By Peter Cairns, President, Shipbuilding Association of Canada

On 11 April 2013, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Rideau Institute released a paper on the government’s procurement of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS), entitled “Titanic Blunder – Arctic Offshore Patrol ships on course for Disaster”.

The authors make three recommendations from their study:

1. Cancel AOPS Procurement;

2. Replace AOPS with 6 to 8 purpose-built high Offshore Patrol ships based on a proven design; and

3. Rebuild the Coast guard Icebreaker fleet recognizing changing ice conditions and the need for them to fulfill additional constabulary roles.

Several weeks previous the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) tabled a report on the Joint Support Ship Project (JSS) in which he concluded that JSS was underfunded. No doubt those responsible for costing the JSS project have sharpened their pencils and checked their figures. Thus, in my view, the PBO report has served its purpose and has pointed out once again that in designing and constructing first-generation warships, accommodation of naval requirements within fixed funding envelopes is difficult, to say the least!

The AOPS Paper is a horse of a different colour. The authors are adamantly opposed to AOPS as it now stands and equally fervent for renewal of the Icebreaker fleet. The inference is that the National shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy (NSPS) will provide only one icebreaker when more are needed. This is true as it now stands, as NSPS only includes ships over 1,000 tonnes that have nominal project funding approved. I believe that ships not presently included will still be built if their need can be justified and when funding comes available. The real question is whether they will be folded into the present NSPS building program?

The authors favour armed fast patrol boats for offshore surveillance and offer several classes that are now in operation as examples. None of these vessels, in my view, are big enough or robust enough to do the job in Canada. A ship that sails from Halifax or leaves the confines off the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific is in blue water the minute it passes the headland. The reputation of these oceans for storms and violent waves is well earned. Ships that must spend the majority of their time working in Canada’s Waters have to be designed to do so.

The Armidale class patrol vessel is a case in point. Contrary to the opinion of the authors, they have been less than robust and now planning is underway to replace them only after 10 to 12 years of operation. Armidale herself has undergone severe structural cracking and has been restricted in operation and is likely to be taken out of service in the near future. Her problems are beginning to show themselves in several sister ships.

Interestingly, AOPS is larger than any of the examples considered by the authors. At just under 6,000 tonnes it would seem to better suited to the patrol function called up for AOPS than other ships mentioned in this report. Everyone who wears a naval uniform wants a fast ship. AOPS’ top speed will only be 17 knots and this can be a disadvantage in certain emergency situations but an embarked helicopter will offset this.

Concerning performance in ice, I understand that AOPS will have a similar capability to Svalbard, the ship it was modeled after. It is important to remember that AOPS’ ice capability is for its own mobility and not to provide icebreaking services to others.

The AOPS program has been underway now since 2007 and is on track to cut steel in 2015. The government and the firms involved have made large financial investments in the program. A recommendation to cancel AOPS at this time does not make sense. The government’s experience with cancelling large programs is instructive. In 1993 the Navy’s Sea King replacement program was cancelled and to this date the valiant Sea King is still operating. The cost of this cancellation has been in the hundreds of millions of dollars. One could expect a similar situation if recommendation one was acted upon.

There are many agencies involved in the NSPS acquisitions, each with its own requirements and priorities. Likewise, there are as many opinions about the ships as there interested observers. Someone has to meld the requirements and diverse issues into one vessel. Not everyone will be happy, but that is the way the system works. That said, the major decisions have been made and now is the time to get on with building the ship.

AOPS is not a perfect ship, but there are very few perfect ships in this world. It is a hybrid resulting from our unique geography and financial capability. AOPS will be a good ship operated by good sailors and will serve Canada well.