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In The Media

Warship designers scramble to assemble boatload of supporting documents for bids

by Murray Brewster (feat. Elinor Sloan)

CBC News
October 11, 2017

Companies bidding to design Canada's new warships have to throw in specifications for everything — including the kitchen sink and the paperwork to prove it works.

That is one of about 600 technical requirements in the design stage of the $60-billion frigate replacement program — the myriad tiny details that some of the 12 companies in the competition say are excessive.

One section of the bid documents, obtained by CBC News, lists the appliances and expectations for the ship's galley.

It is an extensive list, including a 40-litre mixing machine, one four-rack convection oven, a single two-compartment steamer cooker, two 80-litre steam kettles and two 0.75-metre griddles, among many other things.

In addition to demonstrating those items fit in their warship design, the bidders are also required to submit technical documentation to prove the equipment works, akin to the owner's manual you'd find with home appliance purchases.

The Department of Public Services and Procurement revealed a few weeks ago that a federal cabinet decision on which off-the-shelf warship design will be purchased for the navy was being delayed until next year.

Bids to supply the blueprints and help in constructing the 15 surface combat ships were originally supposed to be submitted last spring, but federal officials recently set a new deadline of Nov. 17.

One of the reasons for the delay, according to two bidders who asked not to be named, is the amount of supporting technical documentation that must be submitted.

The federal request for proposals lays out the expectations of what equipment officials believe is necessary for the warship.

Rounding up all of that paperwork has proven awkward and time-consuming against bid deadlines that now been pushed off at least twice.

Nicolas Boucher, a spokesman for the department, said the government and the company leading the program, Irving Shipbuilding Inc., intend to amend the request for proposals "to remove some instances where bidders would have to submit supporting documentation."

Complex warships

Boucher would not comment on the number of requirements involved in the program or whether they were excessive, but noted warships are exceptionally intricate and specific details are necessary.

"Due to the complexity and the interrelated and sometimes nested nature of many of the requirements, it would not be appropriate to identify numeric counts," Boucher said in an email.

Public Services and Procurement Canada was recently compelled to rewrite portions of the bid document to cut the companies some slack.

Last spring, bidders warned both the federal government and Irving that due to the complexity, the tender needed to be overhauled or the program faced a "very high risk of failure," according to documents obtained by CBC News in June.

In addition to eliminating the requirement for some documents, Boucher said the bid evaluation process is being revised to allow companies "to submit missing documentation and to correct problems with their bids."

There is a concern that asking for too much "excessive, annoying detail" discourages bidding and "cuts out viable competitors," said one defence expert.

"I think that's something the navy and public works would want to consider," said Elinor Sloan, a professor of international relations at Carleton University and a former analyst at National Defence.

Ghost of the F-35

Part of that "details" mentality stems from the embarrassing, high-profile fiasco related to the failed acquisition of the F-35 fighter jet by the former Conservative government, she suggested.

In calling out both National Defence and Public Works (as it was then called) in his 2012 report, Auditor General Michael Ferguson accused both departments of not doing their homework on the proposed stealth fighter deal and misrepresenting the enormous price tag.

That criticism has seeped down to the bureaucracy.

"It may not directly, or consciously, be driving it, but [the criticism] is certainly out there and I cannot help but think it is part of the consciousness of the officials going into this," she said.

Another reason for asking for so much detail is the fact that navy planners are trying to anticipate how the warships will be upgraded in the future, Sloan added.

"I know that in the performance details, they're looking at an awful lot of details so that something doesn't have to be moved — or refitted — several years or even decades down the road," said Sloan.

"I know they're attempting to anticipate as many future changes as possible."

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