There is a lot of speculative talk going on about what the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy will produce, when the ships will arrive and what capabilities they will embody. Rather than rely on second-hand information, the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies invited representatives from industry, government and academia to Dalhousie University in June for a closed door and non-attribution workshop to present current information and engage in frank discussion.

The morning session examined both the Joint Support Ship and Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship programs. The latest set of design drawings were on display and representatives from both project offices were on hand to answer questions about the planning process and particulars of both ships. Changes to both plans clearly indicated that the process is still in a dynamic stage and that new factors are causing fresh assessment of need versus requirement.

The displacement of the AOPS has been increased after an earlier move to reduce it, and the JSS has had its water capacity reduced in favour of carrying more fuel. Other changes to cargo handling and internal organization are part of the inevitable “Canadianization” process that puts our own assessment of capability requirement into somebody else’s plans.

Because replacement of the destroyers and frigates of the Canadian naval fleet is still many years off, the afternoon panel did not have specific details from plans to serve as the basis of the discussion. Instead, a top-down approach looked at what the strategy reveals about government goals, the trends in capability requirements that have become evident from information provided to industry by government and the navy, and ended with three industry assessments of their outlook for the program.

The discussions were as open and forthright as the organizers had hoped they would be. The goals of the workshop were to identify stakeholders, engage in a discussion with those willing to participate, and come up with a number of prospective areas for academic engagement with industry about the key questions that need examination.

Three key areas that were identified included the all-important issue of tradeoffs between capability within a cost envelope; the emerging technological trends in naval warfare that will shape capability requirements and employment options during the 30-year (or more) careers of these ships; and the management of risk between government and industry in delivering the product, with particular emphasis on the ownership of intellectual rights and properties. None of these thorny problems has been mapped out adequately and they could become major obstacles if an open dialogue does not precede decision-making and steel-cutting.

It is absolutely true that cost and capability have been eternal problems in ship design, and there is good evidence to suggest that innovation and compromise will be needed to resolve them. David Perry’s most recent analysis on defence spending shows that cutbacks and inflation have reduced the budget to the equivalent of what it was in 2007 and the Canada First Defence Strategy spending plan from $490 billion over 20 years to $453 billion.

There is, therefore, a danger when defence and security trends are indicating a number of issues, like climate change, resource competition and challenges to offshore territorial claims, which will place a premium on maintaining peace and stability on the world’s oceans. What role should Canada play in a future mission that could involve high, medium and low levels of threat, complexity and duration? How flexible will our naval ships be at the time of crisis if Canadian government leaders, naval officers and citizens do not understand decisions taken 20 years earlier about capability?

As an attempt to generate discussion about the shipbuilding program, the Dalhousie workshop was successful in opening the dialogue. The proceedings will be published in synopsis form and made available via the Centre Foreign Policy Studies. Articles emanating from academic research are anticipated and will be published as part of the CFPS Maritime Security Occasional Papers, in Canadian Naval Review and Broadsides, the online discussion forum of the journal.

Another event will be held in mid-November to examine key human resource issues relating to future ship design and operation.

Sponsorship for the event was provided by Lockheed Martin, Thales Group, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, and the Institute for Ocean Research Enterprise.
Ken Hansen is an adjunct professor of graduate studies with the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University and a member of the Science Advisory Committee with the Institute for Ocean Research Enterprise in Halifax.