Bridging the AOR gap
In November, the government announced that a delay in the construction of the Queenston Class Joint Support Ships would leave the navy without supply ships until at least 2021 or 2022 at the earliest. The government announced that over the past few months that they have been looking into ways to fill the gap which the early decommissioning of our two Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment ships has created. The CBC has been reporting that the government is looking at two alternatives. Firstly, a proposal from Davie shipyard in Quebec to convert a commercial vessel which would then be leased to the navy and secondly, the lease of one of the United States Navy’s old supply ships.
A vital role in our naval task force
To understand the impact of the gap, one must first look at why having a naval supply ship is so important. The role which Canada’s Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) ships played include:
- Refueling our surface combatant fleet (frigates and destroyers): Our surface combatant fleet has acceptable straight line range but in operational scenarios where speeds in excess of economical speed are required they must be refueled regularly.
- Replenishment: Replenishing our surface combatant fleet with stores, spares, food and ammunition.
- Medical and dentistry facilities: With very limited onboard medical facilities, the surface combatant fleet depends on the AOR’s to provide medical and dentistry care for our sailors while they are at sea.
- Humanitarian Relief: The AORs are a key strategic asset for providing humanitarian relief. With accommodation for around 300 people and hospital facilities, they provide food, medical care and supplies in times of crisis.
- Helicopters: An AOR can embark three Seaking helicopters to supplement the task group’s resources and can support an additional level of helicopter maintenance.
To put it very simply, without an AOR the navy’s operations are restricted and their endurance is severely reduced. That effectively turns the Royal Canadian Navy into a coastal defence force. While we can rely to some extent on our allies and their fleet auxiliary vessels to refuel our surface combatant fleet, we can only do that for so long and it still doesn’t help our sailors receive medical care at sea or allow us to independently operate a task force or perform humanitarian relief operations.
There is no question – without an AOR capability, we have a crisis on our hands.
And let’s not forget we have just spent $4bn on a full modernization program of our frigates under the FELEX program. If we now can’t create a task force or independently deploy those vessels, we are not getting the return on our investment that we must have. The Royal Canadian Navy costs taxpayers roughly $2.5bn per annum. Let’s assume the cost of leasing an AOR gap filler is around $100m per year, that’s a small price to pay to make our $2.5bn a useful investment.
Two options but only one real solution
What the CBC reported would seem to make sense. Davie is the only shipyard in Canada today that is fully operational and has the availability, capacity, labour and facilities to perform such a conversion in the time frame required. Those who follow the shipbuilding industry will have seen Davie’s recent delivery of the Cecon Pride, a highly complex oilfield services vessel for export to Norway. The other two shipyards that could potentially take on such a task, in Vancouver and Halifax, have their orderbooks full for the next 15 years at least and they are still in the process of actually modernizing their shipyards. Converting a commercial vessel into a naval auxiliary vessel is also tried and tested. Among those who have already done it are the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy and the United States Navy.
The second option presented in the article is in line with what we already know. The United States Navy is looking to do anything they can with their two laid-up supply ships, the USNS Bridge and USNS Rainier. These behemoths are nearly the size of an aircraft carrier and their four gas turbine engines are so complicated and fuel-consuming that even the US Navy can’t afford to operate them. The US Navy may also have a couple of 30 year old tankers which have been decommissioned and transferred to the US Maritime Administration for scrapping. Both of these options are non-starters for the Royal Canadian Navy.
That really only leaves the Davie option. Let’s hope the powers that be can react quickly enough to capture this opportunity and bridge the AOR gap, ensuring our national security, the welfare of our sailors and our navy’s ability to remain ready aye ready.
Vadm Peter Cairns (Ret’d)
President, Shipbuilding Association of Canada