LEE BERTHIAUME, POSTMEDIA NEWS has the latest on the RCN’s destroyers:
OTTAWA — Canada’s navy will have to do more with less in a few years as internal documents and Defence Department insiders have confirmed the country’s aging fleet of destroyers will be retired before replacements are ready.
The revelation highlights the pressure the Conservative government and Canadian Forces are under as they race against the clock to start cutting steel on new vessels through their promised $35 billion national shipbuilding procurement strategy.
“It just kind of echoes the same worries that we’ve had,” said Andrew Warden, head of maritime affairs at the Navy League of Canada. “These projects keep being delayed and delayed, and the ships just keep getting older and older.”
The navy’s Iroquois-class destroyers were built in the early 1970s and underwent a major upgrade in the 1990s so they could provide anti-submarine warfare, anti-aircraft defence as well as command-and-control capabilities for Canadian and allied naval task forces.
Over the decades, the destroyers have participated in missions off Canada’s shores and around the world, including in the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Storm, the Indian Ocean after 9/11 and in Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake.
Briefing notes prepared for Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino in May 2011 and obtained by Postmedia News state the destroyers “will reach the end of their planned service life beginning in 2017, at which point they will be over 43 years old.”
Yet the notes also say the Iroquois-class “will not be replaced before it is retired,” an assessment that was confirmed Wednesday by a senior official within National Defence.
The navy is putting in place plans to ensure the loss of the destroyers won’t negatively impact the maritime force’s capabilities, and Warden said Canada’s 12 Halifax-class frigates can take on many of the tasks currently assigned to the destroyers.
However, the loss of the Iroquois-class “will definitely limit some of our options” in terms of what type of operations the navy can undertake during that period, Warden said, while the key question is exactly how long the gap will last.
Treasury Board, which holds the federal purse strings, reportedly agreed on Tuesday to release several hundred million dollars so the Defence Department could move ahead and begin designing the vessels that will replace the destroyers and frigates.
This is considered a significant step and the hope is that negotiations with Irving Shipyard in Halifax and associated contractors responsible for building the next generation of naval surface combatants will be finished by 2016, with the first ship delivered in the early 2020s.
But Fantino’s briefing notes warned that the “critical” $26.6-billion Canadian-surface-combatant (CSC) project to replace the destroyers as well as the frigates would need to enter the design phase in 2011 to ensure the rest of the process — including contract negotiations with industry — moved ahead smoothly.
On top of that, senior naval officers noted at a recent conference there were more than 400 people working directly on the Halifax-class frigate program in the 1980s and another 1,000 contributing in other ways.
In contrast, there are about 30 currently assigned to the project that will replace the frigates and Iroquois-class destroyers, with that number expected to peak at only a couple hundred in the coming years.
“There needs to be an understanding across this community about the relative fragility of the staff capacity that we are seeing,” deputy naval commander Rear-Admiral Mark Norman said at the time. “This is not anyone’s fault. It’s just a reality.”
National Defence is already facing the reality that the first naval vessels to be produced under the Conservative government’s national shipbuilding plan — armed Arctic vessels — will be delivered three years later than anticipated.
Warden worried there will be a spill-over effect on the destroyers and frigates.
“It does not bode well that CSC is coming after the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships and the AOPS have already been delayed,” he said. “That means we’re already three years behind.”
Jim Carruthers, president of the Ottawa branch of the Naval Association of Canada, said delays are the price that must be paid to ensure the government’s $35-billion shipbuilding plan not only produces vessels, but also positions the country as a global shipbuilding power.
“In an ideal world there wouldn’t be any gap,” he said of the destroyers. “And I expect there will be more delays. But it’s the sensible thing to be done (building up the industry), and there was a price.”