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Maintaining a Navy – An Interview with Director General Maritime Programme Management, Department of National Defence, Cmdre Keith Coffen

HMCS Max Bernays. Photo: Royal Canadian Navy.

The Maritime Equipment Program supports the life cycle management of all Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) vessels through the provision of maintenance, repair, engineering, inspection and testing, and disposal services. These vessels include 12 Halifax-class frigates, four Victoria-class submarines, 12 Kingston-class Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels, four DeWolf-class Arctic and Offshore patrol Vessels (two more in build), eight Orca-class training vessels and 74 auxiliaries.

Director General Maritime Equipment Program Management (DGMEPM) is responsible to Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) for compliance with the materiel acquisition and support policies and guidelines for the life cycle support of vessels.

Cmdre Keith Coffen, Director General Maritime Programme Management, Department of National Defence

We recently spoke to him to understand the status and the future plans for RCN’s vessels. Prior to his current appointment, he was at NDHQ’s Materiel Group as Director Maritime Equipment Program Management (Submarines) as well as a wide array of submarine sustainment roles.  In non-submarine roles, he served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Engineering Operations in Maritime Forces Atlantic HQ, and Chief of Staff for the Canadian Surface Combatant project.

Please find questions below, they are broken down by platform: Halifax-class frigates, Victoria-class submarines, Kingston-class MCDVs, DeWolf-class AOPVs and autonomous vehicles.

Halifax-class frigates:

Understanding the Halifax-class frigates are all now over 25 years old, with the RCN’s intent to operate these ships until they replaced by the Canadian Surface Combatant project, what challenges are you seeing in maintaining fleet availability?  Specifically, are there issues with hull and propulsion related systems that were not addressed during the mid-life Halifax-class Modernization refits?

The Halifax-class frigates will continue to serve as the core of the RCN’s capability for the foreseeable future.  In terms of the positives, we have a robust maintenance capability supporting the class, from component level repair and overhaul up to the ability to carry out highly intrusive hull remediation and the refurbishment or replacement of major systems.  We have significant organic capability in the form of the RCN Fleet Maintenance Facilities, we have well-established contractual relationships with our original equipment manufacturer partners, and we have significant flexibility to establish new relationships with industry where necessary.  As your readers may recall, we contracted a third shipyard partner to conduct Halifax-class Docking Work Periods (DWPs) in 2019.  This move increased our DWP capacity, which is essential to our ability to maintain 12 ships in service as DWPs have increased significantly in complexity and duration due to the advancing age of the ships and the increasing level of effort necessary to maintain them.

There have been a few issues with hull and propulsion related systems that were not addressed by the Halifax-class Modernization/Frigate Life Extension (HCM/FELEX) refits, but in general these issues have been well managed.  Some examples of action outside the scope of the HCM/FELEX were the replacement of the legacy MWM Diesel Generators with Caterpillar units that have proven to be very reliable in service, and the establishment of contractual arrangements to improve support to power generation and distribution onboard.  Additionally, there has been significant effort to address obsolescence in lighting systems, and there is effort underway to improve our support to ancillary systems onboard.  We’ve also noted a few recent issues where failures have occurred in systems that were intended to serve for the life of the ship without replacement.  This is to be expected given where we are in the life of the class, and anywhere we’ve had an issue the response from industry and from our own Fleet Maintenance Facilities has been truly outstanding. 

The biggest challenge by far is with hull structure.  The Halifax-class in many respects is a jet-powered high-performance sports car.  Its power-to-weight ratio is optimized for speed and agility, meaning that its structure is as light as we could make it while accounting for stresses at sea and survivability against weapon effects.  This optimization, however, means that the ship was not optimized for a service life longer than intended at design, and consequently we are seeing a trend toward significantly more age-related structural steel replacement in each DWP.  Unfortunately, getting access to the hull structure to replace it is not simple, as it requires the removal of interference items to gain access, followed by the actual structural replacement, post-installation quality assurance and coating application to ensure replacement steel will last, re-installation of interference items, and post-installation testing.  So, it isn’t just the cost of the steel in play, but also all the tear-down and build-up work required on either end of the activity. 

