Why Canada needs a new supply ship for relief missions

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COMMENTARY

by Jeffrey F. Collins & Andrea Lane

Policy Options
June 21, 2018

Naval procurement has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. First up is the ongoing legal squabbling over the former number two in the Canadian military, Vice Admiral Mark Norman, who is charged with breach of trust for allegedly leaking cabinet secrets to Quebec’s Davie shipyard. Then, the government is refusing to release a report that would shed light on exactly how far behind schedule the joint support ship and Coast Guard heavy icebreaker procurements are, nor will it provide an updated delivery estimate. Finally, the plan to replace frigates and retired destroyers with a new surface combatant vessel continues to be beset by delays and industry infighting as the bid process drags on and on — with further delays announced by the government recently.

Yet despite such persistent bad news, in March 2018 the Royal Canadian Navy (the navy) achieved a rare procurement success when its new supply ship, MV Asterix, officially entered service under a lease arrangement with the firm Federal Fleet Inc. A commercial ship purchased in 2015 and converted over the following two years, Asterix fulfills a key naval capability lost in 2014 when a fire and, separately, hull fatigue removed from service the decades-old auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) ships HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Provider. These ships, known as oilers, provided the lifeblood of the fleet, carrying the extra fuel, food, spare parts, helicopters and ammunition necessary to extend naval operations away from shore for longer periods at sea. The Protecteur-class AORs also gave limited onshore support to other Canadian Armed Forces units participating in peace support and in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. With the loss of both AORs, the navy needs another ship like Asterix — and fast.

The Protecteur-class oilers had to be retired when their replacements, to be called joint support ships, were scarcely beyond the design stage, much less completed. With delays stretching into the 2020s on the joint-support-ship project, the navy faced the very real possibility of losing its vital replenishment-at-sea skills and naval support capabilities. Oilers borrowed from the Spanish and Chilean navies were only a temporary stopgap. In fact, the need to get an AOR capability was so pressing that Asterix embarked into navy service even before all its interior fittings were completed. The ship has already taken part in military exercises in the North Atlantic, completed a double replenishment-at-sea operation with the US Navy and has now deployed for the West Coast to join in one of the world’s largest multinational naval exercises, RIMPAC.

Image credit: The Canadian Press Images, by Lee Brown

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