NSPS: Multi-purposing for efficiency
Mar 15, 2013

During the Second World War, Canada and other maritime nations successfully employed, out of some desperation for sure, merchant ships armed with ancient military pieces and small naval detachments to man and operate them. They were cargo vessels that could protect themselves to some small degree. Called “Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships”, this class of ship pertains to a discussion of new Canadian vessels for our Arctic waters.

In Canada, capital procurement always comes down to money, or more accurately, lack thereof. The current plan is to design and construct a mixed Arctic fleet, consisting of one Polar Class One icebreaker, to be named the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, and six to eight arctic off-shore patrol vessels (AOPS), for the Royal Canadian Navy. Projected costs are $720 million for the icebreaker and $3.1 billion for the AOPS. This would not seem an overly ambitious plan, however, if one looks at the dismal capital procurement record by the current and ­previous governments, a knowledgeable audience could well surmise that neither the projected budgets or timelines, are likely to even be nearly met.

Proposed AOPS (Image, Canadian American Strategic Review)

So, given that (a) there is only a small pot of money (b) existing manning issues for both classes of vessels (c) duplication of function to some degree and (d) a public that is only marginally supportive of the Canadian military and thus could be reluctant to spend money in that direction, it would be prudent to consider other options to ensure we can acquire enough platforms to adequately protect our extensive shorelines and littoral waters.

The obvious answer is to create multi-purpose vessels instead! Fortuitously, ­creating and modifying multi-functional equipment is a Canadian Forces’ specialty. This expertise comes from years of parsimonious federal governments overseeing all things military. This article offers three possibilities or variants for the creation and manning of several multi-purpose federal arctic vessels. More than the design and creation of these vessels, it could be the crewing mix that will cause the greatest ­difficulty.
Coast Guard Crews

Combine both budgets and build a minimum of three PC1 (Polar Class level one – year round capability) icebreakers. This presumes the newly-named CCGS John F. Diefenbaker will be of the same class of vessel as the soon to be decommissioned CCGS Louis St. Laurent. Under this model, these vessels would be owned and manned solely by the Canadian Coast Guard. The difference here, in addition to more vessels, is they that they would be armed, and the CG crew trained to operate the armament. In the past, coast guard unions have indicated an interest in this issue. This does not mean ‘militarizing’ them or giving the crew ‘peace officer’ status (although these are possibilities). Rather, these vessels would be actual ‘patrol’ ships and be able to back up, to some degree, reinforcement of Canadian regulations, should they be broken by foreign vessels. RCMP and fisheries officers who have policing status, could still be aboard, depending on the planned deployment, or even on a permanent ‘posted to’ basis.

Robert Allan Ltd., a naval architecture firm, and Ausenco Sandwell, an offshore engineering firm, have formed a joint venture – Canada’s Arctic SAGE Team – to pursue icebreaker design ­opportunities worldwide. This composite photo shows the Robert Allan Ltd. Beaufort Class Design, operating in the Caspian Sea. (Image courtesy of Keppel Singmarine Pte Ltd.)

The proposed ship-board armament in this scenario would be ‘light’ weaponry and deckmounted only. Generally, when the term light weapons is used in this context, we refer to .50 caliber heavy machine guns. Larger caliber weapons require far greater instruction and would, in all likelihood, be ‘overkill’. It would be smart however, to take a page from RCN ship construction and add ‘hard points’ at various locations on the vessels. These hard points support the too-often used Canadian naval term of ‘fitted for, but not with’. In other words, should it be necessary in the future to fit larger armament to the ships at a later time, the heavier structural support they would need, would already be in place.

Increasingly used in the Canadian military, are Remote Weapon Stations (RWS). Indeed, planned for the frigates, which are currently in mid-life refit, are the navalized versions of the RWS. The appeal of this particular equipment is that it, unlike the pintle-mounted light, medium and heavy machine guns, the operators are not exposed to counter fire. Much like a video game with a joy stick and monitor, they operate the weapons remotely from elsewhere in the ship, using high definition, day/night video and other instruments/ controls. Ideally then, the new and lightly armed icebreakers would have a number of these remote weapons stations with supporting hard points at various locations on the superstructure.

Weapons instruction, certification, maintenance and ammunition supply would be performed by the RCN.

Naval Detachment

Under this proposal, a minimum of three icebreakers would be built. These ships would also be armed, possibly to a higher level. This is because, in addition to a coast guard crew, this proposal has a ‘naval detachment’ posted to the vessels, which brings us to the ‘DEMS’ analogy presented at the beginning of the article. The coast guard crew would operate the vessel, and the naval detachment would operate the weaponry and possibly any militarized electronics onboard. Currently, Canadian coast guard vessels will often embark RCMP and/or Fisheries personnel, if the mission requires an enforcement capability, such as drug interdiction. Similarly, should armament be required, the naval detachment onboard would be trained and capable. A detachment of 12 navy personnel would be sufficient to operate and maintain the light weaponry. This presumes a minimum of one .50 caliber heavy machine gun, either remotely or manually operated, and mounted well forward. Up to four similar or lighter weapons could be mounted around the vessel using various pre-built hard points. The mix of naval crew would include bosuns, weapons techs and a petty officer supervisor. Should militarized communications gear be required, a comms specialist would need to be included in the mix (military comms would be mission-dependent).

With a naval detachment onboard these vessels, other weapons and surveillance gear could be considered.

Modularized Vessels with Gold Crew/Blue Crew

This option suggests minor modifications of the vessels. Currently, the RCN operates Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels, or MCDVs, with six on either coast. These vessels can have different modular and attachable mission-dependent payloads. Their sweep decks can accommodate different payloads for minesweeping, route surveys, remote-operated underwater vehicles and containerized diving packages. When larger crew sizes are necessary, containerized accommodations can easily be placed on the deck.

With the proposed coast guard vessels appropriately designed to accept similar, but mission-specific payloads, we would now have naval-coast guard vessels capable of year round work. These vessels would also be lightly armed.

Proposal Three also suggests ‘Blue-Gold’ crewing of these vessels, much as the American nuclear submarine service does. More specifically, two different crews, one naval and one coast guard (or alternatively, two mixed crews) would operate these vessels year round on 6 month deployments. The scheduling would be either mission or time-of-year dependent. Quite obviously, the details for manning the ­vessels this way would be more complex than stated here.

With all three proposals, a minimum of three but preferably four vessels would be built. This number would allow operations to be based out of the east and west coasts, the stationing of one vessel in the north, and a fourth in maintenance. Despite the proposed number of vessels, the total cost would be lower than the estimated costs of the Polar 8 icebreaker and AOPS combined!

Clearly, putting any of these proposals in place will involve many questions and compromises, some simple and others complex, but they can be overcome. For instance: Would the vessel ‘markings’ be, RCN and/or CCG? Would the paint scheme be navy gray or coast guard red? Who would command this fleet? Importantly, which department or agency would ‘own’ these ships? Would a new ‘Northern Maritime Directorate’ need to be created? Would there be prioritization of crews? How could mission flexibility be maintained? Perhaps these questions are fodder for future articles.

The bottom line, on the surface at least, is that any of these three proposals suggest a less expensive and possibly more efficient and effective way paroling our northern waters.

A retired teacher, Jim Parker is a writer and naval reservist who served in Sudan and Afghanistan. He has two books in the works and resides in Victoria, British Columbia.
© FrontLine Defence 2013