Big Honkin’ Ships
Sep 15, 2010

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“We need to start cutting steel,” General Natynczyk said in September at the DEFSEC trade show and conference in Halifax. He was referring to the many ship requirements that are in desperate need of getting underway. The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, announced at CANSEC back in June of this year, is supposed to pave the way to get these procurements underway efficiently while distributing the workload, as fairly as possible, across the country.
Under this Strategy, one Canadian shipyard will be chosen to build the Joint Support Ships (JSS) and large ice breakers, and another will build the new destroyers/ frigates plus as well as the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). The smaller patrol ships will be built in other shipyards, and repair/refit contracts will be dealt with via RFP. We expect a 2011 decision on which shipyard has been chosen for the combat ships and which for non-combat ships.
Canada is currently shopping around for a design for the JSS, which will replace the ageing Protecteur Class Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) vessels. At least two are needed, though some industry experts believe a third may be affordable with certain design adjustments.
Canada is choosing between an in-house design or off-the-shelf designs from some of the major shipyards from NATO countries around the world. Navantia from Spain and TKMS from Germany are currently building interoperabile oilers, but it should be noted that these designs are basic oilers and may not be an appropriate response to the JSS. Presumably, an existing design could be sufficiently “Canadianized” to fulfill specific requirements, and would have the added benefit of having already been “proven” by another navy. Interoperability with an allied country would also be a benefit of this option. An in-house design, on the other hand, while having the potential of being made-to-order, it would also clearly be “unproven,” calling to mind the similarly plagued Cyclone helicopter, which is currently two years behind schedule with its “new” design, and will reportedly be delayed another two years.
Yet we must not forget that Canada does not have the best record when it comes to tinkering with designs, witness recent audit attention to cost overruns on Chinook helicopters which were caused by negotiating delays and our additions to a supposedly “off-the-shelf” helicopter.
In addition to the patrol ships, the frigates and the support ships, DND has a shown a renewed interest for amphibious ships. Decisions on that capability were put on hold in 2007, with the intent to revisit that option in 2010.
With almost 400 years of experience and expertise in Naval shipbuilding, French shipbuilder DCNS is well positioned to be a strong contender for any amphibious requirement. Both the CDS and MND have recently toured the Mistral Class Tonnerre.
The Mistral Class amphibious assault helicopter carrier is referred to by the French as a “projection and command” ship, or BPC (bâtiments de projection et de commandement). It is capable of transporting and deploying 16 NH90 or Tigre helicopters, four landing barges or 2 US Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion, up to 70 vehicles including 15 main battle tanks or a 40-strong tank battalion, and 450-500 soldiers (capacity can be augmented to 750+ troops or evacuees). The command post section has workstations for up to 150 personnel. Equipped with a 71-bed hospital and fully-equipped operating rooms, the Mistral Class ships are capable of serving as part of a NATO Response Force, or with UN or EU forces. A containerized modular field hospital can expand the normal hospital capacity during emergencies by appropriating other ship spaces.
Two ships of the class are currently in service in the French Navy: the Mistral (commissioned in 2006) and Tonnerre (2007). Due to the success of its Mistral Class design, as proved during real operations in Lebanon and Western Africa, the French MoD is reportedly planning a total of four vessels of this Class. Work on the third copy, the Dixmude, began in April 2009.
Flexibility and capacity of the DCNS shipyards was recently evidenced when the hull of the Dixmude was set afloat in Saint-Nazaire (Western France) so it could be moved from the aft to the front of the drydock to begin a large cruise ship build.
DCNS is acting as the Prime Contractor, with STX France being the main subcontractor. One of the world’s premier designers and builders of advanced passenger cruise ships, STX France will build the hull and platform systems in its St-Nazaire shipyard. DCNS is the combat system designer and integrator.
The combined use of civilian yards and a combat systems integrator has reportedly allowed the third vessel to be produced at greater cost savings.
Laid down in April 2009, commissioning of Dixmude is planned for 2012. The 21,300 ton Mistral Class “BPC” is the first “all-electric” ship in the French Navy. It is propelled by two electric-powered azimuth thrusters (pods), similar to those used on cruise ships, with two additional bow thrusters for added manoeuverability in tight situations.
Russia is reportedly planning to procure two Mistral Class ships from DCNS by the end of this year, followed by two others built in Russian shipyards. These ships would be adapted somewhat to the Russian Navy’s requirements, such as Arctic navigation capability.
Canadian officials are likely watching the DCNS/Russian negotiations with great interest as the Mistral Class could be a top contender to fulfill Canada’s requirement for a “Big Honkin’ Ship.”

Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief of FrontLine Defence magazine.
© FrontLine Defence 2010