K. Joseph Spears

Canada’s Navy was founded in 1910 and has a long and illustrious history through two world wars, the Cold War and into the 21st century, a century which has seen a war on terrorism and piracy. In a complex threat environment, navies have become increasingly important and relevant globally. Over time, Canada’s Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) pioneered a variety of naval capabilities including the use of large helicopters from small warships, in support of antisubmarine warfare. Canada’s RCN is an integral part of NATO and works closely with allied partners around the world in support of counterterrorism and force projection maintaining the security of global maritime shipping, which is the foundation of international commerce.

An integral part of that capability is replenishment at sea (RAS) which allows the RCN to maintain its warships in a state of operational readiness. Resupply and refueling capability are just as important as the highly trained crews and weapons systems aboard Canada’s warships. The RAS procedure is a standardized NATO practice. Canada’s warships have a limited fuel capability and the ability to refuel at sea gives Canada the necessary capability to operate over the horizon and in the broader international context in support of Canada’s interests. Without a RAS capability, Canada’s warships are limited to operating along Canada’s coast because of their high fuel consumption, and limited fuel storage capacity.

The naval task group concept used by the RCN utilizing a variety of warships that can be sustained at sea depends on at-sea replenishment utilizing dedicated vessels commonly called in naval parlance, an Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment Vessel (AOR). An AOR vessel, normally a noncombatant, typically provides the fleet with a variety of services including light maintenance, fuel for both the ship (bunker fuel) and aircraft (helicopters) she may carry, as well as dry stores and supplies, including medical supplies. In the case of the United States Navy, civilian-crewed government vessels using the prefix USNS operated by US Military Sealift Command are utilized. The Royal Navy uses government vessels manned by civilian crew operating the Royal Fleet Auxiliary for this purpose.

Canada’s two former AORs, HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver were recently decommissioned after four decades of service, and are presently being scrapped. These purpose-built ships in Canadian shipyards provided the Canadian Navy with excellent resupply capabilities and the ability to refuel in almost any sea condition. During the Cold War in the North Atlantic, these vessels operated continuously and set the standard for resupply which can be performed at speed without the vessels having to slow down. This is done through a series of tensioned carrier wires that carry fuel lines from the AOR to the warship. Refuelling is a tricky maneuver, given the close proximity of the vessels, and the constantly rolling seas. Collisions have been known to happen during this maneuver. The overhead steel carrier cables that carry the fuel lines are constantly kept taut using winches during these operations. The activity requires a solid understanding of seamanship and station keeping. For many sailors, ship to ship replenishment at sea is a hair-raising experience, the first time and every time.

Canada’s replacements for the two ships that have been decommissioned consist of a container vessel being converted for duty (“Project Resolve”) and the construction of two new “Joint Support Ship” (JSS) vessels, also referred to as Queenston class vessels. The operational requirements that are applicable to both Project Resolve and two new Queenston class vessels have been defined by the RCN as follows:

Underway Support to Naval Task Groups: Underway support is the term that describes the transfer of liquids and solids between ships at sea. This underway support also includes the operation and maintenance of helicopters, as well as task group medical and dental facilities;

Limited Sealift: To meet a range of possibilities in an uncertain future security environment, JSS ships will be capable of delivering a limited amount of cargo ashore; and,

Limited Support to Operations Ashore: JSS ships will leverage its onboard facilities to the maximum extent possible.

The Project Resolve concept developed by Ottawa-based Federal Fleet Services Inc. is a unique project that has gained a great deal of notoriety and media attention over recent years. At the center of it is the vessel Asterix, owned by Federal Fleet Services. The vessel is a former container ship built in Germany in 2010 which is being converted at the Chantier Davie shipyard at Levis, Québec. Federal Fleet is preparing the Asterix Resolve Class AOR for service, meeting RCN auxiliary vessel requirements, through a contract allowing RCN to be able to restore RAS services quickly, without having to go through a multi-year procurement process. It appears that Fleet Services will own and operate the vessel over a five year period with civilian crews. The Navy will utilize a small contingent of crew for communications and operations of the RAS elements. In essence, Asterix will be a private commercial vessel providing replenishment at sea capability to the RCN.

Asterix is double hulled, and can carry 7,000 tonnes of fuel. It can make 400 tonnes of fresh water daily. In addition, it has been fitted with a helicopter deck and hangar which will allow it to carry a helicopter onboard. Asterix has the ability to carry containers forward on the deck to give it cargo delivery capability, and has two cranes for unloading cargo. Additionally, Asterix will carry a number of small vessels that can be utilized for humanitarian aid sorties.

Under the contract, Federal Fleet has taken all the contractual risk to provide the vessel in the required configuration. It is understood from open sources that Canada will pay nothing until the vessel until it is accepted for delivery. The total cost of the contract is $700 million over five years. It appears that the vessel cost about $10 million and that refurbishment cost is in the range of $270-300 million. During the duration of the contract, Federal Fleet will be responsible for ship maintenance support. The cost of this contract appears to be in keeping with other procurements by foreign Navies seeking AOR vessels. The vessel was recently showcased at a gathering in the Chantier Davie shipyard in July. The project is well advanced for delivery to the government of Canada, and is essentially on time.

The contractual term is for a fixed term of five years, with an option to renew for another five year term. It appears Canada has the option to purchase the vessel at the end of the service contract, although none of the payments made will be applied towards the purchase price.

The Project Resolve model can serve as a model for timely cost-effective future government procurements in the maritime sector. In fact, the Canadian Coast Guard is seeking a request for proposal RFP for icebreaking and salvage vessels later this fall. CCG recently issued RFI concerning icebreaking and salvage vessels to seek interest to address the icebreaker gap.

Under the noncombatant element of 2010 National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS, now “NSS”), Seaspan Shipyard of North Vancouver is building two Queenston class Joint Support Ships (resupply vessels) for the RCN at a budget of $2.6 billion. According to Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page in 2013, this amount was questioned as not being sufficient to cover the project costs. Time has marched on. Again, because of the uncertain future time horizon (the vessels will not be ready before 2022), it is difficult to predict the final cost because of inflationary pressures. The Queenston class is based on the German Navy’s proven Berlin class AOR vessel design. In the interim, Canada has been utilizing AOR vessels from both the navies of Spain, on the east coast and Chile, on the west coast, to keep its RAS skills alive in the fleet.

Project Resolve gives the Canada’s Navy the ability to replenish at sea while the JSS vessels are being constructed. Once the Queenston JSS vessels are built and commissioned, Asterix will be capable of providing interim capability when the Queenston JSS vessels are in refit, and can provide a multi-mission capability into the future for such things as humanitarian aid and disaster relief in support of other Canadian missions, both within Canada and internationally. They can operate either with the naval task force or independently. Lots of operational details are still to be worked out.

Time and again, the RCN’s well-utilized Protecteur class AORs played a critical role in response to major international incidents and have had a successful multi-mission role in support of government missions. One such example was the role played by HMCS Protecteur during the SwissAir crash off Nova Scotia in 1998 in support of the accident investigation and recovery. Project Resolve has clearly resolved the AOR gap for Canada’s RCN with a finite fixed cost. Asterix and the new Queenston class vessels will provide Canada multiple options to respond to incidents. These vessels are good to have in Canada’s ocean toolbox. In addition, the operational flexibility and cost savings to be accomplished through this public-private partnership should be considered carefully for application in other Defence activities.

Joe Spears has a long interest in Canada’s naval capability interaction between commercial shipping and the global commons in the 21st century. He is a frequent contributor to Canadian Naval Review and has spoken at a number of naval and marine conferences. Joe can be reached at joe.hbmg2@gmail.com