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Modernizing the Fleet
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Modernizing the Fleet 

The Canadian Coast Guard has diverse responsibilities that require it to be ready at all times encompassing the world’s longest coastline and the Arctic Archipelago. Its priorities are to aid maritime shipping and traffic management; search and rescue; icebreaking and ice-management services; pollution response, and supporting other government departments by providing ships, aircraft, and other services.

The government’s commitment to renewing the fleet is applauded by all, as the average ship age of the fleet hovers around 40 years. The new fleet includes: one Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel, two Polar Icebreakers, two Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships, six Program Icebreakers, six Mid Shore Multi-Mission Vessels and up to 16 Multi-Purpose Vessels.

Vanguard recently connected with Robert (Robb) Wight, Director General of Vessel Procurement, a directorate of the Canadian Coast Guard responsible for the acquisition and delivery of large and small vessels, helicopters, and air cushioned vehicles, as well as the development of new classes of vessels, vessel design, business analysis and policy support. His office in Ottawa oversees not only the National Capital Region, but also the onsite Inspection team located in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Mr. Wight joined the Canadian Coast Guard in 2001 as an engineer in the Integrated Technical Services directorate, working on various projects as both an engineer and as Director General from 2008-2012. Since his arrival to Vessel Procurement in 2012, the team has delivered 9 Mid-Shore Patrol Vessels, 3 Offshore Fisheries Science Vessels, 23 helicopters, 10 Search and Rescue lifeboats, 2 Channel Survey & Sounding Vessel, 2 Emergency Offshore Towing Vessels, 1 Light Icebreaker, and 3 Medium Icebreakers.

1 – How do you see the recapitalization of the CCG fleet going under the NSS and given that the strategy is now over 10 years old, what concerns/observations do you have for the future of this long-term national programme?

As the Director General of Major Projects in Fleet Procurement since 2012, I have been directly involved in shaping the evolution of the Canadian Coast Guard’s (CCG) fleet recapitalization efforts over the last decade. Given the age of our current fleet, the need to replace our vessels has never been more important. It’s an exciting time frankly, but the pressure is on. The CCG is pursuing the largest fleet recapitalization effort in its history, and we need the ships delivered on expedited timelines to mitigate the risk of operational capacity gaps.

In 2019, we secured significant investments to support CCG large vessel fleet renewal, supporting procurement of up to 16 Multi-Purpose Vessels (MPV), up to six Program Icebreakers, and up to two Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships, in addition to the five large vessels already part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS). In 2021, it was announced that CCG would also be procuring a second Polar Icebreaker to further enhance Canada’s arctic capabilities. These investments really mark quite a turning point, as it took the better part of a decade to secure all the necessary approvals and funding. Now it’s a matter of delivering on that plan.

In terms of concerns or observations on the NSS, it has taken time to rebuild the industry and strengthen capacity to build large ships domestically. The regeneration of the industry has required significant infrastructure upgrades in tandem with the growth of shipbuilding expertise. The venture has been more challenging than first envisaged, and, while progress has been made, it has left us in a place where both cost and schedule are not where we thought they would be.  Ultimately, at the beginning of NSS, I think the pace of advancement was overestimated in the beginning; and to boot, the emergence of COVID-19 has only served to slow that progress to a significant degree. Production efficiency, supply chain, and materiel cost have suffered over the last two years across most industries, including shipbuilding.

Although we have experienced the aforementioned challenges, it was a very proud moment to see the delivery of the third Offshore Fisheries Science Vessel (OFSV), CCGS John Cabot, which marked the completion of the first class of large ships built and delivered under the NSS. We have also made significant progress in small vessel delivery. To date, 20 small vessels have been delivered to the CCG, including 10 Search and Rescue lifeboats, two Channel Survey and Sounding Vessels, seven Hydrographic Survey Vessels and one Coastal Research Vessel. These vessels provide search and rescue services including performing searches on the water, as well as providing assistance to disabled vessels and support aid to navigation programs.

As I look forward to the future, the CCG’s principal concern is that new ships may not be delivered when we require them. This could result in gaps in essential service delivery, not unlike what we have already experienced with the recent unplanned decommissioning of CCGS Hudson. We now have a gap in important climate change and oceanographic work, and the replacement vessel is still three years from delivery, and we will need to fill that through a short-term vessel lease, among other solutions. 