The other trend, particularly after the supply chain disruption and inflation coming out of the COVID pandemic, is toward significantly higher in-service support costs.  These trends are leading to additional resource and schedule pressures that challenge the teams and complicate RCN planning.  To the extent that we are able to maintain resources and capacity to address the challenges, I am confident in our ability to stay on track toward the strategic objective for the Halifax-class, which is to continue to deliver a key CAF operational capability while flexibly positioning for the eventual transition into service of the Canadian Surface Combatant. 

Halifax-class modernization addressed the combat systems of the class, do you see these modifications lasting to the end of service life, or do you see further upgrades to the combat systems to maintain operational relevance? If so, what areas do you envision being further modified and how can industry help?

The class will continue to receive obsolescence and operational upgrades; however, it is worth noting that at this stage in the life of the class, remaining design margins for size, weight, and power (SWAP) of new equipment installations are very limited.  Consequently, we should expect that SWAP considerations will be every bit as important as cost and performance in discerning what specific initiatives may or may not be pursued, and in determining which options are pursued to respond to emerging needs.  Overall, I think it would be fair to anticipate a focus on lower complexity, lower cost, higher return on investment upgrades that can maintain the operational relevancy of the class without taking it outside its design margins going forward. 

We anticipate some upgrades still to come in the areas of Multirole Boat capability, Naval Communications Modernization, and Integrated Torpedo Defence.  The first area is in implementation now, with several boats and cranes already delivered for installation, and installation work already underway in HMCS Toronto.  The latter two areas are under development now, but with a relatively narrow options set due to time and SWAP margin constraints.  The other change for the Halifax-class that is coming is RCN ISTAR, which will be discussed below.

Victoria-class submarines:

Submarine availability, for such a small fleet, is always a maintenance challenge. Would you update the readers on current state of the Victoria-class with recent notable successes and an assessment of the challenges ahead for maintaining these submarines and the operational capability they represent to the RCN.  Specifically, are you seeing supply chain issues in sourcing equipment spares for the submarines? If so, how can industry help?

The Victoria-class continues to experience sustainment challenges associated with both 2nd and 3rd line capability and capacity, compounded to a greater extent than was originally thought by COVID-19 and its aftermath.  We are also at a point where our equipment challenges are more or less matched by personnel challenges.  On the positive side, there is no shortage of volunteers for submarine service, and there are hundreds of very talented and determined Canadians who are making it their business to manage through challenges and a certain amount of adversity to get Victoria-class submarines safely to sea for both force generation and force employment activities. 

With respect to the future of Victoria-class in-service support, a solicitation to replace the current Victoria In-Service Support Contract (VISSC) is under development.   An Invitation to Qualify (ITQ) for VISSC II was issued by the Government of Canada in August 2019, however was cancelled in June 2023 given the time that elapsed and due to the fact that the contemplated solution no longer perfectly matched the ITQ.  The Government of Canada is currently engaging with industry on the development of a Request for Proposals (RFP) to ensure a smooth transition of fleet support.  Based on current progress, we expect a draft RFP to be published in the coming months, followed by the release of a finalized RFP later in 2024, with contract award targeted for 2026.  The scope of the future VISSC II contract is the subject of ongoing study to ensure that the new contract will respond well to Government priorities around Performance, Flexibility, Value for Money, and Economic Benefits. A key area of interest from this study is the potential for specific measures to further develop submarine-specific engineering capability and capacity here in Canada.

With respect to how industry can help, certainly the most important single item is participation in the process.  Ultimately, we are looking for potential partners with proven submarine-specific capability and capacity who are motivated to assist us in maximizing value for money from the investment in the Victoria class, who will provide honest and meaningful feedback as draft Victoria-class ISS documents are released for review, and who will consider making bids where they have bona-fide submarine capability to offer. 

