25 septembre 2018 | Local, Naval

Feds closing in on winning bidder for $60-billion warship project


Some industry observers say there are rumblings that the multibillion-dollar announcement on the Canadian Surface Combatant could happen in a few weeks' time, but Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he hopes a decision will be announced on the design by 'the end of the year.'

Ottawa could be close to settling on the winning bid for the $60-billion procurement of multi-purpose vessels that will form the backbone of the Canadian Navy, with rumours swirling that a decision could come in a few weeks’ time, although Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the government will announce it by the end of the year.

Some industry observers have heard rumblings that the multibillion-dollar announcement on the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project, the biggest procurement in the federal government’s history, could happen as early as the upcoming defence and aerospace convention in Halifax, otherwise known as DefSec, slated for Oct. 2-4. 

Asked if the government plans to announce the winner in Halifax, Byrne Furlong, press secretary to Mr. Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.) said, the minister would be attending the convention as he does every year. Mr. Sajjan, in an interview with The Hill Times earlier this month said, the preferred bidder will be named by the end of the year. 

“We wanted to make sure that we gave industry enough time so that the right bid process is done correctly and we’re hoping that by the end of this year, we will be able to make the announcement and a selection will be made on the design,” Mr. Sajjan said in a phone interview on Aug. 29.

Three companies are competing to help deliver 15 warships over the next 25 years. Those ships will eventually replace Canada’s aging fleet, namely, the 12 Halifax-class frigates and the four Iroquois-class destroyers, which have been decommissioned. In its entirety, the CSC project is estimated to cost between $56-billion and $60-billion.

The cure process—a chance for the contenders to adjust their bids to fit the government’s criteria—wrapped up in July.

“I don’t expect there to be another cure process. I think they’ve got a decision ready to go,” said Brian Botting, principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group. He added there are rumours suggesting the “evaluation has been completed, and it’s a matter of getting the right announcement put together,” while noting that the chance of there being an announcement is 50-50. Mr. Botting is a defence-industry consultant, whose client, Naval Group, submitted a bid outside the competitive process. The bid was rejected.

DefSec is a major attraction in defence circles, and unveiling the winner in that venue would be a good play, from a communications perspective, Mr. Botting said.

Still, one observer said that Mr. Sajjan’s noncommittal response on the precise timing of the announcement leaves the department some wiggle room.

Dave Perry, vice-president and senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he’d be surprised if the government had chosen a winner by then.

The preferred bidder will work with Irving Shipbuilding, which won a separate competition to build the 15 ships in the company’s Halifax shipyard.

Three vessels in the running

Three bidders are competing to supply the ships’ design: a coalition that includes shipbuilder BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, and L3 Technologies; Alion Science and Technology; and Navantia, a state-owned corporation in Spain.

Mr. Botting said that BAE Systems’ Type 26 frigate appears to have an edge over the other two companies, thanks to the support it enjoys in the navy ranks, “There’s a lot of supporters of Type 26 in the navy. It’s not that much different than what the royal navy operates on. … We tend to have a strong focus on submarine warfare, which this ship operates as.”

Type 26 is under construction in the U.K. for its navy and would be the first of its class. Construction under the CSC program is expected to start in the mid-2020s. That the navies of Canada and the U.K. face similar environments and needs makes for a compelling case in Type 26’s favour, even in the face of criticism that BAE and Lockheed Martin’s offer is still a design on paper, according to Mr. Botting. In addition to landing a contract with the U.K., BAE was also selected by Australia to build a new generation of warships.

Multiple requests for an interview with Lockheed Martin’s executive were declined. A company spokesperson touched base with The Hill Times briefly on background. 

In contrast, one of Alion’s biggest selling points, as characterized by the company’s chief operating officer, Bruce Samuelson, is that the company’s offer is a “proven, off-the-shelf design” and does not carry the risks of going with a new design.