It is imperative that we are able to build on the 10 years of experience and ensure that exiting the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry is in a position to increase its productivity rates and hit the potential that was foreseen when NSS was created. Only by doing that can we ensure uninterrupted service delivery.

Canada will need to play its part in this as well by actively managing its contracts and requirements to ensure a smooth flow of uninterrupted work that maintains both blue- and white-collar experience within the shipyards.

I remain optimistic that the industry and government as a whole are up for the challenge of continuing to drive improvement into all facets of shipbuilding – from engineering to production.  We have made a very good start across the country in putting infrastructure in place, attracting a workforce, and producing the initial classes of ships in NSS.  Building on this foundation, sustained improvement will be key to CCG’s ability to continue to deliver its on-water programs.

2 – Post pandemic, what challenges do you see for CCG personnel in working with the shipyards to finalize requirements and designs to affect the delivery of this new fleet?

Post pandemic, I expect there will be challenges as well as opportunities for CCG personnel in working with shipyards in the finalization of requirements and designs. 

With shipbuilding projects in full swing across the country and the world, the most significant challenge will be to attract, grow, and maintain qualified personnel. This is an issue that industry and Canada have faced since we started NSS. With other countries such as the UK and Australia ramping up their programs it will be vital that Canada work with industry on the issue of attracting and training a new generation of engineers and shipbuilders that will make way for stable employment levels and increased experience and productivity, making Canada competitive on the world market.

CCG will also have good challenges to work through with the addition of a third shipyard, pending its successful completion of the process to become a strategic partner under the NSS, to build the remainder of the ships within our Fleet Plan. We will apply the lessons learned from our 10 years of experience thus far to get up to speed quickly and build a productive relationship, with the aim of getting to a start of construction as soon as possible 

The last challenge I will mention is finding a new productive way to work together coming out of the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, both the public and private sectors had to adopt appropriate technology to allow remote work that still facilitated collaboration and supported progress toward shared goals. I think we can all appreciate that we’ve discovered that the work can go on even when many of us are (metaphorically) chained to one location – but we have learned that some amount of face-to-face is necessary to build and maintain trust in relationships. I believe that we will ultimately end up somewhere in the middle of the two approaches.

3 – At the recent ShipTech Forum, Deputy Commissioner Smith was talking about investment in digital twin. How is the CCG exploiting new technologies in modern ship designs and shipbuilding, such as:

  • Digital twins and digital threads
  • Environmental issues in support of the Oceans Protection Plan, such as green technologies in propulsion systems, the reduction of CCG vessel acoustic signatures to protect marine mammals, etc.
  • Given the logistical challenges of prolonged operations in Canada’s north, what evolving technologies are you looking to better support CCG operations in the Arctic?

All of our ship designs are being developed in sophisticated 3D modelling software. Not only does the use of the software facilitate the design and manufacturing processes in the shipyards but once the ships are delivered, the as-built 3D product model is the key tool required to support innovations such as digital twin and virtual training systems.

CCG ship designs comply with the spirit and letter of environmental regulations. For instance, our current designs comply with IMO Tier III regulations regarding air emissions. Further, some of our new designs, the Program Icebreaker and Near Shore Fisheries Research Vessel for instance, employ hybrid propulsion arrangements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of our future ships will be based on fully integrated electric propulsion systems which allow the load on the engines to be optimized at all times serving to reduce emissions.

On the acoustic signature front, CCG vessels are commercial designs based on international conventions and classification society rules. We are closely monitoring the development under IMO of a set of guidelines to reduce underwater noise which are expected to be available in 2023 at which point CCG will implement the revised rules in our designs.

As far as operating in the Arctic, it’s important to remember that this is not a new operating environment for CCG. We have been there for decades and understand well what is required to operate in the harsh environment there. In the future with ships like the Polar Icebreaker, we intend to be there year-round. That too is not new to us. In 2007 for instance, the CCGS Amundsen wintered in the Arctic. One key challenge in the Arctic however is communication and providing our crews with access to the internet. We’ve now made great strides on this front and have adopted Iridium connectivity with support from MetOcean Telematics, by deploying terminals directly on vessels. Our ships now have reliable internet connectivity even in the high Arctic, which is vital to our crew members’ well-being, but also to ensure we never lose connection with our shore-based personnel.