Understanding that pandemic has caused significant delays worldwide, of which we are only now seeing the beginning of a recovery, can you give an updated assessment of the state of the Victoria-class Modernization programme and which projects are of the highest priority?

The Victoria-class Modernization (VCM) continues to move apace, with a concentration on the Periscope and Flank Array Sonar projects as the priorities, along with habitability and quality of life improvements.  Several Requests for Information (RFIs) have been undertaken for the Periscope and Flank Array Sonar projects and we anticipate that draft RFPs for both projects will be released in the weeks and months ahead.  The first VCM project to run a solicitation was the Galley Improvement Project.  That solicitation is now closed, and a winning bid will be announced in due course.

With regards to the future Canadian Patrol Submarine project, which is in the pre-Identification phase, what role does your team have, if any, at this early stage of project planning?

As your readers may recall, the Victoria-class was purchased by the government of Canada in 1998 under the Submarine Capability Life Extension (SCLE) project, to extend the life of a submarine operations and sustainment capability in Canada until such time as a platform meeting Canadian requirements could be acquired.  The submarines themselves are now all past their originally intended design lives, and it is currently intended to divest them between 2036 and 2040. 

At the current time, the Royal Canadian Navy, supported by the Materiel Group, is working actively on the Canadian Patrol Submarine Project (CPSP).   As a first step, a delegation of representatives from Public Services and Procurement Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, National Defence, and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) met with officials in Europe and Asia between March and May 2023 to conduct initial engagements and fact finding with countries, companies, and navies that currently have or are in the process of building submarines that meet Canadian requirements.

Six countries have been visited to date:

The project was authorized to enter Options Analysis phase in June 2023.  It is important to note that the CPSP does not commit the government to any specific course of action, but instead preserves the time to make an informed decision when required.

Kingston-class MCDVs:

As part of the Minor Warship and Auxiliary Vessels IV (MWAV IV) RFI process, the life of the 12 Kingston-class Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels was reported as having been extended by one five-year cycle, with the retirement of individual vessels happening between 2025 and 2029, with the intent to consider further extensions before the end of the cycle. In a recent interview with CDR magazine VAdm Topshee, the new Commander RCN, indicated there is a plan for Kingston-class life extension.  Given these ships were built to commercial standards in the late 1990s and they are reaching the end of their designed service lives, what sort of extension is envisioned and does this include adding an armament capability?

The Kingston-class remains a key part of the RCN’s fleet mix and as you note there is a discussion that will need to be had in due course around providing additional in-service time to transition to an eventual replacement capability.  As part of our ongoing commitment to sustainment of the class, the MWAV IV contract was recently awarded, with Thales Canada Inc., in a joint venture with Thales Australia Ltd., as the winning bidder.

While we may still see some modest equipment upgrades to the Kingston-class, I do not anticipate major changes at this stage.  Over the next year or so, I expect we will be quite busy with the transition of MWAV contractor and with the development of plans to catch up on the 3rd line maintenance program, which had slowed over the past 18 months as the previous (MWAV III) contract was winding down. 

In terms of the future, there is a clear demand for this type of offshore patrol vessel and the services it provides.  The RCN has established a replacement project called the Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) project.  The Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) project is currently in Identification Phase.  In this phase, the Navy is in the lead and the Materiel Group is in a supporting role.  Activities being undertaken include the completion of a Strategic Context Document, the development of High-Level Mandatory Requirements, and internal governance engagements.  Like CPSP, the OPV project does not commit the government to any specific course of action, but instead preserves the time to make an informed decision when required.    

Harry DeWolf-class AOPVs:

Understanding these are early days, but with the entry of the DeWolf-class into service, what are the challenges you see ahead for these large displacement ships with small crews? Moreover, what are your initial observations with regards to the In-Service Support Contract’s ability to support these ships?

