Canada’s JSS: Trendsetter ...Follower ...or Trap?
Mar 15, 2010

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Naval combat ships are glamorous, but without their supply ships, they won’t get very far. However, in 2008, the CAD $2.1 billion competition to replace Canada’s 38 year old Protecteur Class supply vessels sank. As some observers had correctly predicted since the Joint Support Ship (JSS) project’s inception in 2006, the program was unable to ­reconcile a wide array of government wants, with limited budgets and local capabilities.

Those replacements are still needed, even as other countries begin to field multi-role vessels of their own, and shifting doctrines and circumstances are beginning to change the way international fleets think about their navies and naval designs. The stakes are high, and the margin for error is slim. Failures in design or execution will first cripple Canada’s naval shipbuilding budgets, and subsequently restrict its navy.
How did we get here? Does the JSS concept fit with global naval concepts and trends? What are Canada’s options?
JSS: Steaming for the Rocks
DND’s 2006 RFP for the Joint Support Ship described a wide variety of capabilities in a single 28,000t, 200m hull. The ship would carry almost as much overall fuel as the Protecteur Class, with less ship diesel but more JP-5 naval aviation fuel capacity. It would offer the same kind of additional storage for dry gods and ammunition, but get a significant boost to 1,500 lane-meters of upper and lower deck space for cargo and vehicles. It would retain its predecessors’ LO-LO (lift-on, lift off) capabilities, while adding RO-RO (roll on, roll off) and rapid reconfiguration capabilities for its empty spaces. Not to mention operating 3-4 medium helicopters, ice-breaking (in conditions up to 0.7m thick), and sustaining 20 knots speed. To call these requirements “ambitious” fails to do them justice.
Canada’s Joint Support Ship requirements conformed to no known ship type in their breadth of required functions, and were based on no pre-existing class. Nor did the depth of Canadian design and build experience in naval shipbuilding give cause for optimism; quite the reverse, given the lack of recent military projects. The result was unusual only in that DND was forced to acknowledge the situation before construction began. The June 2006 program announcement was followed by Stage 2 awards in November 2006, but by early 2008, it became clear that the program was in trouble.
On August 22, 2008, the 3-ship program was terminated. Industry bids had made it painfully clear that the required design could not be executed within the allotted CAD$2.1 billion budget.
Meanwhile, the Protecteur Class are headed for 11-month stints of deep refits and life extension work, with HMCS ­Preserver scheduled to enter the Irving Shipbuilding Inc. facility in Nova Scotia any day now (April 2010). According to Preserver’s Commander Hugues Canuel, preparations for that refit are what kept the ship from deploying to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. As of this writing, no clear replacement strategy exists yet for Canada’s 40 year old supply ships.
In comparison, the Netherlands began a comparable “Joint Logistic Support Ship” project in November 2009. Speed requirements are slightly lower, and the ship isn’t slated to have ice-breaking capabilities, but Damen Schelde’s 28,000t JSS offers a number of similarities in both form and function. It’s even expected to embark CH-47 Chinook helicopters in its hangar, an unusual naval requirement that’s very useful to the Dutch – and to Canada. The Netherlands is not alone in pushing for multi-role vessels, albeit from a far stronger naval shipbuilding base than Canada. The attraction of amphibious and multi-role vessels is growing globally, despite the risks of pursuing hybrid designs.
As Canada contemplates its future naval shipbuilding bets, it needs to consider the logic driving these trends.
Expeditionary “Big Box” Navies
British naval theorist Sir Julian Corbett saw the navy’s proper role as “directly or indirectly either to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it.” Like cyberspace, the sea is neutral terrain. Its natural state is ungoverned, but it plays an important role in servicing and securing the governed spaces that adjoin it. With over 80% of world trade passing by sea even today, control of these “neutral territories” plays a key role in maintaining a globalized system and influencing populations and governments that depend on it. NATO’s headline for its new maritime strategy, “Securing the Commons,” amply reflects that critical task.
During the 2010 fighting in Yemen, one of the most important developments was also one of the least-remarked. Saudi Arabia sent a flotilla of small patrol vessels south – to enforce what amounted to a friendly blockade of Yemen’s coasts (including the key trans-shipment points for men and weapons from Somalia).
Even the US Navy, which cleaves more closely to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s doctrines of decisive engagement, is recognizing the shift. In February 2010, the naval web site Information Dissemination examined deployment patterns of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet from 2005-2008. Among 1,000+ ton vessels, the Navy’s LSD (Landing Ship Dock) amphibious assault ships were in heavy demand; they led in the percentage of vessels with 4,000 or more hours of service per year from FY 2006-2008, and narrowly finished second behind the Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates in FY 2005. Similar LPD (landing platform dock) amphibious ships were also consistently high in the rankings. Is there an explanation? U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Roughhead, may have offered one in June 2009, as he described activities around Africa. The bottom line? You can surge ships, but you can’t surge human trust: “There are some who would say a small patrol boat showing a small coastal Navy how to conduct a fisheries patrol is the best form of engagement, but consider what we have done with our African Partnership Station – where we took a little bit larger ship, an amphibious ship, where we could still go off and work with that coastal nation – but then we could ballast that ship down and pull their boats in, and teach them how to repair and maintain. Where we could have an international staff of young officers on board who will rise to the top of their Navy … developing friendships and relationships that will last the next 15 or 20 years. And a capability large enough to where we can hold conferences and meetings and mix with the various interagency groups in the countries where we operate. That, to me, covers a broad spectrum of engagement.”
