Ottawa moving up construction of navy’s new support ships in Vancouver

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OTTAWA — In a move that will likely send shockwaves through Quebec and its shipbuilding industry, the federal government is planning to speed up construction of two permanent support vessels for the navy on the West Coast.

The government’s multibillion-dollar shipbuilding plan has long called for Seaspan Marine in Vancouver to build an ocean-science vessel for the Canadian Coast Guard before turning to the navy’s two new support ships.

But sources tell The Canadian Press that the government has agreed to a proposal from Seaspan to finish the support ships — which carry food, ammunition and fuel for fleets at sea — before moving onto the science vessel.

The decision is expected to see the new support ships, whose total cost is $3.4 billion, delivered earlier than their current 2023 timeline, which would be bad news for Seaspan’s rival in Quebec, Davie Shipbuilding.

The federal government awarded Davie a $700-million contract in 2015 to convert a civilian container ship into a temporary supply vessel and lease it to the navy for at least five years.

The contract, which is at the heart of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s breach-of-trust case, was intended to fill a gap that was created when the navy’s two previous support ships were forced into early retirement due to fire and rust.

The Quebec government, Davie and federal opposition parties have been pressuring Ottawa to lease a second temporary ship, at a cost of $500 million, which they say will serve the navy while supporting workers at the shipyard just outside Quebec City.

Much of the basis for their argument about meeting the navy’s needs has been Seaspan’s constant struggle to meet deadlines and the fact design work on the coast guard’s oceanographic science vessel still isn’t finished.

Those may now be moot points; it wasn’t immediately clear what the new timeline for delivery of the first permanent support ship will be under the new schedule, but one government official said it will almost certainly be earlier than 2023.

The government source said there is still some design work to be done on the support ships. U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin was set to win a contract Thursday to integrate the computer systems for the new support ships’ weapons, sensors and other equipment.

But steel has actually already started to be cut on the two vessels in Vancouver.

The Trudeau government last year approved a plan for Seaspan to start advance work on the joint support ships, as the permanent vessels are called, as the shipyard waited for the coast guard to finish designing the science vessel.

The Defence Department’s procurement chief, Patrick Finn, told The Canadian Press in a recent interview that things had in fact progressed further than anticipated as the front half of the first joint support ship was nearing completion.

When asked at that point whether the government was looking at moving the joint support ships ahead of the oceanographic science vessel, Finn said that was “not the current intent.”

“We’re all ears to the shipyard, but at this point, the coast guard needs those science vessels and we’re trying to do that,” he said. “I would never say ‘never by any stretch of the imagination,’ but that’s not the current intent.”

Seaspan spokesman Tim Page would not confirm the government’s plan Tuesday, while the federal procurement department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced pointed questions in Quebec City last month over his government’s refusal to give a second contract to the Davie shipyard for a supply vessel.

While he said he was looking at ways to provide more work for the shipyard, Trudeau said a second supply ship is simply not needed right now.

Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd similarly told The Canadian Press in a recent interview that he was “comfortable’’ with having only one temporary support ship in the water given when officials expected the two joint support ships to be delivered.

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press