Having personally toured an Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessel last year, I would offer that they are very impressive ships with some of the best crew amenities I have ever seen in an RCN vessel.  I spent a good chunk of last summer following the exploits of Capt(N) Sheldon Gillis (@RoyalCanNavy on X (formerly known as Twitter)) and the crews of HMCS Margaret Brooke (MAR) and HMCS Goose Bay (GBY) on OP NANOOK 22, where RCN ships in company with those of several allies operated together, built relationships with one another as well as with several communities in the North, and contributed meaningfully to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and security.

On August 31st, 2023, we took delivery of the 4th ship, HMCS William Hall, and I think it would be fair to say that we see both qualitative and quantitative improvements in each new ship coming into service.  There are issues to resolve of course, but this is a natural part of the shipbuilding process and to be frank, it is reasonable to expect some issues, especially considering that Canada’s shipbuilding industry had been essentially moribund since the 1990s.  Overall, we should be proud of what has been accomplished by the AOPS project and the National Shipbuilding Strategy to date.  We are witnessing the re-birth of an important economic sector; one that will contribute to national security and generate economic opportunities for thousands of Canadians.    

With respect to the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV) / Joint Support Ship (JSS) In-Service Support Contract (AJISS), I would offer that so far it is proving to be a good model for sustainment of the Harry Dewolf-class.  The idea behind AJISS was to leverage the strengths of both government (including the RCN’s Fleet Maintenance Facilities) and industry together in partnership, and I think overall we are on the right path.  Next steps for AJISS will be to establish a West Coast presence and capability ahead of the arrival of HMCS Max Bernays, planned for May 2024, and to prepare for the acceptance into service and transition into support for JSS.  In the longer term, we will need measure and adjust performance under the contract and to prepare for the first contracted Docking Work Periods for both classes.  

Autonomous vehicles:

With the ongoing drive for more and more autonomous vehicles, particularly Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), how is that impacting the traditional class related support infrastructure in DGMEPM? What challenges do you see with their integration into legacy ship-classes and the subsequent impact on configuration management?

Autonomous vehicles are an interesting space, and the RCN is building experience with their use in operations.  Then-Cmdre Christopher Robinson provided an excellent summary of the effort to date for this magazine in 2020.  Since then, in December 2022, the Government of Canada awarded contracts for equipment and services to be delivered in support of the Remote Minehunting and Disposal Systems (RMDS) project, including an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) capability.  The RMDS project is currently in Implementation phase.  

From my perspective as DGMEPM, the current effort around Uncrewed Vehicles (UxVs) is focused on the Royal Canadian Navy Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (RCN ISTAR) project.  RCN ISTAR is a Definition Phase project which seeks to deliver an improved UAV capability to the RCN, with a specific concentration on integration to the Halifax-class.  After an intensive period of industry engagement through the spring and summer of 2023, RCN ISTAR is now closing quite rapidly on release of a finalized RFP. RCN ISTAR has finite resources to achieve its mandate and, as I noted previously, the Halifax-class has a very finite amount of space and SWAP margin available.  These constraints are likely to figure prominently in the selection of an eventual equipment solution for this requirement.  Yet, RCN ISTAR is about more than just the acquisition of a UAV capability.  This project and others like it will ultimately allow the RCN to develop the necessary organization and establishment, as well as the necessary experience, to support a meaningful, cross-platform UxV capability that may be taken to sea in any class of RCN vessel.  The RCN also intends to bring forward a project to deliver a permanent capability for an Uncrewed Air Vehicle (UAV) capability to the AOPVs – using off the shelf items that are already used heavily in the Arctic.  This capability will allow the Harry DeWolf-class to extend its sensor range for use in operations such as arctic ice field scouting, Recognized Maritime Picture (RMP) compilation, and during constabulary operations such as Operation CARIBBE for intelligence and surveillance duties.  Overall, the intent is to continue efforts to develop capability and capacity in this exciting and rapidly evolving domain.

