This article originally appeared in the Hill Times.
By Richard Shimooka, March 11, 2022
Last month, Alan Williams wrote an op-ed that criticized my recently released paper on the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) program. He raised several points that deserve discussion, as it elucidates part of my analysis.
To start, it’s useful to explain the aim, nature, and conclusion of my study, which identified five factors that guided the CSC program. For this discussion, three are particularly relevant:
- The desire to recreate a sustainable domestic Canadian government shipbuilding industry.
- Acquiring highly capable vessels for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) that can seamlessly operate alongside allied navies.
- The lack of project management and design capacity within the government of Canada, resulting from cutbacks to the procurement workforce in the 1990s and 2000s.
The first two are policy choices the government may be able to alter, but the third cannot be easily addressed. This capacity must be rebuilt over time and at significant cost.
My study does not suggest the CSC is an optimal outcome. Like with many other major government programs, it is the product of a less than ideal set of compromises, circumstances, and intents. Still, it is difficult to challenge the program’s outcome unless a government is prepared to modify either its desire to build these ships in Canada or accept a significantly less capable vessel.
In his opinion piece, Williams himself does not question two of these factors. He calls for a vessel that is “designed to meet our Navy’s specific needs,” which is essentially what drove the highly capable design requirements and ultimately the selection of the BAE Global Combat Ship (GCS) design. It is hard to see how, at this stage, any major combat vessel would better suit the Navy’s needs without forcing a less capable or unsuitable design upon them. Had such an offering existed, it would have likely won the CSC competition. Moreover, he identifies his preference for the ships to be built in Canada, which was the core of the National Shipbuilding Strategy and the CSC program, which basically locks in Canada to its present choices.
Instead of altering these fundamental factors, Williams places the blame on the selection of the GCS, which he identifies as an immature design. As evidence, he highlights the U.S. Navy’s (USN) experience with the Constellation-class frigate, a new combatant class derived from the Franco-Italian FREMM design. However, comparisons between the RCN’s CSC and USN’s Constellation reinforce the conclusions made above.
First, while the two classes seem to be superficially comparable, they are not. The Constellation is intended as a less capable vessel than the CSC, serving as a complement to the USN’s fleet of more than 90 major surface combatants.
While the two classes appear superficially comparable, they are differentiated by several capabilities that CSC possesses. It is a larger vessel of greater endurance, and provides significantly increased utility via its large mission bay and helicopter facilities. In particular, the enlarged flight deck allows for safer operation of our CH-148 Cyclones in rough ocean seas.
The CSC also has a much larger and capable radar equipment in the SPY-7 system when compared to the Constellation’s smaller SPY-6(V)3 radar. Finally, the CSC possesses a large hull-mounted sonar, whereas the Constellation is dependent on a combined variable depth sonar and towed array to provide underwater awareness. Additionally, this sonar system, the SQS-62, is presently being reviewed due to design problems and may be replaced with a less capable system.
Moreover, it’s implied another reason for the cost overruns is the decision to select an “immature” GCS design. Yet the Constellation is a comparatively more radical redesign than the CSC. The USN took the basic FREMM hull form and made major modifications to suit their purposes, adding more than 500 tonnes of reinforcement, altering its power plant, and revamping it with new sensor, weapon and electronic systems. By contrast, Canada deliberately avoided major changes to the machinery spaces and several major system in order to reduce cost and schedule risk. Considering the scale of these USN modifications, design maturity may not be a critical factor as suggested.
It also illustrates another key difference. The USN has one of the world’s largest naval shipbuilding industries, one capable of producing the entire spectrum of warships. They also possess the project management and design expertise to undertake these programs at a significantly lower cost, which Canada does not possess.
Furthermore, there is also significant disagreement over the costing of these vessels. For example, the Congressional Budget office predicted the per unit cost to be 40 per cent above the USN’s estimates—similar to Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Office’s view that the CSC will result in a 30 per cent cost overrun. It’s a reminder that the potential for cost escalation and delays will be omnipresent for any ship design pursued by Canada.
Beyond the comparisons with the Constellation class, the mechanics of altering the ship selection makes this approach an even less attractive alternative. Much of the design work for the CSC has been completed, with initial construction starting next year. Once production commences, the per-ship costs will drop 10 to 20 per cent by the third vessel. Thus, any potential savings by selecting a “cheaper” vessel would be moot, as a mid-production CSC would likely provide the same cost savings as starting a new vessel. It would also necessitate Canada maintaining two training pipelines for two different vessels, significantly increasing the operations and personnel costs for the Navy.
Cancelling the fleet of 15 CSCs would be an even less attractive option. All the existing investment on the CSC design would be lost (approximately $2-billion to date), which the government would need to spend again. At a minimum, this would entail a delay of four years according the PBO, and there is no guarantee that the new class of ship would not experience similar cost overruns and delays that have afflicted the CSC. Finally, it would delay the modernization of the RCN, requiring some of the Halifax-class to undergo another costly upgrade. This alone would almost certainly eliminate any theoretical cost savings, and likely cost the Canadian taxpayer significantly more than continuing with the GCS design.
All these considerations exist within the rubric outlined at the start—the current state of the program is determined by two policy choices (highly capable vessels and domestic production) that not even Williams is willing to alter in his piece—the reality of a defence establishment that does not possess the capacity to design and manage these vessels’ construction on their own.
Richard Shimooka is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the author of the recent paper titled “No Other Option: Politics, Policy and Industrial Considerations in the Canadian Surface Combatant Program.”