History’s shipbuilding lessons – Challenges of the past suggest cause for concern

The announcement of a National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) by the government this summer has created an opportunity to learn from our history. Within the next two years, two Canadian shipyards will be selected to construct large ships for both combat and non-combat roles. Large ships for the Navy include the Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels (AOPS), the Joint Support Ships (JSS), and the new fleet of Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC). Over the next 30 years, the government intends to spend an estimated $35 billion.

Although there are foreign ships that could be made available to Canada, the government has decided that the new ships are to be built here to try and revitalize the domestic shipbuilding industry. Many of the details of the NSPS are still unclear, but it is a way forward and this truly is needed. The idea of acquiring new replenishment vessels has been under discussion at the Department of National Defence (DND) since 1992. Money has not been approved, budgets have yet to be set, and DND has not yet finalized the designs. But the yards will need this time to get ready anyway; it has been a long time since Canada has endeavoured to build its own ships.

As history shows, attempts to create a domestic industrial base to tailor major equipment platforms to specific Canadian military requirements have met with numerous challenges. During the late 1940s, the Canadian government decided to build domestic warships as a result of the Cold War. Soviet submarine innovations proved that radically new ships were needed.

At that time no Canadian shipyard possessed the experience in ship design; they had always relied on the British. The government subsequently authorized the growth of the Engineer-in-Chief’s department and a Naval Central Drawing Office was established. For the first time, Canada designed a major war vessel.

The inexperience in weapons and equipment design was still apparent, however, as financial planning for the original program proved highly inaccurate and the final cost was three times more expensive than first projected. The naval planners also desired that domestic industry be able to fully support the ships. This resulted in a myriad of delays as much of the pieces had to start on the drawing board and indecision prevailed as to the final shape, weapons, and electronic suite to be used.

The St. Laurents were not operational until 1955 – three years behind schedule. They also needed upgrades soon after their introduction. Although the St. Laurents are a rare example of industrial independence in Canadian procurement history, it was apparent that having ships designed strictly for Canadian needs was a costly and time consuming venture.

The idea of domestic shipbuilding resurfaced in the 1960s and the Navy called for eight General Purpose Frigates (GPF) to replace the WWII Tribals. A GPF capability was expounded to provide a balanced ASW fleet. By 1962, Cabinet had agreed to the construction in Canadian shipyards.

The problem was that the capability was no longer there; the skilled engineers and draftsmen had moved on after the previous designs were done in the early 1950s. This resulted in recurring problems and costs quickly escalated beyond what was budgeted by the department. The project estimates had risen in 1963 from $275 million to between $450 and $500 million. After the Liberals were elected in 1963, they quickly balked at the runaway project, much as the previous leaders had over the Avro Arrow. After a government project review, the GPF was cancelled in 1963. The DHH 280 Iroquois class that followed suffered the same problems. It did survive – but barely.

The Canadian Patrol Frigate (CPF) that followed in 1977 was also a highly capable final product. As before, no major warships had been laid down for a decade and the program did face many challenges. Construction of the Halifax did not begin until March 1987 – 10 years after the project had been authorized. But with all the design and developmental work completed, Canada did create a highly effective shipbuilding capability during the 1990s.

Shipbuilding in Canada has been the most successful area overall regarding Canadian design and production of major equipment for the military. Canadian industry has shown that it can go far with humble beginnings. It can be done. But, as with the original St. Laurent project, the cancelled GPF, and the 280 Class, the new ships that are being described in the NSPS specifications are different than any other existing ship design. The history of the GPF, in particular, gives cause for hesitation. Just like the current situation, there was a lack of skilled and experienced engineers, draftsmen, and labour available to undertake the work. The ships never made it to the sea.

Developing a viable defence industry is vital to supporting the Canadian Forces and requires prescient thinking. And Canadian industry will have to perform far better than its predecessors. There must be diligence and relentless scrutiny regarding budgets and production milestones, as well as careful risk management. If the lessons of the past are carefully absorbed, these acquisitions will provide vital growth to both our navy and our industry. Only time will tell.

Dr. Aaron Plamondon is a National Fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and the author of The Politics of Procurement.

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