high-low mix, and it makes no sense to be sending a really high capability ship off to low risk tasks,” he said.
According to Hansen, a large portion of shipbuilding costs are due to using extremely high engineering standards for systems and subsystems — things like water, power, heating and ventilation — that are commonly available, something that he said Denmark has managed to opt out of.
“They use Caterpillar diesel engines for diesel generators and they use stuff from their marine industry, the best industrial standard is good enough.”
Hansen said it was once thought that over engineering could improve survivability, but that’s no longer true with modern weaponry.
“Engineering standards will not save you for a torpedo hit or high-speed missile hit. The only thing that will absorb the destructive power of modern weaponry is size. So you’re better off to build it bigger and then use redundancy to get survivability, and that’s what the Danes do as well,” he said.
Instead of two diesel generators on a ship, Hansen said, the Danes will have four or six because because they’re a 10th of the cost of a military spec diesel generator.
“What’s driving the government to say ‘Oh we have to put all this extra money in the program,’ is that they’re allowing the navy to dictate this requirement when there’s no historical justification for it. If you do the analysis on the lethality of modern systems for it, there’s no justification for it there either,” he said.
Hansen pointed out that the Arctic Offshore Patrol vessels currently being built by Irving in Halifax are being built to best commercial standards, which he said also has a positive impact on the Canadian economy.
“If it’s built to a best commercial standards there’s all kinds of Canadian companies that can contribute to its completion and there’s a real growth going on in Canadian industrial marine systems,” he said.
Steven Staples, vice-president of the Rideau Institute, called building a fleet of 15 single-class brand new surface combat vessels for the Canadian navy during a period when we’re primarily involved in land wars and air combat is a Cadillac plan.
“The navy is projecting on keeping a fleet that’s roughly the same size as it was at the height of the Cold War with what has not been a good rethink of what the role of the navy is in this time,” he said.
But Adam Lajeunesse, Irving Shipbuilding chair in Canadian Arctic maritime policy at St. Francis Xavier University, said building a new fleet that will sustain the navy for the next number of decades is not just about looking at what is needed to respond to the current threat landscape.
“We are buying these in the way that many states have always bought military equipment, not just to face current threats but as an insurance policy against what we may have to face in the future,” he said.