From Russia, to Southeast Asia, to Europe, some of the most coveted and talked-about vessels these days are also amphibious assault ships. When partnership and engagement define the first line of defense in securing the neutral commons of the sea, broad-spectrum engagement becomes more important. That kind of engagement requires a certain kind of flexibility in the ships performing it. When serious threats become more diverse and manifest far away, flexibility in projecting power with troops also rises in value. Ships with amphibious capabilities fit both capability sets.
At the same time, technology is playing its own role. Electronics become obsolete in 5 years, and ancient in 15, but ships must last for 50 years or more. The U.S. disarmed its Oliver Hazard Perry frigates, retiring many of them half-way into their service life, rather than face the difficult task of upgrading them. That painful lesson is reflected in the push toward open-architecture electronics and modular spaces that can easily be reconfigured with new gear.
Meanwhile, the robotics sector is beginning to change militaries on land, in the air, and soon, at sea. Observers like Brookings’ P.W. Singer are discussing the future role of UUV/USV “swarms” and motherships, which fit supremely well into the late Vice-Admiral Cebrowski’s dictum that “the ability to complicate warfare for an enemy is an important consideration.” Even as they change the future reach and stare of naval surveillance in the global commons and its littoral chokepoints, the effects of robotics are, at best, dimly grasped by the world’s navies. Once the implications become clearer, the space required to host these systems will accelerate current “big box” modular trends.
The Multi-Role Temptation
Traditionally, a ship is built around its systems and payloads – define the payload and systems, then build the platform around it. The modern era’s challenges are increasingly driving shipbuilding toward a slightly different concept: designing ships around “boxes” of flexible space that can slot in new systems, capabilities, and cargoes as needed.
As even successful examples show, however, adding multi-role capabilities and new naval features has a price. That price is paid in standard capability trade-offs relative to ships of similar size, and in the danger of technical failures or operational drawbacks of new designs or new naval capabilities.
There are always trade-offs to be made, and the disproportionately low level of “trade space” in smaller ships will exacerbate them. In the USA, the Littoral Combat Ship program will pay about USD $650 million each for operational ship with the size of a Type-23 frigate, the armament of a Coast Guard cutter, and large “mission bays” designed to hold a variety of containerized specialty payloads. Required tasks may prove to be as varied as mine clearing, anti-submarine warfare, command and control, troop accommodations, and medical facilities. If the global threat profile worsens, adding basic tasks such as area air defense and anti-ship missiles will require time-consuming refits that drive the ships’ real base price up further, and create further trade-offs. While the U.S. may choose to assign $1.7 billion BMD-capable Arleigh Burke ships as Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) bodyguards in the interim, other countries spending $600+ million will require ships that can perform basic naval air defense and anti-ship roles.
Denmark’s successful Absalon Class “frigates” are really 6,600t destroyers with a frigate’s armament, but a roll on/off (RO-RO) rear ramp and storage area can accommodate anything from supplies, to containerized payloads, to Leopard 2A5 tanks.
Germany’s forthcoming 6,800t F125 expeditionary “frigates” are designed to remain at sea for more than 5,000 hours per year. Planned navalization of 155mm and MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) weapons for naval fire support proved too expensive, but the vessel will be able to embark up to 50 special forces troops. The ship class remains valuable, but has fallen short of its goals, and may be less able than the Absalon Class to fully leverage the growing future role of robotic platforms.
New Zealand’s 9,000t Canterbury Class is a combination patrol ship and amphibious support ship, with an ice-strengthened hull and space for two 50t LCMs (Landing Craft Medium). At the same time, the selection of a commercial base hull has led to poor sea keeping performance in high sea states, and corresponding issues with boat launches and with water in the cargo deck.
On the drawing board, potential offerings (outside the U.S.) range from ThyssenKrupp’s LCS-like Meko CSL frigate, to its 20,000t MHD 200 based on a converted container ship design, to BAE Systems’ 8,000t “UXV” destroyer/mothership concept. And don’t forget the 28,000t Dutch JSS project mentioned earlier.
It is also important to note the project risks when embarking on completely new designs, and/or demanding local construction. Engineering is a challenging art at the best of times, and new military projects are more demanding than most. A strong shipbuilder with recent, related experience can lower some of the risks. Add local unfamiliarity into the mix and, as global examples demonstrate, significant schedule slips and