Unlike its competitors, Alion is not in the business of making products, but rather it takes a “vendor-agnostic” approach as an integrator. That means that, as the designer and engineering firm, Alion works to select the different components, from the sensors to the combat-management system, which make up the ship through what’s available in the marketplace.

“The reason you’d buy straight off the shelf is like going to a car lot and buying a car. You know exactly what you’re getting,” said Mr. Samuelsen. “Why do you change it a little bit? Because you have slightly different needs, but you really want to take advantage of what everyone else has done for that car.”

The anchor to its overall design is the De Zeven Provinciën-class frigate, which has been in service in the Dutch navy for more than a decade. Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding, the Netherlands-based company, has had experience tucking under another shipyard to produce its design, said Mr. Samuelsen. The winning subcontractor will have to work with Irving.

When the warship is eventually built it will resemble a mini-city. The ship has to have the trappings of a town: there has to be a functional sewage system, provide food, shelter, medical care, and at the same time, it has to be built to respond to the hostile environment that is the ocean, said Mr. Samuelsen.

Navantia’s proposal, which is a partnership with Saab Australia and CEA Technologies, is also based on an existing model, the F-105 frigate. Seven are in service with the Spanish and Australian navy, and there are five “smaller variants” in the Norwegian navy, according to the company.

In an email response to The Hill Times, Emiliano Matesanz Sanz, the company’s business development manager, said Navantia is in the “best position to face the challenging task of working with the local industry,” given that it has operated in a similar scenario as the one set up under the CSC project. Its ship was built in a new shipyard in Australia, by ASC. Two frigates have, so far, been delivered, Mr. Matesanz Sanz said.

(Navantia initially agreed to a phone interview, but said due to the sensitivity of the file, an email Q&A was the only possible option.)

The government had initially stated a preference for a mature design—one that was already in operation in a NATO country, for example—to mitigate the risks of cost overruns that could, for example, tie up production. But the government appeared to have been convinced by the team behind Type 26 to consider its bid because it changed the parameters for considering bids, said Mr. Botting.

Due to inflation, for every year of delay, the program is projected to cost $3-billion or more, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

If going with an untested design carries more risks, why would Canada potentially sweep those concerns aside?

Part of the answer lies in the argument that while there isn’t a “physical ship in the water” yet, Type 26 stands to have “some of the most modern technology,” said Mr. Perry. The chance to hold the intellectual property rights to the design is also cited as a possible point in its favour.

“People would make the argument that if you have a ship that hasn’t sailed and been tested yet, you can offer up the IP, because you don’t have an understanding of what its full value is. Whereas if you have something that’s more of a known quantity, you can put whatever premium you want on it,” he added.

Conflict-of-interest concerns flared up in late 2016 when it was announced that Irving Shipbuilding planned to work with BAE Systems to bid on a $5-billion contract to provide maintenance and support for Arctic patrol vessels and resupply ships, according to a CBC report, while BAE was pursuing the CSC project that Irving is involved in overseeing. Both Irving and Ottawa said at the time that they have taken steps to ensure the process is fair.

Mr. Perry dismissed conjectures that suggest changes to the bidding process have been made with the “explicit goal” of giving Type 26 the upper hand. “I don’t think that’s accurate. Because that’s not the way the procurement system is set up. What the government has done is to try and make this environment as competitive as possible,” he said. “But you can never totally level the playing field. … Some bids are always gonna be better than others in different respects.”

Billed as the most-complex, most-expensive procurement on record in Canadian history, CSC, and more broadly, Canada’s shipbuilding strategy, has raised questions about whether the country has chosen the right approach in preserving its shipbuilding culture over working to develop the high-tech side of the business.

“We protected the lower-tech end of the business and not the higher-tech [end]. All the missile systems, sensors, all that stuff is being imported and assembled at the Irving yard,” Mr Botting said. “It’s a different way of approaching it. The U.K. is slowly getting out of that business, but it’s painful when you close down a yard.”


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