Staff/Team Retention

It is understood that within the naval engineering community there is some dissatisfaction with the length of time from Head of Department (HOD) qualification and a HOD tour, in some cases estimated at 11 years from qualification to a HOD tour. It is also understood that this dissatisfaction is leading to early releases. Given that Canada’s new fleet is and will be highly sophisticated and that naval engineers will be critical not only for the delivery of the platforms but also for their operation and sustainment what is your and the navy’s plan to stem the tide of releases and reduce the time between qualification and HOD tours?

My role as the Branch Head for the Naval Technical Branch is to provide advice to the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy (CRCN) for consideration.  Where there is agreement, CRCN acts on those recommendations that are within RCN authority and works with the Commander of the Military Personnel Command for initiatives that are not within the RCN’s control.  While the Naval Technical Branch does have some challenges, for the most part I would offer that these mirror those of the larger CAF, whose overall issues are a matter of public record and the subject of several initiatives currently underway, some of which have already delivered.  We have one added complication in the Naval Technical Branch, since the training and skills we possess are highly valued, particularly by the industrial component of the wider Naval Technical community that is challenged to deliver under the National Shipbuilding Strategy and on major ISS, as well as on a dizzying array of projects across CAF capabilities.   Industry, rightly so, sees former members of the Naval Technical Branch as an important recruiting source. 

Two recent initiatives that I believe may be helpful in addressing some of the challenges are the CAF economic pay increase announced earlier this year and the Naval Experience Program.  The former helps directly address affordability and cost of living challenges, and the latter provides an interesting new source of potential recruits into the Naval Technical Branch.  Meanwhile, our more traditional programs are very much in force, including the Regular Officer Training Program and Skilled Trades Entry Programs with recruiting bonuses for understrength occupations, including Weapons Engineering Technician (W ENG TECH) and Marine Technician (MAR TECH).  Readers who are also parents of young adults, take note. 

Additionally, specific to MAR TECH, important changes were made to the occupation this year, announced in Naval General messages 025 and 027/23.  Ultimately, the changes aim to retain the best features of the occupation structure as enacted in 2017 while addressing concerns from members of the occupation, including concerns around specialist pay.

With respect to the specific issue for Marine Systems Engineering (MS ENG) and Naval Combat Systems Engineering (NCS ENG) officers highlighted above, I would first note that it is in fact highly desirable for newly HOD-qualified officers to have a period of employment in the shore support establishment on the coast or in Ottawa, or both, prior to starting their HOD tours.  This experience provides a vital developmental opportunity for these officers to consolidate knowledge gained through the HOD qualification process and to build essential relationships with the professionals engaged in providing shore-based technical support to the fleet.  Additionally, assignment to seagoing Head of Department roles follows a competitive selection process, which can result in some officers taking longer to be selected.  Finally, life can and sometimes does get in the way of HOD selection, particularly where families and/or health are involved, so some of what we measure as ‘delay’ is actually the effort to ensure that HOD tours are appropriately timed for people given their unique circumstances. 

At any rate, having noted some years ago that the average time between HOD qualification and HOD selection was creeping above the optimal point, an effort was undertaken to develop ways to flex the demand for HOD qualified officers in response to supply-side changes.  These measures were largely successful, and at this stage the situation has normalized.  In fact, it is more probable in the near term that the supply of HOD qualified officers may underrun the demand.  This is due to the confluence of training and recruiting system interruptions that happened during COVID.  We will flex as required in response to the challenges.

Looking ahead to the future, the RCN is in the process of initiating a review of several of its occupations to ensure that we are well positioned to receive the Canadian Surface Combatant into service.  Meanwhile, opportunities for the employment of Naval Technical Branch members, officer, and non-commissioned member alike, are as diverse as they are rewarding, with a wide array of opportunities available for our members.  If anyone reading this is interested, I would encourage you to consider the possibilities and perhaps visit your local recruiter. 

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