major cost overruns will inevitably result.. Given the limited procurement resources of small to medium powers, such projects can easily threaten to swallow entire service procurement budgets. Cancellation will culminate in millions or even billions of scarce dollars being flushed down the toilet. On the other hand, continuing the program may break one’s military as other areas are starved to pay for it – all with no guarantee of success.
Australia’s Collins Class submarines were based on an existing Kockums design, and the local shipbuilder ASC had the assistance of an experienced partner. Yet the program’s total estimated cost has skyrocketed to AUD $6+ billion, and technical-operational issues have been rife. Fully 14 years after the first submarine entered service, the RAN is down to just 1 operational boat in 6, and HMAS Collins is rated as fit only for training duties. Fully operational and combat-capable boats aren’t expected in any numbers until 2012 or later, almost half-way through some of the vessels’ expected service lives. This is a good example of a semi-successful program, by a middle power, with a new design, in an unfamiliar area of naval shipbuilding. Caveat governor.
The Industrial Equation
In 2008, the furor over JSS-related briefings with Dutch firms illustrated the local difficulties Canada will face in buying effective new ships.
Canada is a maritime country, with a small but competitive and high-quality shipbuilding industry. Its problems include the USA’s Jones Act, which makes major sales to the American market virtually impossible; foreign shipbuilding subsidies of up to 40% that make both exports and home market commercial sales extremely difficult; and a home market that can’t buy enough military vessels to sustain much of anything. A 2001 National Partnership Project report involving Industry Canada and Canadian shipyards produced a slew of recommendations, but the government’s response was that it was constrained by treaties and immovable foreign decisions, and could not act on many of them.
The result is an industry that’s poorly positioned to produce complex naval vessels on a cost-effective basis. At the same time, however, it needs the large injections of funds – represented by advanced military projects – because there are so few alternatives. Given the military’s low political priority in Canada, calculations suggest that industrial politics will consistently trump military needs. That has remained a safe bet, even though Canada lacks the same geo-strategic rationale for a shipbuilding industry as its American counterpart. It does not aspire to be a significant naval power, which explains the government’s preference for local naval shipbuilding as purely a matter of industrial politics.
That preference has a cost. Based on DND’s 1999 “Report on Canadian Patrol Frigate Cost and Capability Comparison,” the Canadian project premium for the Halifax Class frigates was about 20% on average and 29% at the median, vs. selected foreign designs available on the open market. That project also suffered notable initial delays, due to new construction methods and software challenges – all for a known and familiar ship type. Worse, the industrial shipbuilding rationale for paying this ­premium collapsed after the project ended. The Irving shipyard that built them had to close in 2003.
Those challenges, and costs, would likely be magnified for any new ship type like the JSS. At the same time, the reality of Canadian politics is that the military ­purchasing strategy will have to be coupled to some form of coherent industrial strategy that includes local construction. The alternatives are either a strong risk of political failure, or a piecemeal approach that creates additional risk and waste on a massive scale.
Naval Support: A Course Forward?
In the coming decades, Canada will need to replace a variety of aging naval ship types with new designs that will be both survivable against modern opponents, and possess capabilities required to serve Canada’s interests. Beyond the replacement of Canada’s supply ships, is the phased Canadian Surface Combatant program to replace our Halifax Class frigates and Iroquois Class destroyers. Other requirements may well emerge before those programs end, due to changes brought about by climate or global politics.
In replacing the JSS, Canada has several force mix options, and several industrial options within its budget.
Force Mix Options

  • JSS/Go Dutch. This option keeps the core JSS plan intact, but either tries the same thing and hopes for success this time, or focuses on following the Dutch program rather than blazing new trails. If the main risks of a new design revolve around engineering/technical challenges, and lack of previous build experience, why not let the Dutch pay for them? Variant Canadian requirements, like 20 knots sustained speed and ice-breaking capabilities, would be removed unless they could be added at very low cost.