4 – With new ships of a common class being delivered, does the CCG envision a programme of configuration management similar to that of the Navy where equipment changes and modifications that are centrally controlled on a class-wise basis for economies of scale in both design changes (engineering) and replacement equipment procurement?

Yes, but it has to be understood that the CCG operates ships that are more to the commercial end of the spectrum, and so the problem is not as complicated as we would see for Navy ships.  When we set out to plan CCG’s future fleet, achieving greater efficiencies was one of our driving principles. We took a look at our current fleet and mapped out all the services we need to deliver, then imagined a more efficient way to deliver those programs on modern ships with a streamlined number of vessel classes in both the large and small fleet. The best example of this is the reduction of three classes of large ships – High Endurance Multi-Tasked Vessels, Medium Endurance Multi-Tasked Vessels, and Offshore Patrol Vessels – into one new class: the Multi-Purpose Vessel class.  By operating a large, single class of up to 16 MPVs, we can bring about efficiency gains in vessel maintenance, service delivery and even crew training.

Taking it one step further, the MPVs will also introduce “mission modularity” into CCG’s fleet. As well as dedicated equipment for different missions, CCG will implement ‘mission modules’ – which are portable units containing the specialized equipment needed for different missions. This will change the way CCG operates in the future. Modules will become a shared resource across the fleet that can easily be swapped in and out on different ships, providing operational flexibility and surge capacity. This not only allows us to centralize maintenance and spare parts, but the modules can also be updated and modernized without refitting the whole vessel, meaning our ships will be much better positioned to keep pace with modern technologies. While this idea was born from the concept of the MPVs, we’re also building modularity into the Program Icebreakers, Polar Icebreakers, and science vessels, as well some classes of small vessels, particularly the planned Mid-Shore Multi-Mission class.

5 – To follow-on from above, do you see in-service support contracts to maintain the new fleet in service, particularly one to maintain an up-to-date digital twin of each ship?

The CCG’s maintenance and logistics challenges are much less involved than the Navy’s due to the commercial nature of our vessels. Given that, we do not see the need for large scale support contracts such as the Navy’s AJISS program. Three-dimensional models and digital twin information will be kept up to date and used to plan and execute our regular refit program, but for now, CCG will continue to contract out maintenance packages in a manner similar to what we do today – with an increased focus on maintaining consistency across classes as they come into service.

6 – Crew support and accommodation has always been a significant factor with the CCG, how are you seeing ship design evolving for better shipboard habitability?

CCG’s current large vessels are on average 40-41 years old. This means the designs for the majority of our large fleet were completed decades ago, before considerations were fully given to supporting and accommodating a diverse crew. Over the past several years, we have been fortunate to receive significant investments into fleet renewal, presenting us with an excellent opportunity to develop designs for new classes of ships to better enable a diverse workforce with a user-friendly environment. This will allow us to better support CCG’s long-standing commitment of implementing equality best practices.

This year, CCG is celebrating its 60th anniversary with the theme “Celebrate the past. Navigate the future”. This provides us with a chance to, while celebrating our employees and all the accomplishments achieved over the past several decades, recognize and focus on how we can continue evolving as a progressive, innovative employer.

Along these lines, CCG is striving towards a barrier-free physical work environment in the design and construction of all our new vessels, wherever possible, to accommodate operators of different physical needs and requirements. For example, we recently re-assessed the sightlines on our newest class of Search and Rescue Lifeboats as part of an accessibility and ergonomics improvement. We have also dedicated our engineers to ensuring the principles of innovation, in terms of ship designs, are incorporated into every phase of the planning process.

Beyond the physical environment, we are also seeking to identify any opportunities to improve internal policies to encourage and celebrate a more diverse workforce that more accurately represents the Canadians we serve. We are, for example, working to make crew’s quarters more functional and comfortable, and are ensuring there are dedicated spaces on ships where the fleet personnel can partake in religious or cultural practices while at sea.

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