Canada has chosen a BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin-led team as the “preferred bidder” for a potential contract worth more than $45 billion to build new frigates for the Royal Canadian Navy. The two major defense contractors had pitched a proposal centered on BAE’s Type 26 Global Combat Ship design, which it is already building for the United Kingdom and Australia.
On Oct. 19, 2018, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), the Canadian government’s internal services and administration arm, and Irving Shipbuilding, a Canadian firm that would actually build the ships, announced the decision in separate statements. BAE and Lockheed are now set to negotiate the specific terms of the deal, which would cover the construction of 15 frigates and associated equipment and services.
“The Canadian Surface Combatant project is the largest, most complex procurement ever undertaken by the Government of Canada,” PSPC said in its statement. “These ships will form the backbone of our Royal Canadian Navy and will be Canada's major surface component of maritime combat power for decades to come.”
BAE and Lockheed beat out two other offers, one from U.S.-headquartered Alion Science and Technology, through its subsidiary Alion Canada, and another from a team with Spanish shipbuilder Navantia at its head. Alion had proposed a design based on the Dutch De Zeven Provinciën-class frigate, also known as the Luchtverdedigings-en Commandofregat (LCF), or Air Defense and Command Frigate. Navanita offered a ship derived from the Spanish Navy’s Cristóbal Colón, the last of the Álvaro de Bazán-class frigates, which featured significant differences from its earlier sister ships.
The Type 26s that BAE is building for the U.K. Royal Navy, also known as the City-class, and the modified versions it will deliver to the Royal Australian Navy, are multi-purpose ships, which you can read about in more detail in a past profile I wrote on the design here. The new ships are supposed to eventually supplant the existing 12 Halifax-class frigates, which the Royal Canadian Navy received in the 1990s and are the service's only major surface combatants today. The Canadian Surface Combatant program to replace those vessels first formally appeared in the Canadian National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy in 2008.
The primary armament on the British vessels are 24 vertical launch system (VLS) cells for European consortium MBDA’s Sea Ceptor surface-to-air missile and another 24 Mk 41 (VLS) cells. These latter systems can accommodate various types of weapons, including quad-packed RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) or single Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) cruise missiles, among others.
A similar arrangement on Canada’s Type 26s could offer a significant boost in capability over the Halifaxs, which at present are able to carry 16 ESSMs and eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The Royal Navy’s examples will also have a five-inch main gun, which is significantly more capable than the 57mm automatic cannon on Canada’s existing frigates.
The existing Type 26 designs also have U.S.-made Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS) for close-in defense against incoming missiles and swarms of small boats, as well as various smaller automatic cannons and machine guns for self-defense. The ships have fixed and towed sonar arrays for anti-submarine work, but rely largely on a helicopter – in Canada’s case, this would be a Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone – flying from a flight deck at the stern to track and attack those opponents with torpedoes. The flight deck could accommodate unmanned, vertical takeoff and landing capable aircraft in the future, as well.
Most importantly, the new frigates will feature an improved sensor suite, including a more modern advanced air- and sea-search radar, compared to the Halifaxs. BAE is supplying its own Artisan 3D radar for the U.K.’s ships, but it's too early to tell if the Canadians would choose this option.
The Type 26 design uses a combined diesel-electric or gas, or CODLOG, propulsion configuration, which combines diesel engines and gas turbines into a single power-producing system. This improves power management and efficiency, as well as help reducing maintenance and logistical costs, all of which are important for modern multi-purpose ships with increasingly power-hungry systems.
The Canadian government expects to formally award the contract to buy the Type 26s in 2019 and that production of the ships will begin in the early 2020s. There is no projected date so far for when the Royal Canadian Navy might receive the first example.
“We have notional time frames allocated,” Andre Fillion, who oversees contracting for military items for the PSPC, told The Canadian Press. “And should everything go according to plan, we're looking at winter 2019 for the award of the contract. If it doesn't go according to plan, then we go to Plan B – and obviously, that would take longer.”
The contract award is hardly a done deal, though. In 2011, Canada declined an offer to join the Type 26 program after protests from Canadian shipbuilding unions, which said the plan would put domestic shipyards at a disadvantage. The BAE and Lockheed's plan to use Irving Shipbuilding was clearly an attempt to assuage these concerns.
It’s still not clear how many changes BAE and Lockheed will have to make to the existing Type 26 design in order to meet Canadian requirements, which could add cost and delay the final delivery of the first ship. For example, the Royal Australian Navy’s variants, called the Hunter-class, will use the same basic hullform, but will have different sensors and other equipment from their Royal Navy counterparts that have required changes in the design of the main mast.
There are also reports that Canadian officials are preparing for a fight with Lockheed over intellectual property rights, which the American defense contractor has become increasingly protective of with other high-end products, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Canada would want to secure as many rights to the ship’s systems as possible so as to have the option of hiring other companies, potentially at lower costs, to repair, upgrade and maintain various portions of the ships in the future.
Canada had initially demanded the bidders be prepared to turn over ownership of the entire ship design from the start, but subsequently decided to negotiate that point as part of the formal contracting process. The Canadians have also made it clear that they reserve the right to reject BAE and Lockheed’s final offer and move on to negotiate with whichever firm came in second in the bidding, which they have not identified.
The capacity of Irving to build the frigates is also in question, with the shipyard itself warning that it could have to lay off a significant number of employees if there contracting process gets delayed. This, in turn, could further slow down the delivery schedule since it would take time to rehire those workers and familiarize them with the Type 26 design. At present, the firm is building Harry DeWolf-class ice-capable Arctic offshore patrol vessels for the Royal Canadian Navy, but it expects that program to wrap up in either 2021 or 2022.
Pat Finn, a retired Royal Canadian Navy rear admiral who is now in charge of the Canadian Department of National Defense's material branch, told CBC News that he didn’t expect construction of the Type 26s to start until at least 2022. There are concerns that this start date could slip into 2023, according to the CBC report.
The longer the entire process takes, the more trouble it could mean for the Royal Canadian Navy. The last of the Halifaxs finished their modernization as part of major refit program this year, but this is only supposed to keep them operational into 2030. As noted, Canada has no other major surface combatants, having retired the last of four Iroquois-class destroyers in 2015 without an immediate replacement.
"The former naval officer in me is very excited," the Department of National Defense's Finn said. "I've been around this for a long time."
Hopefully, the Royal Canadian Navy will be able to avoid any more serious delays in getting its newest ships and revitalizing its surface capabilities.
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