OTTAWA — The federal government has approved plans to start some work on the navy's new support ships in the coming months in a bid to keep delivery of the much-needed vessels from slipping farther behind schedule.
Seaspan Shipyards is expected to begin cutting steel on some parts of the two vessels in Vancouver this summer during a lull in the construction of two science vessels for the Canadian Coast Guard, several sources told The Canadian Press.
The science vessels will still be delivered first, but officials are hoping that the head start will result in the first Protecteur-class joint support ship, as the naval vessels are officially known, being delivered 2022.
That would be a year earlier than the Department of National Defence's current estimate for the ship's completion, which was recently revealed in an annual report tabled in Parliament.
Construction on the first vessel was supposed to start in 2016, with delivery slated for 2019, but the project has been plagued by delays and the government says its $2.3-billion budget is under review.
The navy has been without a permanent support ship since 2015, when it was forced to retire its existing vessels due to an unexpected fire and corrosion issues, though it is leasing a temporary replacement, the MV Asterix.
The Asterix is at the heart of the criminal case against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, who has been charged with breach of trust for alleging leaking government secrets about the project to a Quebec shipyard in 2015.
Norman has denied any wrongdoing and vowed to fight the charges in court.
An official announcement about the plan to start work on the support ships, which are considered essential for supporting a modern navy on international operations, was expected this week but has been delayed.
Seaspan, which is responsible for building the two support vessels as well as four science ships and a polar icebreaker for the coast guard, initially pitched the plan in a bid to prevent layoffs between construction of the science ships.
National Defence publicly backed the proposal last month as a way to save time and it was touted in the department's annual report to Parliament, which was written before the federal government signed off on the plan.
“Current discussions underway between Canada and the shipyard could also result in schedule compression opportunities being exploited,” the report reads, “including the potential to commence the early construction of some JSS components.”
Yet the report also confirmed what many have feared: The project continues to experience delays.
The department predicted last year that the first ship would be delivered in 2021; the new report says it will be delivered in 2023, though officials hope that the advance work will cut that time to 2022.
The cause of the delays has been sharply contested by the government, National Defence, Seaspan and other industry players, with fingers pointed in all directions.
Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said while starting work soon on the support ships has merit, the ongoing delays point to much wider issues with regards to how the entire national shipbuilding plan is unfolding.
“These mitigations keep talking about making something less late than it otherwise would be, not delivering them earlier than planned,” he said.
“It's not really clear, but at a minimum, the Crown hasn't really demonstrated that they've reached any kind of stability in terms of the schedule.”