Rear-Admiral Patrick Flinn, the Chief of Staff Materiel Group and the former Director General Maritime Equipment Program Management, has described the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class Modernization/Frigate Equipment Life Extension (HCM FELEX) project as being similar to renovating a house – from the walls out.

The $900 million project will ensure that the 12 frigates, the workhorses of the RCN fleet, continue to perform the missions required by the government until their projected replacement date of 2030. Prime Minister Harper has said “the frigate fleet’s most important job is maintaining the safety and security of sovereign Canadian waters, patrolling Canada’s three coastlines and protecting borders from smugglers of drugs and humans, terrorists, illegal fishing and polluters. The vessels are also used in honouring Canada’s commitments to international allies.”

The ships’ main computer systems and consoles, command and control systems, radar capability, electronic warfare systems, and communications technologies are being upgraded during this mid-life refit. These combat systems enhancements will improve effectiveness and provide sailors with more time to counter threats, both on the open ocean and near shore.

As the combat system integrator, Lockheed Martin Canada is developing and integrating a new system that includes Combat System Management software co-developed with Sweden’s Saab SDS. The major systems being replaced include the Interrogator Friend or Foe by U.S.-based Telephonics, the SG-180 2D Radar by Saab EDS, a Fire Control System by Saab SDS, a SMART-S 3D Radar from Thales, the Data Link Processing System from IBM Canada, the Electronic Support Measures System from Israeli manufacturer Elisra and the Navigation Radar from Raytheon in Germany.

As well, the frigates are being reconfigured to accommodate an additional 20 personnel.

The final result will be a level of technical sophistication and integration never seen before in the RCN; or, as it has been described, like replacing a Commodore 64 with the latest in computer technology.

In addition to the updated combat systems, the RCN says the project has a myriad of other associated activities that will both improve capabilities and ensure marine systems have received their necessary mid-life maintenance. An example is the replacement of the aging machinery control systems with a cutting-edge Integrated Platform Management System (IPMS) that will not only modernize the control and monitoring of complex marine systems, but greatly enhance the conduct of damage control activities.

“Five ships have officially entered the program,” explained Gary Fudge, a project manager with Lockheed Martin Canada. “Two are in refit and three have been returned to the navy.”

HMCS Halifax and HMCS Fredericton were the first two of seven that will be refitted at the Irving Shipyard in Halifax. HMCS Calgary is the first of five to be refitted at Seaspan’s Victoria Shipyard, followed by HMCS Winnipeg. The Halifax, the first ship to begin the program, was also the first to be returned to the navy and has been undergoing trials in Halifax harbour. Lockheed Martin will be completing the commissioning and trials for the combat systems as part of a Tiered Readiness Program that will bring the initial two ships back into operation in 2014.

A local marine blogger saw her in the Bedford Basin in November and reported: “It returned to port last evening for a few hours, then late this morning returned to port again. After passing up the harbour it did a turn in Bedford Basin and headed out to sea again. The ship was proceeding very slowly to minimize wake in the area of pier 9C construction. It was also virtually silent.”

Not surprisingly, the schedule for HMCS Halifax has taken several months longer than initially anticipated. Legacy equipment had to be stripped and stored before she entered the Irving Shipyard. Lockheed Martin has noted that all 12 ships will begin the program in different states, which has added to the complexity of the modernization process.

The Fredericton, the second ship to entre the chain, was returned to the navy last month, Fudge said.
While the ships are being upgraded, Lockheed Martin has been conducting crew training at the dockyard and at its facilities in Dartmouth. Simulators have been constructed to mimic the layout and equipment on the frigates so that when crews return to their ship there is no learning curve with the new systems.

“We’ve completed training of the Halifax and Calgary crews and we’ll be finishing with the Fredericton crew later this month,” Fudge says. “When they’re finished, they’ll be heading back to the ship to get her ready for her sea trials.”

The training regimen, for both crew members and instructors who will be in charge of future crews, has been broken down into three components: one for operators, one for maintenance, and a team component for the operations room, which focuses on possible scenarios the ship may encounter.

“While you can describe our approach as cookie cutter, we’re continually improving,” Fudge says. “We run evaluations of the course, the materials, and the maturity with each crew and use their feedback to improve the process. As we move through all the ships, there will be less and less to improve.”

He says the sailors have been enthusiastic about the quality of the images on the new displays. They’ve gone from old equipment with green screens and lists to technology that is quite intuitive. “Now instead of lists that give a status, they get a graphic that is green for go and red for don’t go, much like an everyday PC. We’ve had excellent feedback so far.”

“The RCN must be capable of controlling events at sea, deploying globally, and operating alone or with our allies in a wide range of operations from humanitarian assistance to combat,” RAdm Flinn said last summer. “Upgrades to the Halifax-class will enable the RCN to contribute significantly to a more operationally effective, relevant, and responsive Canadian Forces.”

The refit portion of the HCM FELEX project is expected to be completed by December 2016, with full operational capability anticipated by early 2018.

Carol Dobson is the principal of Carol Dobson Communications in Halifax. Previously, she worked in government and association public affairs, including as the assistant base information officer at CFB Halifax.