When Ottawa asked the Canadian navy to prepare three vessels for service in the volatile Persian Gulf last month, senior naval commanders hastily sought out state-of-the-art weapons systems to protect their ships. They found the weapons in storage at shipyards and navy warehouses in Saint John, N.B., and Montreal—awaiting installation in 12 new Canadian patrol frigates. But critics pointed out that the frigates themselves should have been ready for action. After nearly 12 years of planning and seven years of construction, the first frigate, HMCS Halifax, is only now undergoing sea trials. Said Peter Haydon, a retired navy commander in Bedford, N.S., who is vice-chairman (sea) of the Conference of Defence Associations, a military advocacy group: “The Halifax is a fantastic ship—
exactly the kind of thing we should have out there in the Gulf.”
But the controversial, $6.2-billion frigate program has encountered technical, financial and political setbacks since soon after the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau awarded an initial contract for six frigates to the K. C. Irvingowned Saint John Shipbuilding Ltd. in June, 1983. And recently, a dispute between Saint John Shipbuilding and its main subcontractor has added to the ships’ problems. At the Liberals’ request, the Saint John yard subcontracted construction of three of the first six frigates to Quebec shipyards now owned by Marine Industries Ltd. (MIL), itself 65-per-cent owned by the Quebec government. Then, in June, Saint John Shipbuilding launched a $ 1.7-billion suit against MIL, claiming that the Quebec company had failed to meet construction deadlines.
MIL spokesmen now say that Saint John Shipbuilding underestimated the vessels’ costs and asked for no fewer than 45,000 design changes to the frigates. Said Dalhousie University military analyst Danford Middlemiss: “Spreading
the contract around like this was done for purely political reasons so everyone could get their finger into the pie.” Declared Haydon: “You can’t point the finger of blame for this mess at any one thing. It’s too complicated.”
As a result, Haydon said that the Canadian government needs to reassess the way in which it buys warships. For one thing, he noted, Ottawa must maintain more control over both ship design and contract supervision—rather than leave the work up to private industry alone. Canada, Haydon added, “is the only country in the world building frigates with this kind of self-inflicted pain.”
Meanwhile, National Defence spokesman Maj. Walter Chipchase said that the Halifax, originally scheduled for delivery in October, 1989, “won’t be ready for at least a year.” Its sister ships, he added, will be ready later in the 1990s—-almost two decades after Ottawa set out to modernize the navy.
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