UP FRONT

OUR SHIPYARD FOLLIES

Mary Janigan July 26 2004
UP FRONT

OUR SHIPYARD FOLLIES

Mary Janigan July 26 2004

OUR SHIPYARD FOLLIES

Ottawa wants to spend $2 billion on hybrid vessels that have yet to be designed

Mary Janigan

ON THE ISSUES

DURING THE 1980s, when federal money ran like tap water, the Canadian Forces went on a rare shopping spree. They bought frigates, cargo trucks and other sturdy wheeled creations dubbed with impossible acronyms. And there was a hefty tab—because Ottawa insisted Canadian manufacturers had to produce them, even though the vehicles were built under licence from U.S. and European designers. Ottawa defence analyst Howie Marsh figures we paid twoand-a-half times the original manufacturers’ retail price for those trucks. In effect, defence spending was deployed as a tool of regional development. “It was an exorbitant premium,” Marsh says. “Exorbitant.”

That “Buy Canadian” policy is, once again, the hot defence topic as Ottawa finally launches another drive to replace crumbling equipment. Orders for everything from maritime helicopters to mobile gun systems to search and rescue aircraft are in the works. But it is the quest for three supply ships, to replace vessels at the end of their 35-year service life, that is now provoking the most heated, behind-the-scenes debate. Not only is Ottawa determined to build the ships here, at a time when many shipyards have declined into virtual disuse,

it wants the builders to design hybrid vessels to perform multiple tasks. No such creature exists. Anywhere.

The vessels would carry supplies so other ships like frigates and destroyers could remain out of port for far longer. They would trundle everything from fuel to food, medical facilities and helicopter maintenance areas. They would be

‘They are like Swiss Army knives: they sound a little farfetched,’ warns military expert

Senator Colin Kenny. ‘It worries me.’

able to transport vehicles and stores for an entire army battle group. And they could function as command and control centres if it were difficult to go ashore. The navy plans to evaluate industry interest and ask two qualified consortia for both design and construction bids. It expects the first vessel in 2011-2012. Good luck.

The $2.1 billion scheme is a recipe for controversy. While shipyard lobbyists circle politicians like sharks in a tank, many experts are asking hard questions about what we want and where we should buy it. Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, who will likely be re-elected as Senate defence committee chairman, says Ottawa should buy existing refuelling ships and convert them to meet its needs. (Australia is buying off-the-shelf supply ships for one-third of our cost.) Then it should get one or two freighters for transporting vehicles, fastening a commandand-control centre on the deck. “Ottawa uses military expenditures as a tool for regional development,” says Kenny. “If governments want to develop regions, they should send a cheque.”

Others caution that, despite Ottawa’s ballyhooed shipbuilding policy, few shipyards remain capable of doing such work. Perhaps, says York University defence analyst Martin Shadwick, Ottawa could buy the hulls built elsewhere—and then fit them with such critical parts as electronics here. And while he likes the notion of ships with multiple uses, “I would be a lot happier if somebody else had done it first.” Adds Kenny: “They are like Swiss Army knives: they sound a little far-fetched. It worries me.”

The course is clear: before Ottawa spends a cent, the military must prove these hybrids will work. And, surely, in the 21st century, Ottawa should think twice about using defence cash for regional industrial schemes.

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com