    The risk is that Canada would have to wait a few years – to be certain that Canadian shipyards can handle the Dutch design’s construction at reasonable cost, that the design performs in the water, and that the Dutch ship doesn’t become unaffordable due to base cost increases. Cost estimates have already spiked 37.7% between 2005-2008, to €365 million (about USD $500 million), before any contract has even been signed. Further price increases cannot be ruled out, despite Damen Schelde’s experience and its cost-centered decision to undertake a significant portion of construction at Galati, in Romania.

  • Standard Supply Ships (S3). This approach would eschew new designs and concepts to focus on: buying proven ship designs; from existing shipbuilders; and with the fewest possible modifications.  Australian procurement reports, like the influential 2003 Kinnaird Review and its follow-on the 2009 Mortimer Review, have consistently stressed this approach for lowering financial, operational, and engineering risks. Under this approach, Canada would look to existing and proven supply ship concepts, like the USA’s $550 million, 37,300t T-AKE ships. Standardization on an existing design also ensures long term support options, and possibly industrial opportunities.
  • S3 Plus Supplements. This option buys standard, proven supply ships per S3, but the number drops from 3 to exact replacement with 2, in order to purchase supplemental ships. If capabilities like sealift or polar work are desired, dedicated specialty ships of proven classes could be built or chartered with remaining funds. 

    Sealift-capable LPD/LSDs, like the 13,000-17,000t Dutch Rotterdam Class or France’s 21,000t Mistral, would come with price tags in the $450-700 million range, and would offer just one additional ship within the envisaged budget, albeit a very capable one. While the smaller, cheaper Canterbury Class multi-role ships’ stability issues make them a poor choice for Canada, inexpensive options like Singapore’s 6,000t, $100-150 million Endurance Class are also available if Canada wants 2-4 “big box” amphibious platforms instead. They could be used in a variety of partnership and even mothership roles around the globe.

    In the USA, meanwhile, the Army & Navy’s Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) program may end up offering a wide variety of “big box” operational options, in a 100m hull based on Austal’s wide high-speed car ferry catamarans. The US Navy may be about to expand this program from 8 ships to 23 due to their versatility and $180 million price tag.

    The similar Hawaiian Superferry vessels Huakai and Alakai were recently assigned by US MARAD to participate in 2010 Haitian relief efforts. Their ability to work without port infrastructure served them well in Haiti, and points to the charter option as a way for Canada to gain experience with new maritime capabilities at low cost. The USA has done exactly that in recent years, chartering, using, and experimenting with high-speed vessels from Austal and Incat.

  • S3 Plus Surface Combatants. This buys standard supply ships per S3, and depends on modularity in the Canadian Surface Combatant program to offer some of the benefits associated with the “flexible boxes” design approach. DND has already indicated that the CSC program would emphasize modularity, and cited the USA’s Littoral Combat Ship as an example, but there are no specifications to back that up as yet. 

    The risk is that the required “flexible box” capabilities won’t materialize in the new ships, or the required ships won’t materialize due to future budget cuts. This option would also offer a narrower spectrum and level of engagement, stabilization, and force projection options, while constraining the ships’ combat armaments per the Danish Absalon Class, German F125, etc.

Industrial Options

  • Single Shipbuilder. Rather than making inefficient investments in a variety of shipbuilders, Australia has essentially designated ASC Pty Ltd. as its main naval shipbuilder into the future. This allows for concentrated local investment and training, and provides better assurance of ongoing work over time via new programs. A strategy that aims for technical and industrial commonality among a wide range of naval vessels is a natural complement.
  • Multiple Shipbuilders. Less effective or efficient in terms of investments, but may be necessary due to politics, geography, partnerships, or platforms selected. One variant of this separates shipbuilding from maintenance, or assigns most shipbuilding work to one entity, while breaking out maintenance and/or a very different ship class for construction elsewhere. A Canadian force mix that aims to buy JHSV-like fast support vessels as its supplement, for example, would be advised to pick a second shipyard if construction in Canada was necessary, because of the unique aluminum fabrication technologies required.

    Main Partner. Recent purchases have seen Spain’s Navantia become Australia’s chosen naval partner for its remaining major programs. Turkey’s relationship with ThyssenKrupp Marine for its MEKO frigates, submarines, etc. is also an interesting example of a main naval partner. This approach allows sustained investment in technology, relationships and skills by the foreign partner over time. The flip side is that the selection of that shipbuilder becomes very politicized, unless there is some sort of secondary “prize” available.

