Replacing the AOR
May 15, 2014

Not a good time for the Royal Canadian Navy
– particularly the west coast fleet

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Algonquin (Iroquois-class destroyer) sustained significant damage after colliding with HMCS Protecteur (Protecteur-class auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR)) in August 2013. With her helo hanger still shrink-wrapped, and little evidence of work being done, rumours are swirling that Algonquin may not be repaired – only rumour of course, but fueled by a simple examination of facts (it will be a very expensive fix, she is over 40 years old, and had already been slated to be replaced in coming years under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy). Many consider the NSPS to be massively adrift, but dealing with that topic would require more space than we have here.

Protecteur was repaired and put back to sea, however, we all read about the fire aboard the AOR while on exercise with the Americans in March 2014. It is quite likely that even after being towed back from Hawaii to CFB Esquimalt, Protecteur will not be repaired due to the massive extent of the damage.

The Martime Costal Defence Vessels (MCDVs) will not be getting a mid-life refit, as they apparently will be replaced by the new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) yet to be built. Does this mean, naval reservists in the Arctic?! Much of this is due, of course, to the severe budget ­cuts that the Harper government is imposing on DND and, to be fair, other departments.

On the East coast, Canada’s other AOR, HMCS Preserver is due to retire next year (her service, along that of Protecteur, had already been extended by several years). HMCS Iroquois was tied up in Halifax last month after hull corrosion and structural cracks were detected.

In addition to the damaged ships and lagging national shipbuilding programme, the RCN’s 12 frigates are systematically going through FELEX (Frigate Life Extension), the mid-life refit that should extend service lives through to 2030. On the west coast, HMCS Calgary and Winnipeg have completed their refits and are doing the at-sea trialling. HMCS Vancouver is just out, and in the queue for at-sea trialling, while Ottawa heads into the barn, to be followed by Regina when she returns from serving with the NATO fleet as part of the Ukraine deployment. So, we can see that our west coast fleet is and for the near term will ­continue to be very challenged to meet its many commitments.

If indeed the decision is made not to repair Protecteur, what then? The RCN is left with one aging and soon-to-be retired AOR on the east coast. Beg and borrow from allies? Rent commercially? Go without? None of these are very attractive or, in fact, viable options. Had Canada acted more quickly and aggressively, we could have purchased the Bay-class Landing Ship, HMS Largs Bay, from the Royal Navy, when it was taken out of service despite being brand new. Indeed, the idea was given serious consideration by Canada, and apparently money was made available, however, as per normal, slow-out-of-the-gate Canadian bureaucrats, politicians and DND officials lost the purchase race to the Royal Australian Navy, who reportedly purchased the vessel ‘for a song’. Although this vessel (now identified as HMAS Choules) is not an AOR, it does have many of the capabilities of the current Canadian AORs as well as many of the wished-for capabilities for future AORs, such as cargo carrying (including sea containers and ­vehicles); added accommodation for transporting troops; a well-equipped hospital (a capability the RCN does not currently have in its naval fleet); limited helo capability (no hangar); plus amphibious launch capability.

In the situation the west coast RCN finds itself now – that is, without any form of at-sea resupply – had the Canadian military purchased former HMS Largs Bay, they could have traded the Americans for ‘services in kind’. More specifically, the RCN could have asked to be re-fuelled by American AORs and offered the services of the Bay-class vessel in return. Further, with the plan to build two Berlin-class AORs in the fairly near future (a whole other topic and article), Canada would have been in the fortunate position of finally having a ‘swing ship’ – very helpful in the situation the RCN finds itself today. Unfortunately, that is all water under the bridge and an opportunity lost. So, let’s look at what options remain open to the government.

As Canada has done before, commercial ships can be leased or contracted. When we exited Afghanistan and other war zones, and military equipment had to be returned to Canada, large cargo vessels were contracted to ship it back. Large commercial off-shore fuel and dry supply vessels exist around the world, supplying oil rigs and remote areas, and are available for lease and contract.

As one might imagine, leasing or contracting large commercial vessels is a very expensive proposition, costing upwards of scores of thousand dollars per day. Further, liability costs of using a commercial vessel alongside naval vessels and in potential war zones, might make it financially untenable.

A “bareboat charter”, another form of leasing/contracting, involves the use of a vessel usually over longer periods of time ranging over several years. In this case all voyage-related costs, including vessel fuel and port dues, and all vessel-operating expenses such as day-to-day operations, maintenance, crewing and insurance, are the responsibility of the charterer. The owner of the vessel receives monthly payments on a per-day basis and is responsible only for capital costs related to the vessel.

A “time charter” involves the use of the vessel, either for a number of months or years or for a trip between specific delivery and redelivery positions. The charterer pays all voyage-related costs. The owner receives semi-monthly charter hire payments on a per day basis, and is responsible to pay capital costs and all vessel operating expenses. Again, prohibitively expensive for Canada?

Another option is leasing or lease-to-purchase from another military. Several navies around the world are downsizing their fleets in light of fiscal restraints imposed upon them by their governments. This includes the Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, and several European navies (all of which have many more vessels than Canada). There is a long history of countries trading, purchasing and leasing naval vessels from each other. A prime, although perhaps sketchy example, was the lease-to-purchase of former Upholder-class Royal Navy submarines that are now Victoria-class subs belonging to Canada. Further in the past, Canada leased submarines from both Britain and the United States or even arranged to have their vessels stationed in Canada to be used for RCN training.

The question to be begged is whether or not these countries are willing to lease their surplus vessels over the possibility of selling them.

Purchasing used vessels is a touchy topic in Canada, as a result of the purchase of the used Upholder-class submarines from Britain. Regardless of what the media or public may think, these are excellent vessels as they come out of their long-term refit. The problem of course, was the rusty condition they were in when Canada took them over. Had been more due diligence been applied, would they still have been purchased? Likely, but perhaps at a much reduced cost. And this point is very ­germaine to the purchase of used surface vessels. There is always the risk of purchasing a vessel with serious problems or flaws or incompatibilities with another nation’s vessels. Canada’s recent procurement history is rather weak, to put it mildly, so this indeed could be a real risk.

The positive side of this consideration, is that countries selling off their naval vessels are quite happy not to be saddled with floating liabilities and therefore sell them at very reasonable prices – as with the Australian purchase of HMS Largs Bay and Canada’s purchase of the Upholder subs.

Both of Canada’s AORs were set to be retired in 2015, having already been extended in service by several years. More worrisome is the fact that the federal government has yet to finalize all aspects of the plan to even start cutting steel on the Berlin-class vessels to replace them. This leaves a capability gap of at least two years.

What can be done in the meantime? HMCS Protecteur will be more thoroughly surveyed when it is alongside, but current thinking is that with a possible multi-million repair bill for a vessel due to be retired next year, repair is an unlikely proposition.

Thinking outside the box, some had suggested buying one of the two new Mistral-class command-and-projection ships that are about to be built in Russia, but the current ­aggression being exhibited in the Ukraine has eliminated that possibility.

That leaves Canada with several remaining choices for the pressing need to replace AOR capability on the west coast – lease a used commercial or naval vessel; lease-to-own, or purchase another navy’s used vessel. None of these options are particularly palatable. We are all curious as to what choice the Government and Royal Canadian Navy will opt for.

A writer and naval reservist based in BC, Jim Parker served in Sudan and Afghanistan. He has two books in the works.
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