  • Multiple Partners. The difficulty with this approach is that the required investments won’t make much sense unless one has very clear commercial spinoffs, or the ship types selected force a middle power to focus on two suppliers instead of one.
  • Build Elsewhere, Modify Here. This approach acknowledges the advantages of foreign construction, while bringing structural work, systems integration, and related work to domestic firms. Australia’s 28,800t Canberra Class LHDs, for example, will have their hulls and significant sections of their structures built by Navantia in Spain, then brought to Australia for finishing. Local firms will add superstructure, electronics, systems integrations, and finishing amounting to about 25% of the contract. Maintenance contracts will raise local work percentages over the ship’s life. A variant approach might take an existing ship, and have local firms add capabilities. This must be managed carefully, however, lest it become very expensive.

    Obviously, industrial and force strategies can be mixed and matched within a CAD $2.1 - 2.5 million budget. As an illustration, we might combine an S3 Plus Supplements force mix with a main partner, single shipbuilder industrial approach, supplemented by a build elsewhere, modify here procurement.

    The partners and examples chosen matter less than the principles they illustrate. In this imaginary scenario, Canada picks Italy’s Fincantieri as its main partner. Canada’s supply ships are replaced with a 27,500t Fincantieri oiler design that is just entering service with India, and they are built in partnership with a winning Canadian shipyard. That work has potential commercial spinoffs for future replacement of some ships that ply the Great Lakes. After the oilers are built, Fincantieri’s Canadian partner shipyard will also build Canada’s future surface combatants, which will be based on the Italian multi-role and ASW variants of the Franco-Italian FREMM frigate program.

    The supplemental ship chosen is Austal’s JHSV, and that effort begins by chartering a pair of similar Austal or Incat vessels for 3 years. This ensures immediate availability for missions, opportunities for experimentation, and time for required industrial investments and training by their partner shipyard – which is not the same as Fincantieri’s partner. The JHSV ships will be built at Austal USA in Alabama, which has made extensive investments in the required shipbuilding technologies, then come to their partner in Canada for finishing. The JHSV’s flight deck will be reinforced to handle CH-47 Chinooks for “lily-pad” operations, systems and structure will be added to support a single bolt-on Phalanx or SeaRAM point defense system, improved capabilities will be added for launching and recovering UAVs and small robotic sea craft, and the ship’s bays will have standard interfaces compatible with Littoral Combat Ship containerized mission modules. At the same time, Canada focuses more of its R&D efforts on naval robotics in order to build that industry, and also funds new LCS-compatible mission modules for uses like instant onboard medical facilities, command and control, longer-term troop embarkation, containerized naval maintenance for use with partner nations, etc. This would combine “local content” with R&D and export strategies designed to piggyback on someone else’s platform by offering new capabilities and robotic platforms. Output is 2 oilers, 2 JHSVs, up to 15 surface combatants, plus a Canadian upgrade option for American JHSVs, a couple of new robotic UUV/USV platforms, and 1-2 new mission modules that can be fitted to compatible ships in Canada or abroad.

It’s clear that Canada needs some form of supply ships, and some form of naval expeditionary capability that takes modern “flexible box” naval trends into account. The question is where and how.

Beyond its Protecteur Class replacement, Canada’s future ship plans involve partial substitutes for each other. Canadian Surface Combatant Flight 1 and Flights 2-3 can cover and correct for each other’s weaknesses, or partly cover for a misguided procurement approach, in one set or the other, by making different choices. Our supply ships have very little service life buffer, and other classes we plan to buy won’t help much if the Protecteur replacement project fails to deliver. Failure here can cripple the entire Canadian Navy for a generation.

Doing the same thing, and expecting a different result, remains a useful definition of insanity. Fortunately, revised naval options that combine viable off-the-shelf ships with viable industrial strategy combinations are either on the market now, or emerging quickly. Canada has a myriad of choices.

The key will be effectively combining military and industrial needs in ways that will deliver the most capability at low-level project risk, while still providing industrial benefits. That kind of approach has not been DND’s strength in the past, which is why success will require strong civilian leadership. The future of Canada’s Navy is important enough to demand it

Joe Katzman ( is an expat Canadian currently living near San Jose, California. He is the Editor of Defense Industry Daily magazine. All opinions expressed here are solely his own.
© FrontLine Defence 2010